By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed*
I read the interview of Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi in Okaz newspaper and, prior to that, I watched his interview on Russia Today. Both interviews raise questions about Oman’s policy.
To those who don’t understand it, Oman is a mysterious country. However, it’s possible to simplify the foundation of the sultanate’s foreign policy — at least as we understand it — in one word: Isolation. Muscat’s government has not become involved in regional conflicts for decades, despite the fact that it occasionally voices its stance on issues.
Not all countries can adopt this approach because most conflicts impose themselves on countries. Kuwait was invaded by Saddam Hussein and Saudi Arabia would have confronted this same fate if it hadn’t fought against him. The UAE has islands occupied by Iran. Bahrain suffers due to the threat of its political regime being changed by Iran.
Not all the peace, which the sultanate has enjoyed, was a result of this policy of staying away from conflicts and axes. There is also the geopolitical factor as its location on the map summed up its options in not angering Iran and its neighbors from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Oman is lucky to be a member of the GCC, which consists of peaceful countries that it shares borders with. This does not lessen the wisdom of Sultan Qaboos who for decades adhered to the policy of dissociating his country from conflicts and axes and did not commit to any stance that may be costly.
However, we must note that there’s no country in the world that can live in peace just because it chooses to.
It actually lives in peace if others allow that, such as the case with Switzerland, the neutral country, which signed an agreement in Paris in 1815 confirming its neutrality. Oman’s neutrality is also the result of a decision by its Iranian and Gulf neighbors. Although Oman’s dealings with the Iranian regime have upset its Gulf neighbors, everyone is concerned with its stability as it passed through the Arab Spring ordeal, when the entire region witnessed unrest in 2011, and it overcame this phase with political and economic support from GCC countries, which stood by Oman on the security and economic fronts.
Yemen is the only neighbor, which presents a potential threat to Oman and it poses a bigger threat than the sultanate has ever known since the 1970s. Meanwhile, Yemen is currently the source of a threat to Saudi Arabia. Based on Bin Alawi’s statements, Muscat’s policy toward Yemen does not seem to match the Gulf countries’. It’s not only that but differences are also related to Oman’s vision of the Syrian crisis. In both crises, Muscat seems closer to the Iranian regime than to its Gulf brothers which think that the Iranian leadership is behind these crises and that it threatens them more than before. This is particularly so since its negotiations with the US began, in which Oman played the role of the messenger and later became a center of secret negotiations.
After reports of these negotiations surfaced in the Wall Street Journal, a high-ranking Gulf official told me: “We’re not angry there are negotiations between the enemies the US and Iran. It does not upset us that Oman plays this role behind our backs and in secret. What matters are the results and we will be happy if Iran agrees to suspend its military and hostile activities in exchange for the West giving up on boycott and confrontation.”
Unfortunately, it later turned out that these were not peace negotiations but reconciliation attempts between Iran and the West at the expense of the security of Gulf countries and the entire region.
Following the negotiations in Muscat, Yemen has become an arena for the Iranians. Oman does not have a direct link in that, however, Washington’s reconciliation with the Iranians made the latter daring enough to escalate and open new fronts. The future may prove that if Iran continues to exploit Yemen as it’s trying to do today, Yemen will pose a threat to everyone and not just to Saudi Arabia. Without the political agreement that restores legitimacy to Yemen’s governance, which the UN engineered and which Oman (as a members of the GCC) supported, Yemen will be fragmented and it will suffer an enduring war. Such a tragic end is not in the interest of Oman or Saudi Arabia and it’s certainly not in the interest of the Yemeni people. The continuity of the war in Yemen only suits the strategy of Iran — which is engaged in wars against Gulf countries and the Arab camp as it supports fighting over an expanded area that includes Iraq, Syria and Yemen and contributes to tension in Bahrain — but it does not suit Oman, the more civilized country that keeps away from war.
*Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran and internationally acclaimed columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel and ex-editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.