Oman’s independent foreign policy: a triumph for global diplomacy

Fort al-Jalali, Muscat, Oman.
Fort al-Jalali, Muscat, Oman.

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Asha Castleberry is a U.S. National Security Expert and U.S. Army Veteran.  She is an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project (ASP) and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. She tweets at @ashacastleberry

Regardless of the geopolitical challenges in a volatile region, Muscat is gaining credibility as a regional peacemaker. This summer, Oman attracted attention for its peaceful image after the U.S. successfully reached its historic interim deal with Iran.  Muscat was one of the first countries in the Middle East to support open talks between the U.S. and Iran.

Since then, Oman continued its momentum and shown its willingness to take the lead in peacemaking in the Middle East.   In August, Oman received its first visit in four and half years from the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Muallem, to discuss key steps in resolving the Syrian crisis. This move could help the Al-Assad regime to participate in peace negotiations. Also, Oman was one of the first GCC states to accept an invitation for the Iran-GCC open dialogue summit despite resistance from several GCC state officials.  Oman deeply believes a healthy relationship with Iran can help achieve regional stability.

Oman’s 21st-century, independent foreign policy is a growing asset in peacemaking in the region. Nevertheless, Oman’s peacemaking role is often overshadowed by Saudi Arabia’s regional dominance.  When it comes to influence in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia remains the most powerful gulf state. Ranging from security issues like nuclear proliferation, countering ISIL, the Syrian and Yemeni crises and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Saudi Arabia’s position on every issue is critical for U.S. foreign policy. Since the passing of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, Saudi Arabia has grown more militarily involved in Yemen conflict and aggressive in arming rebel groups in Syria.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s regional dominance, Muscat has positioned itself to do the exact opposite by pursuing soft power as a priority in their foreign policy.  Muscat is gaining more attention for taking the lead as a peaceful, diplomatic pioneer in the Arab World. Since Saudi Arabia has not bullied Oman into ceasing this independent behavior, Riyadh has tacitly accepted Muscat’s independent foreign policy. Its historical persistence and success in global diplomacy has helped gain silent acceptance from Riyadh and the rest of the gulf region.

Oman’s domestic policy also shapes the country’s desire to maintain an independent foreign policy.  The post-2011 Arab Spring period was one indicator that caused Muscat to seek long-term security and economic prosperity through positive foreign relations. Political turmoil fueled by the Arab Spring immediately put pressure on Sultan Qaboos bin Said to implement political and economic reforms and led him to reshuffle key leadership in his cabinet and address corruption.  Most importantly, the Arab Spring shed light on the lack of economic opportunities in the country.  Oman faced serious economic downfalls such as a high unemployment rate and consistent domestic energy demands.

Through its good neighbor policy, Muscat balanced its economic interests by expanding its ties with key allies regardless of geopolitical challenges.  Muscat believes that maintaining a reputation of openness with all countries–even with unpopular states, like Iran will attract foreigners. As a result, Muscat secured major economic projects separately with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Oman reached an unprecedented agreement with Iran to build a major natural gas pipeline. Meanwhile, it is also scheduled to build a major road linkage with Saudi Arabia that will boost economic growth by strengthening tourism and building new businesses.

In light of their security policy, Muscat maintains a minimum military defensive posture, which is not surprising for a country that is eager to be a regional peacemaker. Oman’s small armed forces with a limited military strength is another factor of why Oman would pursue diplomacy over defense to counter regional threats in a rough neighborhood especially around the Strait of Hormuz- a critical oil-supply passage that connects the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Also, internal security is essential for the Sultan Armed Forces (SAF). SAF’s top security priorities are mainly focused on tackling domestic concerns, including border security, weapons smuggling, and narcotics trafficking. For several years, the U.S has provided assistance to address Muscat’s national security priorities by investing over ten million of dollars in military aid. Despite the 2011 Arab Spring, Oman is experiencing significantly low domestic threats.

When it comes to joining regional security coalitions, SAF lessened its role in regional coalition efforts within the last decade.  In 2013, Oman initially rejected Riyadh’s plan to form an economic and military command. Its resistance to forming a military command stemmed from its desire to play as a mediator for the U.S.-Iran deal and its support of establishing a nuclear-free trade zone in the region.

Oman has taken a similar approach in responding to both the counter-ISIL mission and the Yemen conflict.  For the counter-ISIL mission, Oman plays a limited role but pledged to provide both military support and humanitarian aid. In addition, Oman pledged to prevent the flow of foreign fighters.  In fact, several local Omani media outlets reported that the country generated no foreign fighters serving in Iraq and Syria and remains committed to countering finance terrorism. Another factor to note is that sectarian strife between the Sunni and Shia communities is not a major issue in Oman. Sunni-Shia communities co-exist peacefully, which also reflects their foreign policy decisions with Iran. This is not surprising when the Sultan and the majority of the people follow Ibadi Islam. Traditionally, Ibadi Islam tolerates religious differences and prohibits sectarian violence in Oman.

Despite its limited military role in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Oman would rather contribute their diplomatic power. Oman believes it can help facilitate bringing the Al-Assad regime to the table to work with key stakeholders. For humanitarian support, Oman contributed donations for Syrian refugees but recently criticized along with the rest of the GCC states for their zero-tolerance policy of taking in a significant number of IDPs.  If the country decides to reverse its policy, Oman will probably be the best country to accommodate Syrian refugees compared to the rest of the Gulf states. For the Yemen crisis, Oman is the only GCC state that provides no military contribution to Operation Decisive Storm. Instead, Muscat repeatedly attempted to mediate open dialogues between the Al-Houthi group and the Saudi-led coalition. Just two months after the start of the mission, Oman also facilitated the first open dialogue between the U.S. and Al-Houthi group.

Oman’s incomparable, pragmatic foreign policy is achieving significant gains in the most perplexing of regional dilemmas.  As a result, Oman’s independent policy is increasingly becoming monumental in peace and security issues for the international community.

Oman’s independent policy also complements the Obama administration’s goal of resolving issues through pragmatism and diplomacy. The U.S. has gained positive results from their current relationship with Oman. However, this relationship is at risk depending on two possible factors.  First, this bilateral relationship may change depending on who will be win the U.S. presidency in 2016. Presumably, Oman and the rest of the international community will not support to rescind the Iran deal. Regardless of political changes, the presidential administration should continue working with Oman to bring Iran to the table to discuss other key issues. This could help facilitate discussion on the release of American prisoners, countering ISIL in the region, and ensuring security for Israel and the rest of the Gulf region. Second, Oman may also face governmental changes in the near the future. Sultan Qaboos has ruled since 1970 and is now over seventy years old. His health provoked concern when he did not attend the last U.S.-GCC Summit. The Sultan’s successor may continue an independent foreign policy or the international community may be confronted with changes in Oman’s foreign policy.  Until then, Muscat will continue to resolve issues through diplomatic means rather than military power.

PS21 is a nongovernmental, nonpartisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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