by Giorgio Cafiero
Most Gulf states have taken sides in the 14-week-old Qatar crisis. However, the Sultanate of Oman has remained characteristically neutral. It has called for all involved parties to negotiate a settlement while lending support to the Kuwaiti emir’s mediatory efforts.
For decades, Oman has had neutral stances on regional issues, refusing to take sides in conflicts with strong ethnic and sectarian undertones. Since the Iran-Iraq War, Muscat’s foreign policy strategy has positioned the sultanate as a diplomatic bridge between other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and their Western allies and the Islamic Republic. Beginning in 2010, Omani diplomats successfully helped the P5+1 and Iran negotiate the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed in 2015. In recent years, officials in Muscat have also sought, albeit less successfully, to help resolve the Syrian and Yemeni crises by hosting and promoting talks between different sides in both civil wars.
The current stalemate between the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) and Qatar represents another geopolitical dilemma for Oman. One of the ways in which the diplomatic row is challenging the Sultanate has to do with the future of the GCC, which Muscat has a vested interest in seeing remain a united body. For Oman, maintaining alliances with the other five Arabian monarchies is key, and the longer that the Qatar crisis continues the bleaker become the prospects for resolution. Therefore, Muscat has carefully sought to avoid being seen as taking sides and being directly involved in the mediation.
The sultanate has certainly played a key role in enabling Qatar to continue trading with the global economy despite the ATQ’s actions. Doha has had to restructure its import/export routes to avoid ATQ countries while relying more heavily on other countries for trade, which has benefitted Oman. In fact, only six days after the Saudi/UAE-led bloc severed ties with Doha, the Qataris and Omanis opened two new shipping services linking Qatar’s Hamad Port with two of Oman’s ports (Sohar and Salalah), ultimately providing the blockaded emirate with another lifeline. Qatari importers diverted Doha-bound containers of food from Dubai’s Jebel Ali to the sultanate’s ports. Since June 5, cargo volumes between these two countries have increased 30 percent. By helping Doha weather the ATQ’s punitive measures, the Omanis have made themselves increasingly important to Qatar.
Joining the ATQ on June 5 was no option for Muscat. Although Omani and Qatari officials have had disagreements on regional issues, especially with respect to Syria, Omani thinking rejects actions such as those taken by the Saudi/UAE-led bloc against Doha. The sultanate’s foreign policy rests on the pillars of dialogue, accommodation, and tolerance, not coercion. This does much to explain Muscat’s disappointment with numerous Saudi foreign policy initiatives, from Syria to Yemen, with the severance of ties with Qatar only the most recent example.
Oman has stood by Qatar throughout the past three months in part because Muscat is also worried about being targeted by the ATQ. Oman has vested interests in promoting a GCC in which all six members can freely exercise their sovereign rights in terms of both their domestic and foreign policies. On past occasions, the Saudis and Emiratis have pressured Muscat to distance itself from Tehran. For example, last year King Salman did a tour of all GCC states with the notable exception of Oman. The leadership in Muscat is concerned that Riyadh’s “with-us-or-against-us” foreign policy will further complicate regional instability, particularly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expected to become Saudi Arabia’s next monarch.
Oman’s Sultan Qaboos is the only sitting ruler in the GCC who was present in 1981 in Abu Dhabi when the six Arabian Peninsula countries established the Council. As a founding member, Oman is watching a crisis unfold on its doorstep that threatens to damage (perhaps permanently so) the Khaleeji identity and the social/political/economic fabric that GCC leaders spent the past 36 years promoting. Oman therefore wants a diplomatic solution before the crisis further damages GCC unity.
To be sure, in the 1980s and 1990s, the five smaller GCC states’ relations with Riyadh were extremely different. In the GCC’s early days, Saudi Arabia was unquestionably the Council’s dominant member, and the other monarchies usually toed Riyadh’s line on regional issues. Yet the economic and geopolitical ascendancy of smaller Arab Gulf states has fueled friction ever since the Saudis understood that GCC members like Qatar would sometimes conduct ambitious foreign policies that challenged Riyadh’s positions on Iran, the Arab uprisings of 2011, and other issues.
This question about whether the Council can be an institution made up of different states with unique foreign policies, including some that contradict Riyadh’s, is at the heart of the Qatar crisis. In late-2017, the GCC’s future appears bleak as neither the ATQ nor Doha shows any signs of willingness to make concessions on this front. Qatar’s leadership believes that the right to conduct an independent foreign policy is fundamental and must not be surrendered as a price for ending the ATQ-imposed blockade. Although officially neutral in the GCC’s ongoing crisis, Oman is not neutral when it comes to this question.
Indeed, Muscat and Doha share the same vision of the GCC as a council of six states that have the right to respectfully disagree when it comes to engaging Iran among other issues. Given Oman’s special position in the GCC and the sultanate’s resistance to Saudi/UAE-led efforts to pressure the smaller members into backing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s visions for the region, Doha is likely to continue receiving cooperation and sympathy from Muscat as the Qatar crisis continues. Simultaneously, other GCC states and Washington may come to view Oman’s balanced policy as a remaining gateway to a settlement that the United States has high stakes in promoting.
Photo: Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad of Qatar meets with Sultan Qaboos of Oman