Giorgio Cafiero and Adam Yefet
Mr. Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Mr. Yefet is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics.
Shortly after the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU) in June's historic Brexit referendum, there was much social-media buzz about the Sultanate of Oman holding its own "Oxit" referendum. The chatter followed a statement from the Foreign Ministry hailing the Brits' "courageous decision to leave the EU" and a remark from Ishaq al-Siyabi, former vice-president of the Shura Council, who expressed his hope that the sultanate would hold a Brexit-like vote to determine Oman's future in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).1 Al-Siyabi declared that the Saudi-led institution "hasn't achieved all [its] goals in the past years and the GCC people do not feel the direct results of that amid the security and political differences between the Gulf states."2
The ministry quickly dismissed the rumors of an Oxit as mere "street talk," declaring that the GCC is "moving in the direction of unified processes and the strengthening of ties for the longer term."3 But why did al-Siyabi call for such a referendum? It is useful to take stock of the geopolitical context. Not only is Oman a particularly close Gulf Arab ally of London's, giving Muscat officials incentive to appear supportive of the "will of the people" in the UK; the comment also sheds light on Oman's foreign policy, which often operates outside of the Saudi-led GCC's framework.
Below the surface, Oman's independent approach to international and regional affairs has caused tensions within the GCC over the years. Saudi officials have sometimes accused the sultanate of undermining the council's collective interests by breaking ranks with Riyadh and other Gulf Arab capitals on regional issues such as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
It is no secret, for example, that Oman's recent service as a diplomatic backchannel between Washington and Tehran — which ultimately led to last year's watershed passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — angered the Saudis. Riyadh interpreted the sultanate's hosting of secret talks between Washington and Tehran officials as dismissive of the other GCC states' security considerations.4 One month after global powers and Iran reached the interim nuclear agreement in November 2013, GCC officials met in Bahrain and discussed Riyadh's call for upgrading the GCC from a council into a "union." Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi voiced Muscat's blunt opposition to the idea, stating that Oman is "against a union" yet had no intentions of preventing the other five Gulf Arab states from forming one.5
AN INDEPENDENT FOREIGN POLICY
Unlike other Gulf Arab states, which have to various extents lined up with Saudi Arabia on regional crises, Oman has maintained neutrality and cordial relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Muscat was the center of direct and secret JCPOA negotiations between officials from Washington and Tehran as early as 2012.6 Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the useful role Oman played in the JCPOA's watershed passage last year; the State Department began pursuing the Omani channel only four months after President Barack Obama took office in 2009.7
As to Syria, Oman was the only GCC member to maintain diplomatic relations with Damascus after the "Arab Spring" erupted in 2011, and — unlike Doha and Riyadh — Muscat has not armed any groups in the civil war.8 Foreign Minister Alawi has traveled to Syria for talks with President Bashar al-Assad, and met with representatives of both Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and the head of Syria's political opposition in Muscat in efforts to advance ceasefire negotiations.9 In Yemen, Oman was the only GCC state that stayed out of the Saudi-led "Operation Decisive Storm" campaign. Since May 2015, the Omanis have played a mediating role in the conflict by hosting talks in Muscat between warring factions.10 In 2011, Oman — unlike Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — did not intervene (directly or indirectly) in the Libyan crisis, but instead has hosted talks in the sultanate between warring factions to help broker peace in the beleaguered North African nation.11
Oman was the only Gulf Arab nation that did not join Saudi Arabia's Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, announced by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last December.12 The following month, Oman was the only GCC member to take no diplomatic action against the Islamic Republic after hundreds of Iranians attacked Riyadh's embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad following the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. Muscat officials did, however, condemn the "unacceptable" violence.13
The differences between Muscat and Riyadh's foreign policies vis-à-vis Iran and Tehran's regional allies are largely an outcome of divergent understandings of the Iranian "threat." From Muscat's perspective, it is better to address problems in relations with Iran through dialogue and compromise, rather than hostility and aggression. Lacking a rebellious Shiite minority, Sultan Qaboos never saw the Islamic Republic as an existential threat to Oman's Al Said rulers.14 And, having embraced neutrality in the Iran-Iraq War, Oman was able to maintain Muscat's cordial ties with Iran following the turmoil of 1979, unlike other GCC states whose relations with Tehran quickly deteriorated after the revolution.15
Oman, like other smaller Gulf Arab states, also sees many economic advantages to ties with post-sanctions Iran, particularly in the gas, logistics and tourism sectors. Muscat's and Riyadh's opposite reactions to the JCPOA's passage have underscored major differences between Omani and Saudi foreign-policy strategies and views of Iran. Despite providing an official lukewarm endorsement of the agreement, the Saudis have spent this year reacting to the JCPOA's implementation by urging and pressuring their allies into backing the kingdom's efforts to isolate Iran, while using the kingdom's leverage to retard the partial thaw in U.S.-Iran relations. The Omanis have been eagerly awaiting their "peace dividend" from the JCPOA.
