by Giorgio Cafiero
Immediately after Donald Trump’s victory, Sultan Qaboos sent the New York mogul a congratulatory cable to wish him “success in leading the U.S. people towards further progress and welfare, and further development and growth to cooperation” between America and Oman as “two countries and people.” Despite the uncertainties about what the Trump presidency will mean for the Middle East, Muscat officials are fully committed to working with the incoming administration to strengthen a deep bilateral relationship rooted in centuries of history.
U.S.-Omani relations date back to 1790 when the Boston Rambler first reached Muscat. In the 1830s and 1840s, the two countries developed diplomatic relations, and an Omani became the first Arab diplomat to be accredited to the U.S. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that the two countries opened their embassies. In 1975 Qaboos paid Gerald Ford a visit at the White House to discuss U.S. support for the sultanate’s war against foreign-backed Marxist rebels in Dhofar. Since 1980, Oman has been a key U.S. military ally. It currently hosts three U.S. air force prepositioning sites (Thmrait Naval Air Base, Masirah Air Base, and Seeb International Airport).
For Qaboos, the longest-serving Arab head-of-state, Trump will be the ninth president in the Oval Office since his ascension to the throne in 1970. Because Muscat sees its relationship with Washington as rooted in institutions and common interests, Omani officials do not expect last month’s election to fundamentally change bilateral relations. Throughout the past 46 years the sultan has always worked with both Democratic and Republican administrations and never permitted the flows of American partisan politics to interfere with the Muscat-Washington alliance.
As Omanis are particularly protective of their sovereignty and do not welcome outside intervention or meddling in their internal affairs, they are in turn adamant about staying neutral in other countries’ domestic politics. Many of the Omanis with whom I spoke in Muscat on the heels of the president-elect’s win told me that the decision was only for the American people and refused to comment on the outcome.
Concerns about Trump
Aspects about Trump, however, unsettle Omanis. Unlike other Gulf Cooperation Council states that hope that the property billionaire will take a hawkish stance against Iran, Oman maintains a cordial relationship with Tehran. Muscat played a pivotal role in easing tensions between the U.S. and Iran by hosting secret talks via Omani interlocutors, resulting in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)’s historic passage. The sultanate seeks to reap the rewards of Iran’s reintegration with the global economy. Oman, which shares the Strait of Hormuz with Iran, had a major incentive to push for a peaceful resolution to the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program. A military confrontation between the U.S./Israel and Iran would have certainly created a crisis in the Persian Gulf, with dangerous implications for the sultanate.
With Trump entering the Oval Office next month, Muscat officials are increasingly nervous about Washington and Tehran returning to a more confrontational relationship, threatening Oman’s security and economic health, which has suffered from low oil prices since 2014. In 2017, Oman and Iran will continue to move ahead with a planned subsea natural gas pipeline to pump Iranian gas into the sultanate, and such energy interests will further prompt Muscat to promote better relations between Iran on one side and the GCC (and its Western allies) on the other.
Trump’s selection of General Michael Flynn for national security adviser and General James “Warrior Monk” Mattis for secretary of defense sends a message about how the president-elect is expected to approach U.S.-Iran relations. Flynn has advocated tearing the JCPOA to shreds, and he complained that “no American president has called for regime change in Tehran.” Mattis said that “Iran is not a nation state, rather it’s a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem.” For deputy secretary of state, Trump may pick former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who has called for bombing Iran. Although such anti-Iranian talk from Trump’s inner circle is music to the ears of Saudi leaders, Omanis find this hawkish rhetoric dangerously misguided. Muscat sees the Kremlin playing a role in easing any tensions that might erupt between the U.S. and Iran in 2017 and beyond.
The president-elect’s Islamophobic talking points, furthermore, have been naturally unwelcome in Oman and other Muslim-majority countries. Last year, the Landmark Group in Oman stopped selling Trump-branded products in response to his call for a “Muslim ban.” Along with his team’s discussion of a “Muslim registry,” Trump’s rhetoric is repugnant to Omanis, a majority of whom practice Ibadism (a conservative yet characteristically tolerant sect of Islam). “Some Muslim immigrants have expressed concerns about what will happen to their families after Trump winning,” said one Omani studying in Virginia. “There are more than three million Muslims in the U.S. that I am worried about.”
