In light of the recent developments in the Yemen conflict, many are beginning to question Oman’s position and its relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia. There has been speculation in the media about whether Oman’s policy is shifting closer towards Iran and further away from the mainstream Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) approach. This debate, along with much of the rhetoric surrounding Oman, is usually focused on unfolding events with complete disregard for its government’s foreign and defence policies over four decades under the rule of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said.
It is no secret that out of all of the GCC countries, Oman is the one with the most relaxed approach towards Iran; it tries exceptionally hard to be neutral on the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In part, this stems from Oman aiming to keep its foreign policy as independent and non-interventionist as possible. Most importantly, though — and especially compared to its GCC counterparts — Oman doesn’t view security through its ability to deter threats militarily; it prefers to maintain some balance by keeping external threats at bay. This ensures that as few states and organisations as possible view Oman itself as a threat.
Sultan Qaboos’s relationship with Iran
Before trying to analyse Oman’s perception of security, it is important to understand Sultan Qaboos’s relationship with Iran. He came to power in 1970 through a bloodless coup against his father. At that time, there was a communist insurgency in Dhofar Province, which threatened Oman’s monarchy. The insurgency began in 1962, when the country was seriously underdeveloped and its people were discontented with the rule of Qaboos’s father, Sultan Said Bin Taimur.
Sultan Qaboos took control three years after communist South Yemen declared its independence. The fact that Dhofar shares a border with South Yemen’s Mahra Province made him apprehensive about whether the successful communist revolution there would be replicated in Oman. This worried not only the Omani leadership, but also the western powers which had a vested interest in stopping the spread of communism in the region. The Omani ruler was backed heavily by the British and Iran, the then strong ally of the West.
Tehran ended up deploying 4,000 troops to help Oman to subdue the insurgency. Despite the fact that this happened while the Shah was on the throne, even after the 1979 Islamic Revolution Sultan Qaboos remained grateful and kept amicable relations with the revolutionary government. In this way he sought to ensure that Iran would not rule out any future military intervention in Oman, should another uprising take place.
Oman’s role during the negotiations between the P5+1 powers and the Iranians over the latter’s nuclear programme proved that it does not feel threatened by a stable Iran. Indeed, in 2012 Oman hosted the first meeting in the process between Iranian and US officials; it continued to encourage and host meetings between the parties, some of which were hosted at the sultan’s official residences. The governments in Muscat and Tehran used the lifting of sanctions on Iran to their advantage, which has led to talks about the construction of a gas pipeline between the two countries.
Muscat’s perception of security
Not only did the Dhofar insurgency shape Sultan Qaboos’s relations with Iran early on in his rule, but it also shaped his perception of security. Rather than seeking to look exclusively towards defeating opposition parties or insurgents militarily, he examined the socio-economic reasons behind the Dhofar uprising. The conditions that inspired the insurgency, he concluded, were as big a security threat to Oman as the uprising itself.
As a result, mass reforms were carried out by the sultan’s government. After Oman gained independence from the British in 1971, he began to develop the economy through its oil revenue, which paved the way for a wide range of development projects.
Oman’s security strategy was put to the test during the Arab Spring. In 2011, protestors took to the streets to demand more financial security and better oversight of corruption within the Omani political structure. Rather than dealing with the situation by force, as other Arab governments did, Sultan Qaboos introduced stricter accountability to tackle corruption within the government.
This is not to say that the Omani government has always been peaceful in its approach. Dozens of opposition activists have been imprisoned and a number have reported being “psychologically tortured” during their interrogation. Compared to other Arab states, though, Oman’s way of dealing with the protests that took place during that period was the most responsive in diplomatic terms.
Out of all of the other Arab Spring countries, Bahrain is most commonly compared to Oman amongst GCC member states. However, from the start of the protests, Bahrain turned almost immediately to military means to stabilise the country. Not only did the Manama government deploy the army, but other GCC countries also deployed their own troops to intervene in Bahrain. Five years on, it is still facing significant unrest.
‘Special relationship’ with the Houthis?
When the Saudi-led coalition announced its military intervention in Yemen to block the power grab by Houthi militias and forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Muscat was quick to emphasise its neutrality. Oman is the only GCC country not to take part in the coalition and it insists on remaining neutral in order to encourage a political settlement to the conflict.
Because of this, warring parties have looked to Oman for assistance with negotiations. Western diplomats have also used its diplomatic leverage to secure their own national security interests in Yemen, especially when trying to free their citizens who have been taken hostage.
More recently, there have been accusations that Oman is leaning closer to the Houthi rebels. Over the past month and a half, local resistance forces in Yemen have caught Omani trucks laden with Iranian weapons apparently intended for the Houthis. The Omani foreign minister has denied that the government or security services has had any role in weapons smuggling. He also asserted that Muscat is willing to clarify this directly with Riyadh, should the Saudis feel it is necessary. It is important to note that while this incident raised a few eyebrows amongst GCC analysts, especially after a US official expressed concern about the smuggling incidents, Riyadh has not yet raised any particular concern over Oman’s role in the Yemen conflict. The stalemate in Yemen could mean that Saudi Arabia would appreciate Oman’s military assistance in the war, not least because the Saudi policy has been dominated by hawks in Riyadh.
In this situation, one must look at the GCC as a group. Each member country seeks to protect its own interests, and the interests of the rest of the Arabian Gulf, but each in its own way. While Saudi continues to be hawkish, Oman is still perceived to be dovish, with diplomatic stability. For now, it seems that the Saudis will only criticise Oman’s policy if there is explicit and undeniable evidence that Muscat is betraying the GCC’s interests in favour of Iran.
The Saudis understand that they need a political settlement in Yemen eventually. Even though they believe that it is a just war, it is not in the interest of the warring parties to prolong the conflict for any longer than what is deemed to be absolutely necessary.
Ignoring Oman’s concept of security when analysing its role in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region is a mistake that is made too often. Its perception of security is unique within the GCC. If analysts do not take the history of Sultan Qaboos’s relationship with regional powers when he first came to power into account, they risk overthinking today’s dynamics without the appropriate context that has been crucial in shaping Oman’s foreign and defence policies.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.