Since global powers began lifting sanctions on Tehran, Oman and Iran have deepened bilateral economic ties, capitalizing on efforts that preceded the JCPOA's passage. Hassan Rouhani's first official trip to the GCC as president of Iran was to Oman in March 2014. While meeting with Sultan Qaboos in Muscat, Iranian and Omani officials signed an agreement to build an LNG (liquefied natural gas) pipeline connecting Iran's Hormuzgan province with Sohar, Oman.16 The pipeline, scheduled to begin exporting Iranian gas to Oman in 2019, could see Iran replace Saudi Arabia as the sultanate's main LNG supplier.17 Although there is some disappointment among officials in Muscat, who think their counterparts in Tehran are moving too slowly on this project, companies are now bidding on contracts to build the pipeline.
In March, Oman announced that it will be issuing 1,000 visas to Iranians for business purposes and also hosted a delegation of Iranian investors at its Innovation Park Muscat to highlight potential investment opportunities.18 In June 2016, a second daily Oman-Iran flight from Muscat to Mashhad began service. Next year, an Iranian company will begin producing cars at a factory in Oman's port city of Duqm, situated along the country's Arabian Sea coast.19 Iran's largest automotive company, Iran Khodro Co., intends to produce 20,000 units at this plant within the next two years and export 15,000 to markets in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Yemen, underscoring Duqm's role as an important stepping stone for Iran to Africa.20 Iran's plans for investing in Oman also entail building a hospital complex and a nanotechnology plant.21
Last December, Iranian state-owned media reported that Oman and Iran had concluded their fifth joint naval exercise in their shared Strait of Hormuz since Muscat and Tehran signed an MOU for military cooperation in 2013.22 The Iranian navy's First Zone Rear Admiral Hossein Azad explained that the drill was aimed at enhancing security for vessels, cargo ships and oil tankers transiting the artery. The two countries' commitment to holding joint naval exercises dates back to August 2010, when the two governments signed an agreement to cooperate in patrolling the Strait of Hormuz.23
Analysts have warned that by deepening energy, security, diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran, the sultanate risks drifting too far away from Saudi Arabia's geopolitical orbit, raising questions about Oman's standing in the GCC. However, Oman is not attempting to replace its Gulf Arab allies with Iran. To the contrary, Muscat is committed to growing its relationship with Tehran while remaining a loyal GCC member and Saudi ally, as confirmed by the Foreign Ministry's recent dispelling of "Oxit" rumors.
In the security sphere, Oman has continued to work with its fellow GCC states, at times siding with Saudi Arabia on issues regarding Iranian/Shiite influence. Despite not being a member of Saudi Arabia's Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, in February and March, Oman participated in the Saudi-led North Thunder military exercise held in Hafr Al-Batin, Saudi Arabia.24 North Thunder was aimed at increasing the level of combat readiness on the part of the six GCC states and 14 other Muslim countries allied with Riyadh, marking the largest multinational military exercise in world history and a symbolic demonstration of Arab/Islamic unity under Saudi leadership. However, for Oman, participating in North Thunder was likely a message of support for countering Sunni fundamentalist groups such as Daesh and al-Qaeda rather than joining Riyadh's sectarian campaign to eject Iranian/Shiite influence from Sunni Arab countries.
