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Iran vs Saudi: Oman's neutrality may be key to resolving region's conflicts

Yasser Seddiq , Sunday 14 Feb 2016
Oman
File Photo: Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said (R) walks with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani upon Rouhani's arrival in Muscat March 12, 2014. (Reuters)
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Observers of Oman usually describe it as the "Switzerland of the Middle East" due to Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s neutral approach to foreign policy.

Oman—with Yousef bin Alawi heading the foreign ministry—succeeded in maintaining strong ties with the United States, Britain, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), while also forging relations with Iran.

This was clear in Oman’s contribution to the breakthrough in the nuclear talks with Iran that ended in July 2015 with a deal that benefited Washington.

For Rex J. Brynen, political science professor at McGill University, Oman is neutral in the sectarian tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as roughly 70 percent of Omanis, including Sultan Qaboos, are neither Sunni nor Shia, but Ibadi (a school of Islam).

“Though a GCC member-state, Oman has a longstanding commercial relationship with Iran. It has concerns on some aspects of both Iranian and Saudi foreign policy, accordingly remaining neutral and promoting a reduction in regional tensions,” Brynen said.

Hatim Al-Taei— a member of Oman's State Council and editor-in-chief of Al-Roya newspaper — said that Oman's foreign policy is characterised by stability and continuity in terms of being open to all parties in the region, and "nothing has actually changed over the past 45 years."

"The Omani constitution does not allow the sultanate to join military alliances or any blocs that have certain orientations, which explains why it does not interfere in the affairs of other states,” Al-Taei pointed out.

The analyst referred to the decision of all Arab countries who cut diplomatic relations with Egypt following the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a trend that Oman did not follow.

As a matter of fact, the Egyptian case is not an exception in Oman’s history of foreign relations.

Oman refused the GCC decision to back Iraq against Iran during their war in the 1980s. It did not withdraw its ambassador from Qatar following the adoption of such a step by Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain in March 2014 and it did not join the Saudi-led military coalition against Yemen's Houthi rebels.

Omani-Iranian ties: The big question

Oman’s strong relations with Iran began in the 1970s and have since developed rapidly. Oman has represented Iran's interests in a number of Western countries on several occasions, Mohammed Mohsen Abo El-Nour, an Egyptian political analyst and researcher in international relations, told Ahram Online.

"The relationship between the Sultanate and Iran dates back to the 1970s during the time of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, when Iran intervened militarily in 1973 to help Sultan Qaboos defeat the Dhofar province rebellion," Abo El-Nour said.

"Tehran helped the Sultan restore his rule even after the deposition of the Shah following the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Sultanate reciprocally helped Iran in its nuclear program negotiations by using its good ties with the US and UK."

On an economic level, Oman and Iran cooperated in the extraction of natural gas from some common fields between both states, as well sharing control of the strategic Strait of Hormuz, where 40% of the world's tanker-borne oil passes.

Shortly after the nuclear deal was signed, Moody's Investors Service said that Oman and the UAE would likely benefit most from the lifting of trade sanctions on Iran as it will pave the way for increased flow of trade and investment.

"After sanctions on Iran were lifted, a hike in the traffic of oil tankers and commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz is highly likely, which will make an Omani-Iranian military cooperation unsurprising," stated Al-Taei.

The recent naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz between Oman and Iran represented an indicator of Al-Taei's expectation that it will spark anger among the Sultanate's Gulf neighbours.

Muscat frequently hosted meetings between world powers and Iran that remained secret for many years. Oman insisted, according to Al-Taei, that a political solution was possible instead of a US-Israeli military intervention in Iran that seemed possible on several occasions.

"There were some extreme Gulf voices that disliked the Omani role, but Oman did not listen to these voices. Qaboos himself visited Tehran in August 2013 and met with Iranian leaders in an attempt to bridge the gap between the West and Iran to help overcome points of contention, which were mostly technical. "Al-Taei explained.

Iran is broadly blamed for dramatically fueling many conflicts in Arab countries such as Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Most political commentators in the Gulf believe that the nuclear deal will unleash the evils of Shia Iran in the region and negatively impact the Sunni world, especially in light of the latest escalation between Riyadh and Tehran.

Yemen

Oman's position as a mediator is a unique case, as it is the only Gulf state that refused to engage in the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels while also remaining an active and important player in the crisis.

One example of its critical role in Yemen’s ongoing conflict can be traced to the visit of some senior Houthi leaders to Muscat several times in the past eight months, Abo El-Nour noted.

"Oman, with its good ties with the Iranians, is the most suitable party to push to resolve conflicts in both Yemen and Syria, although it depends on the willingness of the actors involved to make compromises and reach comprehensive settlements,” he said.

Historically speaking, Oman has strong bonds with the Yemeni people, as the former has set up a series of sincere initiatives to bridge the gap between the Houthis and the coalition, although Saudi Arabia has dubbed the Houthis a terrorist group and considers them an enemy of the kingdom.

"In this frightening and uncertain conflict, everyone understands that there is a chance for hope. The Gulf states are aware that Oman is keen on reaching a resolution for Yemen’s war, especially with its access to all players in the conflict. I believe a compromise is possible within few months, but there are some concessions that everyone should make," Al-Taei argued.

Brynen lacks the same optimism about prospects of peace in Yemen. Although he mentioned that Oman could be "an important mediator" in Yemen, he believed that major domestic actors "seem unlikely to show much flexibility."

Civilians are suffering a “terrible toll” in the fighting tearing Yemen apart, with casualties now topping 8,100, nearly 2,800 of them killed, amid Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, shelling by pro-Houthi forces and other clashes, according to a United Nations report released in January.

Syria & Libya

At the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2012, Oman made an initiative, establishing contact with Bashar Al-Assad's regime and the opposition to resolve the conflict before it turned bloody.

According to Al-Taei: "Oman’s foreign minister visited Syria on 27 October 2015, seeking a political solution, and there were also real initiatives inside the Arab League, but they were thwarted by some Arab countries that deliberately pushed for further escalation."

Oman opposed the Arab League decision when it suspended the membership of Syria. It said that such a movement is only for good of the Islamic State group and the Al-Nusra Front.

Syrian foreign minister Walid Al-Muallem paid a visit to Muscat in August 2015, which was the first by a Syrian official to a Gulf state since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. The visit reportedly came at the behest of the Iranians as a kind of face-saving for all parties involved in this complex equation.

For Iran, being a main supporter to Al-Assad's regime, the Omani role is acceptable, and no doubt about their need for Muscat's support when it comes to peace talks.

More than 250,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian war, the United Nations estimates. Half the country’s pre-war population — more than 11 million people — have been killed or forced to flee their homes.

At the end of 2015, Muscat also played a mediatory role in another ongoing Arab conflict, this time in Libya.

Bin Alawi received the UN special envoy to Libya Martin Kobler and discussed with him the latest developments on the Libyan front as well as efforts by the UN envoy with Libya’s warring parties.

The information that was circulating, according to Abo El-Nour, indicated that Oman was keen to intervene to help resolve the Syrian crisis in light of the Vienna and Geneva negotiations.

The complexity and liquidity of the crisis, however, as well as the multiple conflicts in Iraq, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, made the Omani task unachievable, as all issues were interrelated.

"I think Oman faces countless obstacles that will eventually do away with its mediation efforts."

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