Omanis also have concerns about a free trade agreement with the United States in light of the New York magnate’s bashing of free trade in general. Yet as Gary Grappo, a former U.S. ambassador to Oman, has observed, America’s trade agreements with Oman and other Arab monarchies represent Washington’s commitment to “some of its strongest allies in the region, and offer the best free market-based approach to economic reforms and self-sufficiency in today’s global economy.” But, he adds, the agreements are not likely to “account in any significant way for America’s trade imbalance.” Grappo urges Trump to “simply avoid the subject” with Oman and other Middle Eastern states that have similar agreements with the United States.
Oman, a Useful Ally
The Trump administration should take stock of Oman’s role as a proactive facilitator of peace talks and a diplomatic go-between for regional adversaries. Building on the successes of the JCPOA, as well as the numerous American nationals released from captivity in Yemen via Omani interlocutors, high-ranking Muscat officials are busy working backchannels to promote peace and security across the Arab world.
In Syria, Oman was the only GCC member to maintain official relations with the regime in Damascus. Last August, Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi met his Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, in Muscat to discuss Syria. Two months later Alawi visited Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to continue discussions on conflict resolution. Oman’s reaction to the war in Syria, in contrast with other GCC states, was based on the premise that it is wise to maintain a dialogue with the regime, despite its crimes, to push for a political settlement rather than promote its violent overthrow. Muscat officials have told me that Omanis are sensitive to the plight of Syria’s religious minorities, who would likely be vulnerable to Sunni Islamist forces in a post-Ba’athist Syria, and terrified by the presence of foreign Salafist-Jihadist militants who have joined ranks with the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and other extremist groups fighting to topple Assad.
Put simply, Muscat sees IS, not Assad, as the most dangerous threat in Syria. Thus, Oman may be the one GCC member most welcoming of a shift in U.S. foreign policy, as called for by Trump, in which Washington would sever its limited support for Syrian rebels and work more closely with Russia to fight Sunni Islamist extremists in the Levant.
In Yemen, much like in Syria, Oman broke ranks with the other GCC states last year and sat out the Saudi-led military campaign against the country’s Houthi rebel movement. Consistent with Muscat’s traditional foreign policy based on neutrality and non-intervention, Oman would not have considered deploying its military outside the GCC. Yet Oman has made serious efforts to host and sponsor cease-fire negotiations involving nearly all actors in the Yemeni civil war. The potential for the Yemeni crisis to further threaten international trade and vital U.S. interests might force the incoming administration to make difficult decisions regarding the conflict. Given that Oman, as the only GCC state to stay out of the war, has not compromised its trust with any factions in Yemen, Muscat officials see themselves as best suited to sponsor and roundtable discussions capable of resolving the crisis, which other talks in Kuwait and Switzerland failed to achieve.
The Middle East’s raging wars and questions about Washington’s interests and purpose in the region call for careful decision-making. Unsettling for the Omanis is that Trump lacks experience in any government role and his foreign policy positions have been all over the map.
It would best suit America’s national interests if the real estate tycoon abandons his counterproductive and offensive Islamophobic discourse and embraces a more mature and long-term approach to the Middle East. Ideally, as a businessman Trump will see resolution of the Arab world’s conflicts as highly beneficial for American commercial interests. If the president-elect recognizes the value of Washington’s alliance with Oman, the sultanate can help Trump navigate the region’s hotspots and geopolitical fault lines as Muscat did for the outgoing administration. Indeed, no one in the White House can take for granted a loyal and moderate Arab ally that conducts a neutral and non-sectarian foreign policy aimed at promoting peaceful resolutions to the ongoing wars that have spilled too much blood across the Middle East.
Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Omani Sultan Qaboos.