That same month, the sultanate was in lock-step with the other five GCC states when Muscat designated Lebanese Hezbollah a terrorist organization, a move on Oman's part that was unlikely to have sat well with officials in Tehran.25 In the case of Hezbollah, although the Shiite group has no branch in Oman, Muscat — unlike Doha — does not support Islamist non-state actors in the region, regardless of their sectarian identity.26 While Oman usually does not take sides in the Arab world's sectarian conflicts, Muscat's joining the GCC consensus on Hezbollah must be analyzed within the context of Oman's asserting its opposition to Islamist militias, not Iranian/Shiite influence.
Bahrain is another geopolitical flashpoint in the region where Muscat aligns more closely with Riyadh than with Tehran. Since the Shiite-led Arab Spring uprising erupted in 2011, Oman has supported the Al Khalifa regime in Manama. According to Kenneth Katzman, senior analyst at the Congressional Research Service, "Oman supported the GCC consensus to send forces from the GCC joint 'Peninsula Shield' unit into Bahrain on March 14, 2011, to provide backing to the regime's overwhelmed security forces, although Oman did not deploy any of its forces to the mission."27
GCC STAKES POST-QABOOS
With virtually all power concentrated in Sultan Qaboos's hands and no officially designated successor, experts question whether the next sultan will possess enough legitimacy given that there is no strong "number two" official or heir apparent. Whereas successors have recently smoothly ascended to power in the other GCC members (Saudi Arabia in 2015, Qatar in 2013, Kuwait in 2006, the UAE in 2004, Bahrain in 1999), Sultan Qaboos has been at the helm since 1970, when he rose to power in a British-backed bloodless palace coup.28 Oman's codified law on succession is filled with risks, according to analysts who argue that disagreement within the royal Al Said family, the military, the police and the economic elite about who should become the next ruler could undermine prospects for a peaceful transition. Pundits often raise the possibility that a succession crisis could undermine the state's stability.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, wants to preserve warm relations with post-Qaboos Oman to ensure the sultanate does not drift too far into Iran's orbit. As a member of the GCC, Arab League and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Oman shares many regional and global interests with Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni states of the western Persian Gulf. It is unlikely that the other GCC states would take diplomatic action against Oman, as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE did against Qatar during the council's crisis of March 2014.29 The Saudis have never threatened to blockade Oman as punishment for Muscat's independent foreign policy, though they have threatened Qatar.30
Given certain unknown variables surrounding Oman's post-Qaboos transition, however, it will be critical to observe the GCC's actions vis-à-vis Muscat once the throne is vacant. In January 2011, Oman announced the uncovering of a UAE spy network in the sultanate following the arrest of several Emirati citizens, allegedly seeking intelligence on Oman's government and military.31 Although authorities in the UAE firmly denied Muscat's allegations, the Emiratis may have been seeking more information about Omani-Iranian security cooperation, according to analysts.
Among numerous other issues, Saudi Arabia's long-term energy plans factor into Riyadh's interests in post-Qaboos Oman. Last year, Joke Buringa, a senior adviser in the Netherlands' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained how Riyadh's concerns about Tehran's blockading the Strait of Hormuz prompted the kingdom to seek an oil pipeline through Yemen's wealthiest and largest governorate of Hadhramaut.32 A Wikileaks cable from 2008 confirmed Riyadh's interest in constructing a pipeline linking the kingdom to the Gulf of Aden that is "wholly owned, operated and protected by Saudi Arabia."33 Last month, Christian Lin, a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), argued that this pipeline ambition was a primary Saudi motive for waging a military campaign against the Houthi rebels, as well as a main reason why the Gulf Arab militaries have not bombed Hadhramaut, despite al-Qaeda's takeover of the territory.34
Given Yemen's state of turmoil, the construction of this pipeline cannot be expected in the immediate future. This increases the strategic value of the Omani port city of Duqm to the Saudis and Emiratis, who have started to pursue plans to link their countries' roads, railways and pipelines to Duqm.35 In other words, just as Duqm serves Iran's interests in terms of accessing new markets on several continents, the other GCC members view the port as a safe point of access to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz. This is an example of Oman's strategy of playing its larger neighbors' opposing interests against each other to the sultanate's advantage. Ultimately, the Saudis have a vested interest in seeing Oman's stability outlive Sultan Qaboos. They already have two failed states on their northern and southern borders, Iraq and Yemen.
