January 9, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Oman and the Tradition of a Quiet, Steady Course
The Buffers of Geography
Oman’s recent role as a mediator between the US and Iran and its stated intention not to join Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Union are the latest examples of the country pursuing an independent foreign policy. Oman’s foreign policy is traditionally driven by geography, religion and history in a way that differs from its more economically prominent Gulf neighbors, casting the country in a markedly different political and economic light.
Oman proper has always been isolated to a degree by geographical barriers that, while not totally isolating the country, have provided a historical buffer that has enabled Oman to develop at its own pace and direction, relative to its neighbors of the Arabian Peninsula. Oman is bordered by Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, with mountains and deserts which have tended to push Oman to look towards India and Africa for opportunity and development. These buffers have been overcome in the past, with the Portuguese, Ottomans, and British having varying degrees of control and influence—but for the most part the natural fences have allowed the Omanis to become a country and culture apart, developing a maritime tradition that grew into an empire. Dhows from Oman plied the waters from Malaysia to Zanzibar. With that empire came the cultural influences from Africa, Iran, and Pakistan that helped cement the Omani culture as distinct from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. The empire was even ruled from Africa, in the archipelago of Zanzibar, for a brief time. Long after the empire fell apart, Oman maintained a special relationship with historical Zanzibar, Baluchistan, and Iran. Indeed, the final part of the Omani Empire was the port city of Gwadar, which was purchased by the Aga Khan in 1959, and donated to Pakistan.
The Cohesiveness of Religion
Oman’s development and attitude towards its neighbors has also been heavily influenced by religion. An estimated 75% of the population of Oman belongs to the Ibadi sect of Islam. This conservative—yet relatively more tolerant branch—is viewed by some in the more conservative Wahhabi philosophy, originating in Saudi Arabia, as heretical. Since the 8th Century, the Ibadis have nurtured, in contrast to the more chauvinistic strains of religious thought and doctrine, a stable platform for engagement with other sects to include Shi’a Islam’s heart in Iran.
Foreign Policy: Sailing Close to the Wind
Under the leadership of Sultan Qaboos bin S’aid, Oman has pursued a realistic and balanced foreign policy that has served the country well for over 40 years. Oman maintained good relations with Iran both during the reign of the Shah and after the Iranian revolution. Oman did not sever relations with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War but played the role of a secret mediator in the conflict. Oman hosts the US military at Seeb Airbase as well as on the island of Masirah. Relations with the UK have long and deep historical roots going back to 1798. In more recent history, British Special Air Service troops, under the guise of mercenaries, helped defeat a communist inspired revolt in the Dhofar region in the southern part of the country in 1960s-70s. The Sultan himself is a graduate of Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, and relied heavily upon British advisors after overthrowing his father and during the first few years of his reign.
While many have seen Omani Foreign policy as reticent in some respects, it is clearly realpolitik in nature. During the Dhofar rebellion, Oman refused to have any relations with a communist country as the rebellion was backed by communist states. It has, at times, resorted to force, as witnessed by its actions in the Buraymi Oasis territorial dispute with Saudi Arabia, finally resolved in 1991, and it has pursued an India-Iran-Oman undersea pipeline that would provide numerous economic benefits to the country. Oman’s refusal to go along with the Saudi-proposed Gulf Union and its standing military reaction force is a continuation of this independent, realist approach. Oman has sought to avoid accords with the potential of entanglement in a Sunni-Shi’a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Numerous press reports have claimed that Oman’s role in secret meetings between Iran and the US was central in facilitating negotiations and working toward agreement. To the new Rouhani government in Iran, Oman was viewed as an honest broker in the region. This historical trust paved the way for nurturing and sustaining secret meetings prior to talks in Europe.
There has been much speculation surrounding which course Oman will take once Sultan Qaboos dies, as he has left no heir apparent. The dynasty of al-S’aid has ruled since 1744, and has survived coups and intrigues ever since. If the ruling family is unable to come to an agreement on who should take power, a letter penned by Qaboos is to be opened before key family and military members, giving his recommendation. Omani observers have seen this as Qaboos’s coy way of naming a successor without becoming ensnarled in family intrigue.
Oman’s pursuit of an independent and realistic foreign policy gives this volatile region a diplomatic venue that can be accessed in times of peace, rising tensions, or conflict between implacable sectarian foes.
• Oman will continue to pursue an independent and beneficial foreign policy
• Oman will become increasingly important from a geopolitical standpoint in the Middle East due to its independence and multinational dialogue tradition
• Any disorder during the transition from the reign of Sultan Qaboos will likely be short lived and the S’aid line will most likely continue uninterrupted.
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