Determinants of Oman’s Strategic Position on the Gulf Crisis

As a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Sultanate of Oman is not immune to the council’s troubles, including the ongoing crisis that began in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt severed relations with Qatar and imposed a land, air, and sea blockade on the peninsular nation. Neither is Oman capable of completely ignoring whatever negative political, economic, security, and social repercussions that arise from the continued intra-GCC rift or the potential collapse of the alliance. What the sultanate seems to have opted to do in dealing with the crisis is to declare its neutrality, maintain economic ties with all GCC members, support Kuwaiti mediation efforts, and emphasize its customary independence in its foreign relations beyond the GCC.

Privately, however, Omani decision-makers cannot but see folly in how the crisis was precipitated and sustained and how a similar development could, at any time, be justified against their own country. They also know that the UAE-sponsored hacking of the Qatar News Agency and the spreading of false news attributed to Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, can be easily repeated. After all, Oman has had open diplomatic relations with Iran for decades, a major sin Qatar is accused of committing. The sultanate was also a perpetual odd man out, pushing back at GCC meetings on quickening the pace of political integration—never mind that not many others were too enthusiastic about such a prospect. Its foreign policy approach of strategic hedging, as in Qatar’s case, helped Oman build good relations with many external actors to balance out regional pressures.

Oman’s Response to the Qatar Crisis

It is unfortunate that in today’s Gulf relations, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the putative UAE leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, operate according to the principle of “if you are not with us, you are against us.” In this atmosphere, it would not be inaccurate to state that Oman’s neutrality becomes an act of support for Qatar. Subsequently, the strident Saudi and Emirati push to further isolate Qatar and cause it more economic and social pain could potentially include unpleasant developments with Oman, not only to sanction its current stance but also to settle old scores. Although antagonizing Muscat at present may not be in the interest of overstretched Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, this does not obviate Oman’s need to protect its independent decision-making or decrease its vigilance. Oman’s continued strategic hedging includes furthering economic and strategic ties with a wide range of countries including Iran, India, Pakistan, the United States, and the United Kingdom, among others.

When the GCC crisis began last June, it was not surprising that Oman did not join the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini-Egyptian diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. Muscat’s striving to maintain a neutral stance within the GCC had long been, and remains, a firm characteristic of its foreign policy, coupled with a stubborn adherence to what best serves its independence and economic well-being. Throughout the crisis, Oman has tried to exercise marginal involvement, entrusting Kuwait to lead a rigorous mediation effort that, to the chagrin of Omanis and Kuwaitis alike, has thus far produced no tangible results—despite an active and personal role by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. And as if the futility of the mediation––given Saudi and Emirati intransigence––were not enough, the UAE preempted last December’s annual GCC summit meeting with an announcement about the creation of a new Saudi-Emirati political and military entente that represents, at the very least, a challenge to the cohesion and viability of the old GCC.

On the other hand, a clear indication of Oman’s true stance regarding the crisis has been evident in the practical steps it has taken, especially in economic relations, which have also been in line with its own interests. That Qatar needed alternative sources of foodstuffs and other goods, which it had secured through its land route from Saudi Arabia before the crisis, was a well-established and poignant fact. Thus, Oman’s role in this regard was strategically pivotal for Qatar and politically telling as to how the sultanate has positioned itself in this crisis.

Reports on the GCC crisis have pointed out that trade relations between Qatar and Oman following the June breakup have soared. Estimates in early December 2017 indicated that transactions between the two countries increased by 2,000 percent over the previous three months, “reflecting hundreds of millions of dollars in trade.” Omani food products, consumer goods, and construction materials quickly supplanted those from Saudi Arabia. Since the start of the crisis, Oman has also acted as a transshipment hub of cargo and people bound for Qatar to supplement the services of Qatari ships and aircraft, which have been barred from crossing Saudi and Emirati territorial waters and airspace. New sea lanes were inaugurated and put to immediate use for vessels carrying hundreds of containers between the Omani Sohar and Salalah seaports and the new Hamad port in Doha. Omani and Qatari investors have also increased their cooperation since the early days of the crisis. While these trade relations have benefited Qatar and helped it withstand the debilitating siege, they have been no less than a boon for the Omani economy.

To be sure, Muscat’s economic behavior toward Doha illustrates its displeasure with the ongoing GCC rift. Oman has also advanced its freedom of action by continuing peaceful overtures and cooperation with Iran, even while Tehran was voicing its opposition to the anti-Qatar blockade. Oman looks west and east to cement old alliances and partnerships. The United Kingdom still counts on the sultanate to play its mediation role in humanitarian and financial matters. Oman has also signed agreements to allow the British Navy to use the new Duqm Port. In addition, the Trump Administration is looking to the sultanate to play a more active role in mediating the GCC crisis, although it is also asking Muscat to help challenge Iranian designs in the region. Finally, Oman is open to expanded and more fruitful relations with India, Pakistan, and southeast Asian nations.

The Gulf Crisis and Omani Concerns

In a region suffering from difficult security challenges, Oman simply cannot afford to upend decades of cautious foreign policy behavior. Neither can it ignore the serious repercussions that could accrue from ill-advised decisions about a number of important issues.

