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Oman’s unique role in balancing power in the Middle East8 min read
*** This article was featured in a paper presented by Shatha Sbeta to Middle East Dialogue in Washington DC ***
If the Strait of Hormuz is the door to the Persian Gulf, controlling it means assuming geographic, economic and political power through controlling two-thirds of global oil traffic. Iraq, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait all aim to control the Strait in front of Muscat, the capital of Oman.
For decades, the flexible foreign policy of Oman represented a fundamental pillar in the balance of power between the GGC guided by Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Shedding light on the Sultanate of Oman is therefore vital in comprehending the maintenance of geopolitical equilibria in the Arab Gulf.
Scholars and journalists alike have often ignored the Sultanate of Oman in their discussions and analyses of the Middle East. Prior to the palace coup that Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said launched against his father, the Sultanate assumed a policy of isolationism of no interference.
Departing from these policies, the Sultanate, under Qaboos, became more involved with strong ties to the superpowers of the West and the region. It has had strong diplomatic relationships with the United Kingdom, the United States of America and regionally with the two rivalries Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
These ties provide Oman with a unique ability to maintain a delicate power balance between the West and the region and within the regional rivalries making it “the oasis of stability” according to two academics: Giorgio Cafiero & Adam Yefet.
The 309,500 sq km country is blessed with a strategic location in the tip of the the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Oman sits on the tip of the Hormuz Strait which transfers around 17.0 million barrels of oil per day and is the waterway into the Persian Gulf. Today, the location of Oman gives it strategic advantage to leverage diplomatic relations with the rest of the region and the superpowers in the West. The Hormuz Strait and the port city of Duqm help the country play its rivals and moderate interests.
Part of Oman falls within the famous region of Rub’ al-Khali that is now intersected with oil and gas pipelines. It also has a coastline that is 2,092 km long which privileges the Sultanate with an increasing influx of tourists and a fruitful agricultural and fish industry.
Oman has mountains in the north that had historically helped conclude its unity and formation and protected it from outside influence and interventions.
Oman is equally heavily dependent on its oil resources which generates around 84% of revenue.
As of 2017, the Omani population was 4,613,241 with 45% immigrants. Its ethnic composition is diverse, which in turn influence the tolerance nature of the socio-composition of the culture.
In terms of its religious identity, the majority of Omani citizens are Muslims. However, their Muslim identity diverts significantly from the rest of the Arab Gulf states. Oman follows the Ibadi sect of Islam that neither belongs to the Sunni sect nor the Shia sect, making it immune from the sectarian conflicts that had erupted the region for long.
The Khawarij were outside the fold of Islam according to Sunni- & Shia-centric interpretations, and they established an Ibadi base in present day Oman, which goes to show the country’s history with unorthodoxy. The Ibadi sect helps Oman assume the role of stabiliser as it has no obligation to follow Shiite Iran or Sunni Saudi Arabia; allowing for bilateral relations with the two rivalries to exist.
Its independent religious identity, therefore, helps Oman maneuver between states and play the vital role of a seemingly objective mediator in conflicts.
Since 1970, Sultan Qaboos employed a unique foreign policy of independence and neutrality, conciliation of midway ground and a domestic policy of “Omanisation”. This is a policy by which Oman becomes socially and economically independent through reducing the country’s foreign labour dependence (something a lot of Arab Gulf States are doing).
Oman has an arguably controversial foreign policy. It diverts significantly from the policies of its neighbours in its employment of a relatively more independent foreign policy that focuses on neutrality with Iran. As a founder of the GCC, as a Gulf Arab nation and as an oil producer, oil dependent Oman, whilst loyal to Saudi Arabia and the GCC, operates outside the Council’s framework; often frustrating Saudi Arabia.
Oman took on a very special role during the P5+1 negotiations regarding the Iranian Nuclear Deal concluded in 2015. Many make the mistake of assuming that the Iranian-Omani relationship became nurtured by the deal. Instead, the deal only strengthened Oman’s position internationally as a regional mediator.
The special relationship goes back to 1970 when the Shah of Iran helped Sultan Qaboos during his palace coup, and again when Iranian troops were sent to Oman during the Dhofar conflict. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Muscat became the diplomatic channel between Washington and Tehran, and remains so.
Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, the region began to see a different form of war and conflict. The proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran have manifested themselves in supporting various groups and parties in post-uprising states such as Syria and Yemen. Furthermore, the United States and Russia have their own part to play in this rivalry, thereby making Oman’s role as mediator and conflict container rather challenging.
In Libya, Oman chose not to intervene in any manner but instead hosted talks aimed to assure the emergence of peace in North Africa. In Syria, it is the only Arab Gulf state to maintain diplomatic ties with Damascus, and plays a vital role in mitigating conflict through ceasefire negotiations. In Yemen – which is a strategic ally in part given the geographic significance of the strait of Bab al-Mandab and Hadramaut region – Oman is the only Arab Gulf state that did not join the Saudi-led campaign “Operation Decisive Storm”.
The big question is “how will the future geopolitical equilibria be maintained in the absence of Oman?”
The 70 year old Sultan has been struggling with his health. He has been out of sight for a long time now and has not made any appearances to the United Nations or the Arab League. The current set up of the government provides no insight on a potential successor in case Sultan Qaboos leaves. Further, there is no mechanism by which a stable transition is possible.
Several questions concern analysts, with respect to a post-Qaboos Oman: who is to become legitimate and strong enough to maintain the role of Oman as the oasis for regional stability? In the case of a successor, would Oman continue with its independent foreign policy? Would it turn to a prior-Qaboos isolationist policy? Or would it join either rivalry and employ a more hawkish pro-Iran policy against Saudi Arabia or vice versa?
I argue that if Oman does not develop a post-Qaboos strategy, the Middle East and its superpowers may lose a significant regional player that has long maintained some sense of regional power equilibria. A power vacuum in Oman will create a fertile ground for regional polarisation that is likely to exacerbate the presently charged political climate and increase tensions between emerging regional rivalries, finally leading to a more dismantled Arab Gulf.
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