March 24, 2023

IntelBrief: Oman Central to Regional Conflict Resolution in the Middle East

AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili

Bottom Line up Front

  • The Sultanate of Oman’s longstanding ties to Iranian leaders position it to broker agreements between the United States and Iran, particularly the release of detained U.S. nationals.
  • S. officials consider Oman, despite its close ties to Iran, as an integral component of U.S. strategy to deter Iranian aggression and secure the Persian Gulf region.
  • Oman is also emerging as a key regional mediator, able to work with a wide number of factions and leaders at odds with each other.
  • Oman’s engagement with the Houthi movement has been pivotal to progress toward solving the Yemen conflict.

The Sultanate of Oman, under the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said and led since early 2020 by Sultan Haythim bin Tariq Al Said, has historically sought to engage a wide range of leaders and factions to promote conflict resolution. The cornerstone of Oman’s diplomatic prowess has been its policy of consistently engaging leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Omani officials maintain that Iranian troops were instrumental in helping government forces defeat a rebellion in the Dhofar region in the mid-1970s, and that Oman therefore owes Iran enduring gratitude, even though that support was given by a different regime, under the former Shah of Iran who led until the 1979 revolution. Within the partnership of Gulf states, Oman has consistently sought to calm tensions; Oman did not join and sought an end to the blockade imposed upon Qatar by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain during 2017-2021.

Muscat’s ties to Tehran have long enabled the Sultanate to act as a go-between for the United States and Iran to resolve some of their many disputes. Oman’s role as a U.S.-Iran mediator has earned trust and praise from U.S. officials, though others critique the country for its engagement with Iran. U.S. officials have consistently rebutted that criticism by noting that, in 1980, Oman became the first Gulf state to sign a formal agreement with the United States allowing U.S. forces to use Omani military facilities. U.S. leaders also cite Oman’s hosting of U.S. units in every major U.S.-led military operation in or around the Gulf region, including wars against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Al Qaeda and the Taliban after the September 11 attacks. Omani forces regularly conduct bilateral military exercises with U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) forces, most recently the March “Exercise Invincible Sentry 2023” drills, as well as multilateral exercises involving U.S., Gulf state, other Arab, and even Israeli forces.

At the risk of disrupting its ties with Iran, Oman has engaged Israeli leaders for more than two decades, and it recently opened its airspace to Israeli flights - a step welcomed by U.S. President Joseph Biden in a March 7 call to Sultan Haythim. In October 2018, then Sultan Qaboos hosted a surprise visit by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. However, despite some expectations, Oman has not taken steps to follow the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, in normalizing relations with Israel under the banner of the 2020 U.S.-brokered “Abraham Accords.

U.S. officials have benefitted from Oman’s unique ties to Tehran to achieve significant breakthroughs when needed. In the latter stages of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, in which the United States backed Iraq, Oman facilitated prisoner exchanges between Iran and the West. In 2013, Oman hosted the first set of private talks between U.S. and Iranian officials that ultimately produced the landmark 2015 U.N.-endorsed Iran nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA).  Oman has mediated numerous Iran-U.S. agreements to release detained persons, including three young American hikers imprisoned during 2009-2011 and accused by Iran of espionage and illegally crossing a border, and a large U.S.-Iranian exchange in early 2016. In October 2022, the U.S. Department of State thanked Oman for helping arrange the departure from Iran of an ailing and elderly American, Baquer Namazi, who was held in Iran for seven years. His son, Siamak, and two other Americans imprisoned in Iran (Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi) are currently the subject of Oman-brokered negotiations. These detainees, as well as the stalled talks with Iran to restore the JCPOA (which the United States exited in 2018), were reportedly the focus of U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley’s visit to Oman in February 2023.

The trust placed in Oman by Iranian leaders has put the Sultanate at the center of efforts to resolve ongoing regional conflicts. Iran is the main supporter and arms supplier of the Houthi movement in Yemen, whereas Saudi Arabia and the UAE – both allies of Oman in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - back the ousted Republic of Yemen government. Throughout the Yemen conflict, Oman, with Tehran’s tacit backing, has cultivated ties with the Houthis, including hosting their office in Muscat. Oman has brokered several exchanges of prisoners among the various contending parties in the war. Oman is currently facilitating direct talks between Saudi officials and the Houthis to formally restore a 2022 ceasefire and, ultimately, achieve a political solution to the conflict. The search for a Yemen political solution has been significantly advanced by Oman’s broader two-year effort, along with Baghdad, to mediate a reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran. Several rounds of Saudi-Iranian talks in Baghdad and Muscat during 2021-2022 culminated in a March 10, 2023 agreement, finalized in Beijing by Chinese mediation, to restore full diplomatic relations and reinstate a series of minor security and cultural exchange agreements. Still, U.S. officials and outside experts remain skeptical of the durability of any Saudi-Iranian reconciliation in light of the many fundamental issues that divide Riyadh and Tehran.

Another key Iranian ally, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, has sought Oman’s help to break out of his regional isolation. Oman, unique among the Gulf states, did not close its embassy in Damascus to protest Assad’s brutal repression of the 2011 uprising that continues to divide Syria, although Muscat did withdraw its ambassador. Yet, in 2020, Oman became the first Gulf state to reinstate its ambassador to Syria, and Sultan Haythim hosted Assad for talks in Muscat in late February 2023, two weeks after an earthquake devastated large areas of northern Syria. However, neither Omani nor other Gulf state leaders have succeeded in altering U.S. policy toward the Assad regime; U.S. officials continue to urge U.S. allies not to “normalize” relations with the Syrian regime. On another pressing regional issue, Oman has not sought a leading role in regional outreach to the Taliban regime in Kabul, deferring to other Gulf partners such as Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Still, reflecting Oman’s consistent policy of promoting conflict resolution, Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi set out Oman’s approach to the Taliban in August 2021, immediately after the fall of the U.S.-backed government. In a speech, he stressed the need to “engage constructively with the Taliban in such a way that they might actually contribute to solutions and be part of the solutions…The last 25 years have shown beyond doubt that treating them only as an ideological enemy to be confronted is unlikely to succeed.”