Oman's Diplomatic Capacity

Photo Source: Times of Oman

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront



Most of the countries promote diplomacy on a specific political ideology and economic interests, which are often short term. Oman, however, relies on long term diplomacy.

The country believes that peaceful negotiations are pivotal for its long-term prosperity and security, primarily due to the fact that Oman has limited military strength that it uses for its internal security. That’s why, for more than twenty-five years, it is pursuing an independent foreign policy and has thus become a vital place for backroom deals, by recognising its scope.

The Omani leader, Sultan Qaboos, has tried a number of ways to neutralise internal and external threats in his country. His strategy of ‘Omani balancing’ is unique, but also controversial, because it allows him to befriend Arab enemies, such as Iran and Israel.

Conversely, Oman has also pledged to play a limited role in providing military and humanitarian support to counter ISIS, but provide no military support in Yemen.

As per the narrative in Joseph Kechichian's book: 'Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy' (1995), he mentions that in 1970, when Sultan Qaboos ousted his father in a coup, who at that point in time, had developed diplomatic world relations with India and England, Qaboos reversed this decision, by establishing new relations with the League of Arab States (LAS) and United Nations in 1971. It had been an attempt to end diplomatic isolation within the region, by mitigating its dependence on Britain and achieving internal unity by dealing with political unrest in the north, and ending the Communist-backed Dhufar War, threatening the Sultanate since 1965, and addressing Oman’s poor standard of living. He believes that due to this firm pragmatic approach displayed by Qaboos, he has changed “an isolated and unstable Oman into a leader of Middle Eastern and global diplomacy”. The fact that Qaboos encourages even warring countries, to find commonalities and acceptable tradeoffs, speaks of his mindset.

Historically, Oman became one of those countries, which did not break ties with Egypt in 1977, and more specifically, during 1978, when Saadat approved of US Camp David peace talks with Israel. Oman also became one of three Arab nation-states to recognise Israel and did not attend Baghdad Rejectionist Summit, that condemned Egypt. In 1979, when Khomeini came into power, Qaboos proposed a 100 million protection plan for the Strait of Hormuz, to deal with any possible aggression. When five other Gulf states rejected this idea, he turned to the United States, and signed the 1980 Facilities Access Agreement, for Oman’s long-term security interests.

Between 1981-1985, when Iran and Iraq, were at war, Qaboos helped formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which brought six Gulf states together. As Oman had kept a neutral stance when Iraq and Iran war happened, it received nearly all support from the western governments.

During the early 1990s, Qaboos was recognised as a regional figure in the Middle East, who could be counted by other Gulf states on security issues. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Omani forces participated in the UN liberation effort, and Oman granted access to prepositioned supplies and facilities in Oman via Facilities Access Agreement, that was renewed in 1990. At the same time, he put efforts to end the war, for the good prospects of the region. In 1991, he also recognised the need for citizen participation in government matters, by establishing Majlis Al Shura, despite holding a strong grip on every institution in the country, including the economy, judiciary and the military. In other words, Qaboos is an excellent example of personalist dictatorship, who even reshuffled his cabinet during Arab Spring, to avoid any unrest in the country.

In recent times, Oman has been a mediator in the Qatar diplomatic crises, to help facilitate the signing of Iran nuclear deal, and offering secret negotiation between warring parties in Yemen.

For years, Qaboos has hosted negotiations between US leaders and Iranian leaders, often in his own house. Oman let free three abducted American tourists in Iran. In 2012, the United States requested Oman to hold its first round of talks with Iran, concerning its burgeoning nuclear power in 2012. These talks were held secretly until they were revealed to the public in 2013. At that point in time, Oman had become a ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’, a soft power, almost a meeting point for signatories of the nuclear deal: China, France, Germany, Russia the U.K. and Iran.

Oman, under Qaboos, also has intentions to end the standoff between Qatar and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi and the U.A.E. It reflects Oman of being a neutral state, often overshadowed by Saudi Arabia’s regional dominance.

According to Farea al-Muslimi, a Middle East analyst working for the Carnegie Center: “since the start of the latest war in Yemen, Oman has played a key facilitation role. It has hosted Houthi leaders and representatives of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This, as well as its good relations with Iran, enabled it to stake out a middle ground, allowing it to engage in a political process to help resolve the conflict.”

In May 2015 and November 2016, Oman hosted secret talks between US officials and Houthi rebels, to the extent that Qaboos had actually convinced Houthis to attend U.N backed peace talks. Though these attempts haven’t proved successful, for any form of urgent conflict resolution required in the region, it did set a benchmark for a peaceful dialogue. Add to that, Qaboos had rejected an offer from Saudi and Emirati officials to intervene in the civil war, as he had figured out the human costs involved in the war.

In October 2015, Oman also briefly entered into a diplomatic effort in Syria, where he dispatched his close aide and Minister responsible for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi to Damascus, to convey a message from then US Secretary of State John Kerry to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Omani Foreign Minister, Alawi and Kerry had met before, to discuss Obama’s diplomatic initiatives in Syria.

After that, in early February 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov travelled to Muscat, to speed up the political and diplomatic settlement in the region. This also set a stage for Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem – Oman Foreign Minister Alawi meeting. It was a significant development, considering the rife relations between Washington DC and Tehran and Riyadh and Tehran, especially when the US currently is finding a difficult ground in dealing with Moscow, at a time, when Russians killed an American spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom.

In March 2018, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis travelled to Muscat for talks with Sultan Qaboos, regarding how to achieve a resolution in Yemen’s civil war, and ensuring to stop the smuggling of missiles to Yemen’s Houthi rebels through Strait of Hormuz.

Following Mattis – Qaboos meeting, Omani Foreign Minister, Alawi also travelled in March to Tehran for talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Analysts say that it might be plausible that Alawi would have carried forward a message pertaining to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the conflict in Yemen. Some believe, CIA Director Pompeo, also paid a visit to Qaboos, which may come in handy, on issues pertaining to JCPOA.

According to Asha Castleberry, a fellow at the American Security Project: “Oman may be triangulating between Washington, Moscow and Tehran by carrying messages between the various parties to help unwind Syria’s civil war.  In the process, Oman would help reduce global tensions by keeping the various parties engaged on regional issues such as Syria and Yemen while facilitating dialogue between Washington and Tehran on the JCPOA.”
However, despite Qaboos’s long list of accomplishments, he still has some controversies to his name, that include being an Arab leader who vows to accept Israel, just like Saudi’s Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, who urged Palestinians ‘to accept a peace deal or shut up’.

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