By Louisa Keeler*
(FPRI) — The small Gulf state of Oman’s identity is closely—if not inextricably—linked with the person of Sultan Qaboos, who passed away on January 10 after nearly 50 years in power. He singlehandedly transformed the country from a sleepy, closed-off country comprising disparate groups to an interconnected, modern, and unified state that has proven itself an invaluable player on the international scene. Within Oman, his portrait is ubiquitous, and his name is on countless mosques, hospitals, and institutions throughout the Sultanate, a sign of both his revered status and proof of his impact on society. Now that he is gone, he leaves behind an untested successor who is not particularly well known to the international community. Qaboos’ presence will be missed during one of the tensest moments since 1979 between the United States, Iran, and the Arab Gulf states, countries which have relied on Oman as a badly needed messenger and facilitator for negotiations. If there was ever a good time for Sultan Qaboos to die, this was not it.
Oman, the Messenger
Oman under Qaboos carved out an invaluable niche for itself as a key facilitator of dialogue between adversaries inside (as well as outside) the region, setting itself apart from its neighbors as a friendly acquaintance to all. This role is embedded in Oman’s very identity, and Omanis pride themselves on not falling under the influence of more powerful countries around it—no small feat, nestled between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and the United States (geopolitically, if not geographically). Its closest foreign partner is the United Kingdom, which supported Qaboos in his coup against his father in 1970 and militarily in the Dhofar Rebellion, an insurgency in Oman’s westernmost governorate that lasted from 1962 to 1976 that saw the Marxist-Leninist Dhofari Liberation Front attempting to gain independence from greater Oman. Oman’s current domestic stability is often attributed to a sense that everyone should really just get along and a general outlook that the highest reward is keeping regional and internal risk low. The Sultanate has managed to do this through its centuries-long partnership with the United States, which affords it military and economic assistance, but also its steadfast commitment to remaining politically neutral and as a vehicle for regional diplomacy—even between antagonistic and hostile actors.
Oman is not neutral, exactly, because it is deeply invested in peace between the powers around it. As a result, its relations with each side can be counted upon to be genuine, but limited in scope. In the aftermath of the United States’ assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Oman was seen as a natural country to enable quiet diplomacy because it is one of the only players that both the United States and Iran were likely to trust and that could likely convince both parties to come to the table. (In hindsight, Oman’s hesitance to get involved with U.S.-Iran negotiations after Soleimani’s assassination is perhaps more likely due to the Sultan’s decline rather than any political reasons.) Much to its northern neighbors’ frustration, Oman encouraged and enabled negotiations that culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 and has been a frequent—if also controversial—host for negotiations on the conflict in Yemen.
The new Sultan, Qaboos’ first cousin Haitham bin Tariq, has promised to stay the course on Oman’s foreign relations, following a policy of “peaceful coexistence . . . good neighborly relations . . . and cooperation with everyone.” This should be comforting for the United States, which finds itself needing a line of communication to Iran more and more in light of the breakdown of the JCPOA and rising tensions. Yet, while Haitham has Qaboos’ blessing (arguably the most important resume item for the next Sultan), he does not have the diplomatic reputation that his predecessor did, nor is it known for sure if respect for the Sultan extends to the office or merely to the man—only time will tell. We can judge little from Haitham’s career thus far: his primary foreign policy experience comes from his tenure as Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a position just below the minister. He left that position in 2002, and while Oman’s approach to the world beyond its borders has not changed drastically in those two decades, the world around Oman certainly has. Whatever Haitham’s intentions, it remains to be seen whether Oman can continue to play the same role, particularly while the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia would likely much prefer it does not.
