by Giorgio Cafiero
Oman’s geography, Islamic identity, and alliances make confronting the threat of violent Islamic fundamentalism a high priority for Muscat. The Sultanate’s proximity to a host of war-torn countries in the Arabian Peninsula, West Asia, and Africa exposes Oman to dangerous transnational terror threats. With an independent foreign policy, Oman has been able to partner with its fellow Arab Persian Gulf monarchies on defense issues, as well as Iran, both Pakistan and India, Western powers, and China.
Out of all of the Sultanate’s alliances, Oman’s relationship with the United States is particularly important. Since September 11, 2001, Muscat has partnered with the U.S. in Washington’s “war on terror.” Oman fully supported the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, permitting the U.S. to use facilities in the Sultanate for its operations in Afghanistan. Likewise, although Oman publicly opposed the George W. Bush administration’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the Sultanate “quietly provided some logistical military support” to the U.S. during that war. After the Islamic State ascended to power in the Levant in 2013/2014, Oman joined the US-led coalition to defeat it, albeit without directly participating in any military operations in Iraq or Syria.
“The Idea of Oman”
Beyond the military realm, Oman’s greatest contribution to the international struggle against extremism is perhaps in the battle of ideas and Islamic discourse. Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said and, according to some sources, a majority of the Sultanate’s citizens follow the branch of Islam known as Ibadism. Tolerance and moderation, which are key attributes of Ibadism, influence Oman’s foreign relations. That Oman was the first Arab Persian Gulf monarchy to resolve border disputes with all its neighbors and that Muscat has never severed diplomatic relations with any state worldwide since Sultan Qaboos ascended to power in 1970 are highly illustrative of the extent to which the Sultanate values diplomacy and dialogue on the international stage.
Decades ago, Sultan Qaboos was ahead of the curve in warning of the threat of violent Islamic fundamentalism. In his 1994 National Day speech, the Omani monarch stated: “Obstinacy in religious understanding leads to backwardness in Muslims, prevalence of violence and intolerance. This, as a matter of fact, is far removed from Islam which rejects exaggeration and bigoty, because it is the religion of liberality.”
The Sultanate’s vision for peace and moderation in the wider Islamic world recognizes the need to address sources of injustice and indignity that radicalize marginalized and hopeless Muslims. Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and other causes of instability and vitriol are essential for achieving such goals in the eyes of Sultan Qaboos and other Omanis. Throughout the Syrian crisis, Omani officials have disagreed with their Saudi and Qatari counterparts, seeing Riyadh and Doha’s support for Sunni Islamist militants fighting the Damascus regime as exacerbating the Arab world’s sectarian violence. Wisely, Oman avoided joining the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen in 2015 based on both its principles and a realistic assessment that the military intervention against the Houthi rebellion would benefit extremists while likely failing to restore any semblance of security or peace to Yemen. As the one Arab Persian Gulf country to have avoided any direct military intervention in Yemen’s ongoing crisis, Oman has instead used its cordial ties with Yemen’s warring factions as the basis for hosting peace talks in Muscat since shortly after the Saudi-led intervention began.
Accommodating Oman’s Partnership with Iran
While the Trump administration is pressuring Washington’s Arab allies to back the White House’s aggressive policies vis-à-vis Iran, Oman is not joining the bandwagon. Although Muscat generally avoids publicly voicing disagreements with Washington, the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) undoubtedly unsettles Oman. The Sultanate’s key role in helping the U.S. and other world powers negotiate the hard-fought accord with Tehran, among other factors concerning Oman’s vital economic and security interests, largely explain Muscat’s concerns about Trump’s reversal of his predecessor’s efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program without firing a shot.
A US official stated that during Trump’s presidency “Gulf countries are increasingly being forced to take sides in the Saudi-Iranian dispute” and “Oman is not exempted.” Yet pressuring Oman to move closer to the Saudi fold and leave Tehran more isolated could hurt U.S. interests. Maintaining an Omani backchannel to Iran, which has proven invaluable over the years in terms of securing the release of American citizens held as political pawns in Iranian prisons and brokering the JCPOA, could be key to Washington and Tehran eventually resolving their differences.
Although it is difficult to imagine the Trump administration achieving any watershed agreement with Iran, the U.S. will eventually have to come to the negotiating table with the Iranian government. When that day arrives, Oman will be set to help facilitate such a badly-needed return to dialogue. Within this context, it would be unfortunate if the White House discounts the importance of Oman as a close ally of the US because of the warm relationship between Muscat and Tehran.
While Washington and Muscat are unlikely to see eye-to-eye on Iran, their differing perceptions of Tehran should not lead to any tensions in the bilateral relationship. At least for now, Oman’s partnership with Iran has not undermined the Sultanate’s strong alliance with Washington. This was most recently illustrated when Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi, visited Washington in late July 2018 to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, scores of lawmakers, and other U.S. officials. The State Department’s readout of the visit stated that Alawi and the U.S. officials addressed Yemen, stressing “the importance of continued support for the efforts of United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths” and “the need for all parties to show restraint to avoid further escalation of hostilities.”
Maintaining a close alliance will require the Trump administration to accept that Oman’s national interests—energy and security in the Strait of Hormuz, as well as its historic ties with Iran and its legitimate concerns about Saudi Arabia’s hegemonic aims on the Arabian Peninsula—give Muscat strong incentive to maintain a healthy partnership with Tehran. If the Trump administration pressures the Sultanate to take sides in a zero-sum standoff against Iran, while disregarding the complicated predicaments that Oman faces, Muscat will feel let down by the U.S. at a time when the White House needs the Sultanate to help promote peaceful solutions to regional crises, including not only Yemen but also Gaza, Syria, and the blockade of Qatar.
Ultimately, it is Oman’s ability to moderate Iran through a cordial relationship with its Persian neighbor, rather than other states’ increasingly confrontational postures toward Tehran, that could prove most useful in efforts to tone down Iran’s rhetoric and change its regional conduct. The White House would be better off accommodating Muscat’s relationship with Tehran, rather than seeing Oman as a weak link among the Arab Persian Gulf states that the Trump administration wants to unite against the Islamic Republic.