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Pragmatic Ibadi Islam at heart of Oman’s neutrality between Axis of Resistance and Normalisation

February 4, 2022 at 12:29 am

The Omani national flag in the capital Muscat. [HAITHAM AL-SHUKAIRI/AFP/Getty Images]

The Sultanate of Oman is a rather unique country in the Arab world. Not only is it is the oldest independent state having been ruled by the Busaid dynasty since 1749, the country mostly adheres to a sect of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shia, but Ibadi, making it the only predominantly-Ibadi country in the Muslim world, though there are pockets of small communities that exist in parts of North Africa, especially Algeria and along the east African coast, particularly in former Omani territory, Zanzibar. As Islam’s third major branch it is often overlooked and under-studied with minimal general awareness paid to it by both Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Its geographically concentrated and isolated adherents have also managed to avoid the sectarian-tainted conflicts that have affected the region. This distinctive Ibadi character of Oman may also offer an explanation behind its neutral foreign policy as it navigates successfully between the Iran-led Axis of Resistance and the US-supported Arab Axis of Normalisation with Israel.

Named after an eighth-century Iraqi theologian by the name Abdallah ibn Ibad, the branch has been described as a reformed sect of the Khawarij or its only surviving sectarian relative, although some view Ibad’s successor, Jabir bin Zayd, who originated from Nizwa in Oman as being the true founder. Indeed, the Khawarij themselves were notable for being the first identifiable breakaway sect of Islam associated with religious extremism, to the extent that contemporary extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh have been accused of being neo-Kharijites. However, the Ibadis themselves deny any links with the Khawarij, but acknowledge they emerged out of the same historical and political contexts. Similarly to neighbouring Yemen, which has a significant Zaydi Shia population, the mountainous terrain has helped partially explain how the Ibadi have managed to survive there and avoid persecution and proselytisation by the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates and, in more recent history, the emergence of Wahhabism in today’s Saudi Arabia.

Aside from the violent takfiri phenomenon that was pioneered by the Khawarij, the movement was also capable of being pragmatic and, in the case of the offshoot Ibadis in early Islamic history, they were “chillingly pragmatic” when it came to their criteria for legitimate Islamic political authority. In contemporary times, it was the sect’s notable religious tolerance rooted in its emphasis on surviving as a righteous and homogenous community within a heterogeneous society and in terms of regional relations, the Sultanate’s diplomacy, too, can be arguably traced to the influence of Ibadism, especially when attempting to mediate in regional conflicts which has earned both the trust of Sunni and Shia-majority countries and even internally among tribal disputes. The Sultanate’s modern foreign policy, of course, cannot be discussed without mentioning the legacy of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said which transformed the country to being one that was once isolated into a pre-eminent nation in Middle Eastern diplomacy. Under Qaboos and, by the looks of it, his successor, Haitham bin Tariq, Oman has maintained a strict non-interference and non-alignment foreign policy.

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This is not only evident in Muscat’s durable relations with Iran, in spite of tensions with other Gulf states, but also its open dialogue with Israel, which has prompted recurring speculations that it could be the next Gulf Arab state to normalise ties following the UAE and Bahrain. However, it seems unlikely and inconsistent with Oman’s established policies and Muscat has reiterated its independent stance, that normalisation would not precede the establishment of a Palestinian state. With regards to Oman’s special relationship with Iran, this dates back before the Islamic Revolution, when Iran, under the Shah, militarily intervened in Oman’s civil war, crushing the Dhofar Rebellion in support of the Sultanate and helped consolidate Qaboos’s long reign. These ties were maintained with the advent of the Islamic Republic and have continued to grow, with Oman offering to mediate  in Iran’s disputes and crucially, in the face of sanctions, Oman is the only Gulf Arab state that allows Iranian companies to operate through which it can reach overseas markets.

In other disputes that have had polarising effects on the region, Oman has been able to foster its image as an honest and reliable broker. In Yemen, Oman has become a strategic backdoor channel through which the de facto Houthi-led government has been in indirect talks with Saudi Arabia. Oman has itself held discussions with Houthi officials. It is also interesting to note that Oman was the only Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) state to decline involvement in the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, a move which has ensured the Sultanate’s security and sovereignty, in light of cross-border retaliatory attacks against Saudi and, more recently, the UAE. Within the GCC itself, the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc it was Oman which maintained its neutral position and even benefitted from increased trade with Doha while providing a food life-line to Iran across the Persian Gulf. This gesture was not forgotten, as Oman received $1 billion in aid from Qatar during its financial crisis in 2020, brought on by the impacts of the pandemic and the lower oil revenues.

Recently, Oman has been stepping up its diplomatic clout, with perhaps the most divisive issue of Syria. Following the UAE’s normalisation with Syria and in opposition to Qatar’s insistence that it will not be doing so any time soon, Oman’s Foreign Minister, Badr bin Hamad Al-Busaidi, made an official visit to Damascus, calling Syria “a cornerstone of joint Arab action” and, along with Algeria, appears to be another Arab state calling for Syria’s return to the Arab League. Muscat, from the outset, chose not to support Islamist opposition factions in Syria as did Riyadh and Qatar. Demonstrating the contradictory balancing act of Oman, this warming up with a country firmly in the Axis of Resistance, has more or less coincided with Oman taking part in a US Navy-led exercise which includes Israel and Saudi Arabia, in spite of there being no diplomatic relations with both countries, representing the first time Israel is publicly joining them. A big part of the Sunni Arab states ‘ normalisation with Israel is out of a mutual fear of Iran’s regional policies and interests, and it is only the Arab states and movements aligned with Iran that are the ones vehemently opposed to normalisation with Israel. Oman sits in the middle, as it neither sees Tehran as a threat to its security nor is it willing to outright oppose relations with Israel and undermine its own interests in full alignment with a sanctioned and isolated country as Iran.

Oman’s cautious approach to regional relations, therefore, is clearly one based on staunch pragmatism and a refusal to be firmly in one camp against the other. Last year, Foreign Minister Busaidi described Oman’s foreign policy as one that “has always sought to maintain and encourage dialogue between as wide a number of parties as possible”. Yet, it is arguably the pragmatism and moderation found in the Ibadi school of thought that has had an underlying impact on Muscat’s foreign policy, which even informed Sultan Qaboos’s outlook.

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