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Beyond its neutrality: Oman's unique role in Yemen

The best way to explain Oman, both historically and in the midst of the current crisis facing the Gulf, is to say it puts its long term security first. For the past few decades, Sultan Qaboos' policy of not being too close or being too far from the states around him has given Oman the well-deserved reputation of being a diplomatic mastermind.

Partially it stems from Qaboos' predecessor, his father Sultan Said's choice to distance Oman from other Arab countries and focus on relations with Britain and India, for trade and political stability. When Qaboos came to power and wanted to end Oman's isolation from the Arab states, his father's decisions gave him a platform to shape relations more freely, as Oman was never a rival to other Arab states. It was simply uninvolved with some unresolved tensions.

Creating a foreign policy based on non-intervention and non-alignment not only keeps instability at bay, but it also means that Oman can smoothly hold a double-edged sword. The ongoing conflict in Yemen has done well to prove this. Oman is not the only GCC member who has not joined the Saudi coalition, but is the only monarchy in the Arab League to not do so. Ideologically, it has no rivalries. It's neither Sunni, nor Shia, but Ibadi. This not only means that Oman has no stake in the ideological power struggle, but, by staying out of it, the Sultanate is able to sustain its Ibadi identity, rather than having its national religion associated with a more politically dominant sect.

"We cannot work on peace efforts at the same time we would be part of a military campaign. Those two things do not meet," Oman's Foreign Minister, Yusuf Bin Alawi, told Reuters. "Oman is not part of that campaign for simple reasons – Oman is a nation of peace."

Oman hasn't always taken a smooth sailing approach to Yemen. In 1962, an anti-monarchist, pan-Arab, Marxist insurgency group called the Dhofar Liberation Front, renamed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) in 1968, was formed. Its aim was to overthrow Sultan Said and install a communist system with the help of South Yemen which, after its independence in 1967, installed a communist system.

A conflict followed until a ceasefire was mediated by Saudi in 1976. Seven years later, there was an official call to establish diplomatic relations between South Yemen and Oman and after the unification of Yemen in 1990, relations remained stable. Omanis know all too well that conflict can easily spill over from their troubled neighbour if they get involved. They know that the Houthis would not hesitate to carry out revenge attacks, as they have done in Saudi.

Oman has been praised by the Houthis for not getting involved. Mohammed Al-Bukhati, a senior Houthi official, said that Oman's decision not to get involved and to express neutrality is "wise". At the same time, Omani relations with Saudi have not been harmed as a result of its unwillingness to join the coalition.

The GCC was created in 1981, according to the preamble of their charter one of their objectives is to "reinforce and serve Arab and Islamic causes." Considering their long term political and military concerns, this objective can be bluntly translated to keeping the Shia and Iranians at arms-length where they are unable to destabilise the monarchic structure and Sunni authority. It was also created to handle the challenges that may face the Gulf as a result of the First Gulf War.

Oman, as a GCC member, has a comparatively strange relationship with Iran, which further influences its decision not to get involved in Yemen.

Although Oman is one of the founding members of the GCC, it likes to keep its identity distinct and its policies independent. Constructive relations with Iran are perfect for this; it also benefits the GCC as Oman acts as a mediator between the different parties. While King Salman of Saudi Arabia is upset at the thought of an American nuclear deal with Iran and sees it as a threat, Sultan Qaboos is not as threatened by the issue. His military and economic ties with Iran are so deep that it seems almost impossible for Iran to threaten Oman.

As with the rest of the Gulf, Oman's cooperation with Iran dates back to the Shah when there was no animosity between the Gulf and Iran. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, Oman was one of the only Arab countries that did not break its ties with Iran. It received military assistance from Iran along with the British and Jordanians to combat the Dhofar rebellions in the 1970s, so it knows very well that, should Oman face further instabilities in the future, military assistance is available on the other side of the Gulf of Oman as long as Oman ensures Iran benefits by ensuring the Sultanate remains stable.

Iran and Oman's gas trade is another reason why diplomacy is pursued. The Omani government does not condemn or punish Iran's black market trade on the Musandam Peninsula to ease the effects of the sanctions imposed on it.

These relations have not strained military and diplomatic relations with the rest of the GGC and the West. In 1980, Oman became a military partner of the US and it allows Washington to use its air space and ports for military purposes, including combating any threat of an Iranian military invasion.

Earlier this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif visited Oman to sign a maritime agreement to determine borders on the Gulf of Oman. They also discussed the situation in Yemen as Zarif stressed the need for Saudi airstrikes to end and for aid to reach the Yemeni people. Muscat, in its usual fashion agreed on the need for a ceasefire, but offered nothing more than being a mediator between the Saudis and Iranians when the parties are ready to talk.

Looking at Oman's history and its current unique balance of sustaining close diplomatic ties between Washington, Riyadh and Tehran simultaneously, it's evident that Qaboos is in no position to give up Muscat's role as a mediator or its neutrality. Should Qaboos ruin his minutely calculated diplomatic balance and swing to support either Tehran or Riyadh he would risk having to face very difficult decisions on the future of Oman's foreign policy and historically transforming Muscat's role as a regional and global actor.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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