Oman, the Balancer
The UAE has been trying for years to exert control over Oman, with which it has not always had the warmest political relationship: Oman publicly uncovered Emirati spy rings in 2010 and again in 2019, and there is some ongoing tension in border areas, where there is concern that the UAE is trying to take more land (and resources) for itself. Should the Emiratis manage to bring Muscat into their fold, it could compromise Oman’s access to the Iranian regime. The Strait of Hormuz, already a challenging space, would be an even more risky area to pass through if Iran felt that its Gulf adversaries were getting too close via the Strait. Iran is unlikely to block passage due partly to its friendly relationship with Oman and its own desire to maintain cordial relations. It could also have major implications for Omani policy in Yemen, where Oman has profited from the war economy (and arguably the war itself, depending on who you ask), but has at least maintained support for peace talks and opposed further military activity. Most concerning for the United States, though, is that when it needs to get a message to Iran—or vice versa—Oman is often called to act as messenger. The Omanis have shown themselves to be trustworthy and confidential, even as it felt pressure from its Arab Gulf neighbors to be less conciliatory to Iran. That could change if Oman sways too close to the UAE.
Saudi Arabia and Oman, meanwhile, have butted heads over Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council split over Qatar, and Yemen, the latter two on which Oman has refused to take sides. A less visible but more pressing point of tension between Oman and the Kingdom is in the Mahra governorate in Yemen, which has been protesting an increasing Saudi presence since 2017. Oman has enjoyed a good working relationship with the Mahris, who share strong political, economic, and tribal links with Oman. But Emirati and then Saudi military incursions into the area have alarmed and unsettled the Omanis, who do not wish to be squeezed from the west or feel undue pressure in Dhofar in the south. Muscat became so concerned about the situation in Mahra that the Omanis began sending financial support to their partners in Mahra; Oman also provides a considerable amount of humanitarian support to Yemen and permits relatively free movement across the border, which keeps them in the good grace of many Yemenis and deeply frustrates those concerned about weapons smuggling from Iran.
In addition to self-interested neighbors, there is a risk that the United States will try to persuade Haitham to side with Washington on Iran. While Oman’s neutrality can be frustrating, any plan to draw Muscat further into the U.S. orbit is likely to backfire. Oman is no more likely to do Iran’s bidding against the United States or its partners as it is to do the United States’ bidding against Iran. Oman has consistently expressed disapproval for Iranian-led or -affiliated attacks on Saudi Arabian oil resources, characteristically offering to help set up talks, and has withheld support for either side in the GCC dispute. More fundamentally, Oman is far more valuable to the United States as a relatively neutral mediator than as another cog in the “maximum pressure” campaign. Urging Oman to adopt a new, more partisan foreign policy would only remove one of the few real support beams for ongoing stability in the region (such as it is) and remove one of the United States’ most valuable tools for peace and progress vis-à-vis Iran. While the Trump administration has paid little attention to Oman, either because it is uninterested or because it is seen as too close to Iran, U.S. officials ought to recognize that it may be the only country that Washington can depend on to make the necessary conversations happen, step in to heated moments with a willingness to help bring down the temperature, and to do so without causing unnecessary trouble.
Oman, the Anchor of Peace
This is not to say that the United States should refrain from pressing Oman to alter some aspects of its foreign policy, such as turning a blind eye to material support from Iran to Yemen via Oman. In fact, if Washington really wants to limit Iran’s influence in Yemen, then that could be a meaningful way to do so. But the Trump administration should not indulge the fantasy that it could change Oman’s deeper foreign policy orientation, nor should it sideline Oman as punishment for its amiable relationships with America’s adversaries. Instead, the United States should be realistic about what can be achieved and sensitive to Omani concerns.
With regional tensions arguably at an all-time high, the world needs Oman’s steady and helpful hand more than ever—but others may want Oman for themselves. Qaboos established Oman as a trustworthy partner to all, and Sultan Haitham may find that the opportunity to choose whether to continue in his predecessor’s footsteps will come sooner rather than later. Oman’s neighbors would be wise to recognize the value in an independent and stable Oman, and Oman should hold fast to its reputation as a neutral anchor of peace.
*About the author: Louisa Keeler is Project on Middle East Democracy’s Advocacy Associate.
Source: This article was published by FPRI