First, Yemen arguably represents a most serious challenge, with a civil war among myriad political formations and between some of these and a Saudi-led coalition supposedly helping to restore the legitimate rule of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Ironically, Yemen is also where contradictory Saudi Arabian and Emirati calculations of strategic import clash. As Riyadh ostensibly tries to help restore Hadi’s authority, Abu Dhabi funds and supports southern Yemeni secessionists planning to part ways with Sanaa. Finally, Yemen is home to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has no qualms about extending its writ to coveted areas in southern Oman should Omani security forces be weak. In this atmosphere, it is no wonder that Oman’s policy-makers are cautious about any foreign policy choice that may result in their flagrant siding with this or that camp in the GCC crisis, a situation that could distract them from securing their country’s safety.

Second, with the Trump Administration’s dangerous rhetoric about, and behavior toward, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the similar fever pitch from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Oman finds itself at the center of a dispute that is neither of its own making nor in its interest. Vigilance in this specific issue necessitates cautionary notes to Washington, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi that saber rattling may quickly become saber wielding. Simultaneously, however, Muscat’s prudent vigilance requires a good degree of transparency with Tehran about its behavior in the Gulf, Yemen, and the Levant. Above all, as mediator and neutral party Oman must emphasize the need for cooperation in the service of regional security, if for nothing else but the security of shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz. Additionally, Oman has acted, and continues to be asked to act, as a mediator between the West and Iran on strategic matters, like its nuclear program, and humanitarian concerns, such as the release of individuals incarcerated by Iran. Thus, taking sides in any regional matter, principally the GCC crisis, would deprive the sultanate of its role as mediator and threaten its own well-formulated interests.

Third, while Oman has not been enthusiastic about pushing forward the idea of Arab Gulf integration and has opposed proposals leading to the GCC’s political union, it nonetheless values collective action for the benefit of all GCC states and their citizens. In this spirit, it cannot be pleased that the current GCC rift has entered its eighth month, especially since it was exposed early on as starting with a cyber-attack on Qatar’s sovereignty and independence. Oman is also concerned that smaller and less powerful GCC states can be subject to unwanted, and unwarranted, interference by larger sisters. Indeed, if anything, the GCC crisis has justified to Omani policy-makers their aloof approach to integrative action within the GCC, one that could subjugate some to the will and whims of others. Perhaps the default Omani position of assisting in Kuwait’s mediation, remaining on good terms with the anti-Qatar coalition, and enhancing relations with Qatar is the best translation of Muscat’s understanding of the GCC as an alliance to secure unity of purpose—but simultaneously to safeguard the right to diversity when that is warranted.

Fourth, and finally, Oman’s stance regarding the GCC crisis may be the best foreign policy response to a domestic worry: the fate of succession to Sultan Qaboos bin Said. As the country prepares for the post-Qaboos future, aligning with this or that state in the GCC may muddy waters and complicate a successor’s mission. It is not difficult to fathom that some GCC states may prefer a certain outcome over another in the succession process. And Omanis are patently aware that the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini rift with Qatar may at least partly have been brought about by an attempt at regime change in Doha. While no one knows whether outsiders’ preferences would impose themselves on Oman’s succession and the identity of the successor, the sultanate is well-advised to avoid entanglements that could make interference possible.

The Ever-Present Trepidation about the United States

While striving to assure its independent foreign policy vis-à-vis its GCC partners and others, Oman remains wary of a Trump Administration that does not seem to possess a clear-eyed vision of what to do about the Gulf crisis in order to protect its relations and interests. Nor is Washington sufficiently concerned about the festering Yemeni crisis. Oman is also alert regarding President Trump’s treatment of all affairs Iranian, a policy that drives Muscat to be even more vigilant than it has ever been before.

Omani policymakers are mindful that President Trump was the first to support the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini rift with Qatar and to accuse the latter of financing terrorism. They are also aware of reports of possible collusion between the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Mohammed bin Salman against Qatar. That the president seems to have changed his stance toward a more even-handed approach to all GCC members and has encouraged Omani mediation cannot be enough of a consolation, considering Trump’s mercurial opining about foreign policy in general. Oman indeed cannot be sure that his position about the GCC crisis is firm or that he might not one day dispatch a disturbing tweet upending the work that his Departments of State and Defense have done to de-escalate tensions in the region.

Omanis are also worried about the absence of the United States from a serious effort to find an acceptable peaceful solution to the crisis in Yemen, about which they are constantly apprehensive. What they see is continued American military support to the Saudi and Emirati war efforts against the Houthis, with whom Oman has been able to build relations that it could utilize as a mediator. What perhaps is most disturbing to Muscat are Saudi and Emirati accusations that Oman is allowing the smuggling of weapons to the Houthis. American pressure to lessen Omani-Iranian contacts, including those concerning Yemen, is also irritating. In this environment, Oman hopes to be able to mediate, with Saudi Arabia’s support, between the Houthis and President Hadi. But for that to happen, it will require American help—which may not be forthcoming until the Trump Administration changes its approach to the Yemen war.

Finally, policy-makers in Oman would like to find a working formula for de-escalation between the United States and Iran. They estimate that Washington’s continuing belligerent rhetoric toward the Islamic Republic and threats to the nuclear deal of 2015 may lead to unwanted developments; indeed, the victims would be Oman and the rest of the GCC countries. Tangentially, they reckon that the current American discourse may be encouraging a false impression in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that their own tough talk against Iran is fully backed by the United States. The truth, however, is that no policy-maker with any wisdom can rely on steadiness, fortitude, or leadership from the Trump Administration.