Small state diplomacy: Oman’s Abrahamic test of faith

Small state diplomacy: Oman’s Abrahamic test of faith

Oman’s first leadership transition in five decades may have changed in its strictly neutral outlook.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Oman’s official support for the Abraham Accords indicates that it may be following the UAE and Bahrain to fully normalise relations with Israel — a move that could undermine its role as the Gulf region’s mediator.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Oman’s jealous protection of its autonomy suggests that accession to the Accords will be motivated by a desire for regional stability and not an ambition for closer alignment with the West or the Gulf states
– Iran is unlikely to react violently to Oman’s accession to the deal given their strategic interdependence in the Straits of Hormuz
– Oman’s recent change in leadership may move its foreign policy beyond the decades of static relations with Tehran, but Muscat is unlikely to simply become another cog in the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran

IS NUMBER FIVE LIKELY?

Oman has been the understated interlocutor in most peaceful transitions and agreements in the Middle East. It has capitalised on small state diplomacy to mediate tensions between the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran — tensions that have contributed to protracted conflicts in the region. This year saw the landmark Abraham Accords, driven by the US, where two more Arab states — the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain — fully normalised relations with Israel, which has historically had difficult relations with the Arab world. Four Arab countries have now buried the hatchet with Israel, prompting the question of whether Oman will be next.

Oman’s strategic advantage comes from its ‘omni-enmeshment’: it remains broadly non-partisan and maintaining this stance was the priority of the late Sultan Qaboos’ regime. However, full normalisation of relations with Israel, while giving the veneer of greater Arab solidarity, has the potential to hurt the relationship that Oman has cultivated with Iran. This is because the Abraham Accords were signed in solidarity to balance against Tehran’s growing influence in the region — the Arab world seems to have substituted Israel with Iran as the region’s bad actor. Signing the accords would be a calculated risk for Oman, as it may prompt an Iranian backlash. Fraying Iranian-Omani ties would also mean the loss of a crucial mediator that external actors have to come to rely on when tempering hostilities in the Middle East.

THE MIDDLE EAST’S SWITZERLAND

Photo: HMHaithamBinTariqAlSaid / Facebook

Oman and Iran share responsibility for the Straits of Hormuz, a critical shipping route for Gulf state crude oil. Free and unhindered shipping remains a priority for Oman, and Muscat’s policy has historically focused on maintaining the trade route.

Regionally, Oman has never drawn clear lines about its loyalties to the Arab world. It has seemed more concerned with regional stability than the bilateral feuds between the Arab states. For example, when Egypt was shunned by the Arab League for signing a peace accord with Israel in 1978, Muscat maintained relations with Cairo. Oman was also one of the key drivers of the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which insulated it from the chaos erupting between Iran and Iraq in the Persian Gulf during the 1980-1988 conflict. Indeed, Omani representatives to the UN were pivotal in brokering peace talks between the combatants and it expedited the negotiations for finding a suitable financial aid package to Tehran.

To the chagrin of many of its Arab neighbours, Oman was also responsible for facilitating the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the Iran nuclear deal). It lent its offices to the negotiation and remains committed to maintaining backchannel diplomacy for the US and Iran following US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in May 2018. More recently, Oman was the perfect pick as neutral ground to enable quiet diplomacy following the US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Iranian elite Quds forces. It was the only mediator that had engendered trust in both the US and Iran and that could persuade both parties to the negotiating table. It has also frequently hosted negotiations on the conflict in Yemen.

Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman avoided the turbulence that emerged from the Arab Spring. It stood on the sidelines of the wars in Yemen and Libya, facilitating peace but never aligning with any side. Qaboos cherished Oman’s role in the GCC but categorically torpedoed the idea of an integrated Gulf Union. For example, he rejected the blockade of Qatar despite the Saudi and UAE-led push to alienate Qatar. However, with the death of ascension Qaboos and the ascension of his chosen successor, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, it remains to be seen how the new ruler will make the state vision his own. Qaboos laid the groundwork for peace with Israel when he received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat in 2018, with all the dignity befitting a long-time ally. Oman technically does not need to make official the relationship it has enjoyed with Israel in secret all these years. However, with the government’s official endorsement of the Abraham Accords and the public way that statement was disseminated, Sultan Haitham appears determined to break off from the former status quo of stasis and routine that characterised the Qaboos era. Although it appears unlikely that he will deviate from the Omani credo of ‘peaceful coexistence’, expect Sultan Haitham to actively carve out space for his own legacy and progeny to shape a more politically active Oman.

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Photo: The U.S. Army/Flickr

The fear of reprisals from Iran has been cited as a potential impediment to Muscat signing the accords. Oman enjoys a special relationship with Iran as a counterweight to the Gulf states and also because it co-operates the Straits of Hormuz with Tehran. There’s also a historical sense of loyalty to Tehran for its aid during the 1970s when it helped quell the Dhofar rebellion, strengthening Sultan Qaboos’ reign. But with Sultan Haitham in charge, Oman has already begun to pivot: veteran foreign affairs minister Yusuf bin Alawi — the embodiment of Oman’s quiet diplomacy — was recently dismissed. However, it appears unlikely that Iran will react strongly even if Oman does normalise relations with Israel. While Tehran has been vocal against the Western courting of the other Gulf states, it deliberately avoids rattling Oman; this is in service of protecting its own interests, as Oman remains Tehran’s window to the outside world and a beachhead against Gulf unity.

Conversely, if Oman signs the accords, this is unlikely to translate into a closer Western/Gulf alignment. Normalisation with Israel may simply be cosmetic and may not be mutually exclusive with ongoing backdoor channels with Tehran. Furthermore, Oman’s endorsement of the UAE’s deal with Israel or its own decision to sign onto the accords will likely be in service of regional stability rather than any bilateral support. Omani-Emirati relations have been strained due to the UAE trying to exert influence over Muscat for years. Oman publicly uncovered Emirati spy rings in 2010 and again in 2019, and border tensions are well documented. Emirati and Saudi incursions in Yemen have also unsettled Oman, which fears being boxed in militarily from the west or from Dhofar in the south.

While Muscat does show signs of moving away from strict neutrality with Sultan Haitham’s response to the Abraham Accords, it is no more likely to do Tehran’s bidding against Washington and its partners than it is to do Washington’s bidding against Tehran. Hence, while it may appear that the accords would erode Oman’s credibility as a mediator in conflicts involving Iran, this is unlikely. However, if Oman acquiesces to the US-led maximum pressure campaign against Iran — or is seen to do so — then it may risk alienating Tehran. This would mean the loss of a valuable ally to the US in constraining Iranian aggression in the region. Oman has consistently expressed disapproval for Iranian-led attacks on Saudi Arabian oil resources, offered to help set up talks and has withheld support for either side in GCC disputes. Without this bastion for regional stability, the US-Iran-Saudi dynamic may become even more explosive.