The Sultanate of Oman issued a rare statement last Sunday that reflected the awkward position it finds itself in due to the escalation of tensions in the region.
While a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member, the country has kept itself out of the wrangling within the group for years. With close ties to Iran, it has also taken up a neutral position in the Saudi-Iranian tensions that have been building up over the years.
However, after the UK complained to the UN Security Council last week that Iranian forces had attacked a British-flagged tanker in Omani territorial waters before it entered the Strait of Hormuz, Oman felt the need to go public with a position, something which it rarely does.
In a Foreign Ministry statement, Oman urged Iran to release the tanker Stena Impero and said it was in contact with all those concerned to ensure the safety of commercial vessels. It also called on all parties to exercise restraint and to resolve their differences diplomatically.
Though the statement stopped short of adopting the British position that the Iranian action “constitutes illegal interference” in shipping through the Gulf or denouncing Iran’s seizure of the tanker as a “hostile act,” it nevertheless indicated how Oman intends to deal with the escalating tensions.
For decades, Oman has been dubbed the “Switzerland of the Middle East” due to its neutral position and clever foreign policy. Discretion, subtlety, and the ability to talk to all became synonymous with the foreign policy of Oman. Long-serving Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawi is a trusted Middle Eastern diplomat for outside parties to the region.
Oman was the first – and thus far last – Gulf country to receive Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on an official visit during which he met Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed.
Just a couple of months later, as most other Arab Gulf countries were siding with US proposals that would kill the two-state solution in Palestine, Oman opened an embassy in Ramallah, capital of the as-yet non-existent Palestinian state led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
That showed that Oman was changing its approach to major developments in the region, some analysts noted.
When Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, along with non-GCC member Egypt, boycotted Qatar in June 2017 for its support of terrorism and meddling in its neighbours’ internal affairs, Oman found itself in an awkward position.
Though Kuwait did not boycott Qatar and tried to mediate between Doha and its neighbours, Oman refrained from any mediation efforts and opted for enhancing its relationship with Qatar instead, especially on the economic front.
Oman did not join the coalition for the Support of Legitimacy in Yemen, a Saudi-led military alliance to fend off the insurgency of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels that started a military intervention in the country in 2015 to reinstate the internationally recognised government.
Like Saudi Arabia, Oman has a border with Yemen, and it was already wary of the presence of Al-Qaeda militants across it. Yet, it chose to secure its western borders on its own, probably through compromises unlikely to be welcomed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The approach fitted well with the traditional Omani approach to such crises, however. For decades, Muscat was the only capital in the region to keep up good relations with all its neighbours, as well as regional and international parties.
After late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat visited Jerusalem and initiated the first peace process between an Arab country and Israel in the late 1970s, almost all the Arab countries boycotted Egypt except Oman.
When Iraq swept into Kuwait in the early 1990s, Oman’s voice was unheard in the developments that led to the American-led Coalition driving Iraq out of Kuwait. Up to the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, Oman provided logistical assistance to American forces in the region, yet also kept up its relationship with Baghdad.
Some observers see a change starting after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the six world powers known as the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. It was then revealed that Muscat has been mediating and hosting contacts between the Americans and the Iranians since 2011.
When US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA last year, re-imposing sanctions on Iran to pressure it into renegotiating a new deal, Oman lost its position as mediator between Washington and Tehran.
The escalation of tensions in the Gulf in recent months has also cost Oman dearly, since it has extensive trade and economic relations with Iran, as well as with its GCC partners. The situation makes it difficult for any party to be neutral, with all being forced to be either with or against Iran.
Tensions in the Gulf now make it costly for ships to use the waterway, and it has been anticipated that Oman might benefit from this as tankers and ships might prefer to use ports on the Gulf of Oman or the Arabian Sea without the need to go through the Strait of Hormuz.
As the tensions spill outside the Gulf and the Strait, Oman is not expected to reap such benefits, however. Moreover, the situation will also require closer cooperation between Oman and its neighbours like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
It might be too early to see Oman relinquishing its good relations with Iran, but it is also clear that its traditionally neutral position may no longer be viable.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Is Oman losing its role?