The Sultanate of Oman is frequently little more than an afterthought in discussions about the Middle East. However, Muscat plays an important, albeit overlooked, role in the region's geopolitical order as a diplomatic bridge between Riyadh and Tehran. Indeed, Oman has long stood out as an oasis of stability and a mediator between Saudi Arabia and its Western allies on one side, and Iran on the other.
Although under the leadership of Sultan Qaboos Oman has skillfully navigated the Middle East's geopolitical fault lines, the sultanate is likely to find itself under pressure from both the Saudi-led GCC and Iran. As Sultan Qaboos is 75 and ailing, Oman's future is becoming a topic of concern. It will be important to observe how Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Tehran reach out to the next sultan to lure the sultanate closer to the Gulf Arab nations or to maintain and strengthen Muscat's "special relationship" with the Islamic Republic.
As for speculation about Oman's leaving the GCC, it is doubtful that Muscat officials have designed any plans for an "Oxit." Al-Siyabi's remark was likely intended to deliver a sharp message to the GCC: Muscat disapproves of Saudi Arabia's regional foreign policy as articulated in the "Salman Doctrine," and sees it as destabilizing. The message to Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states is that Oman believes the council's approach to mitigating the threat posed by Iran and its Shiite allies is dangerously misguided. As there will eventually be a new sultan on the throne, Muscat wants its Gulf Arab neighbors to know that Oman will uphold its uniquely independent foreign policy and reject outside meddling in the sultanate's domestic affairs. However, this does not spell an "Oxit."
1 "Oman 'Not leaving the GCC': Official," Gulf News, June 27, 2016.
4 "Iran and Oman Hold Joint Naval Exercises," Middle East Eye, April 8, 2014.
5 "Oman Goes Blunt 'Against' a Gulf Union," Al Arabiya, December 7, 2016.
6 "The Omani 'Back Channel' to Iran and the Secrecy Surrounding the Nuclear Deal," Washington Post, June 7, 2016.
8 "Can Oman Become a Key Player in The Syrian Crisis?" Middle East Eye, August 12, 2015.
9 "Omani Minister Holds Talks with Assad in Damascus," The National, October 27, 2015; "Damascus, Muscat to 'Unite' Efforts to End Syria War," Channel News Asia, August 6, 2015; and "Omani FM Meets Syria's Assad as Flurry of Diplomacy Continues," Deutsche Welle, October 26, 2015.
10 "Interview — Yemen Combatants Not Ready for Talks, Says Neighbour Oman," Thompson Reuters, April 2, 2015; and "Minister Highlights Oman's Role in Yemen Talks," Gulf News, May 19, 2016.
11 "Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy," Congressional Research Service, April 26, 2016; and "UN Lauds Oman for Libya Talks," Oman Tribune, June 28, 2016.
12 "Saudis Announce Islamic Anti-Terrorism Coalition," BBC News, December 15, 2015.
13 "Saudi Mission Attacks in Iran Are 'Unacceptable,' Says Oman," The National, January 6, 2016.
14 "Is Sectarian Balance in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar at Risk?" American Enterprise Institute, October 21, 2013.
15 "Oman: A Unique Foreign Policy Produces a Key Player in Middle Eastern and Global Diplomacy," RAND Corporation, 1995.
16 "Iran Says Seals Gas Export Deal with Oman," Thompson Reuters, March 12, 2014.
17 "Oman to Speed Up Gas Import Plans from Iran Post-Sanctions," Thompson Reuters, January 21, 2016.
18 "Oman-Iran Trade: 1,000 Visas to be Issued per Year," Oman Daily Observer, March 24, 2016; and "Oman Offers Iranian Delegation Investment Opportunities," Times of Oman, March 4, 2016.
19 "Iran to Begin Producing Cars in Oman in 2017," Press TV, March 28, 2016.
20 "Iran Khodro Targets Africa with Oman Plant," Press TV, May 26, 2016.
21 "Iran to 'Repay' Oman for Role in Nuclear Deal," Gulf News, January 22, 2016.
22 "Iran-Oman Joint Naval Drills Underway in Persian Gulf," Sputnik News, December 23, 2015.
23 "Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy," Congressional Research Service, April 26, 2016.
24 "Saudi Arabia Launches 'North Thunder' Military Drill with Troops from 20 Nations," Independent, February 15, 2016.
25 "Gulf Arab States Label Hezbollah a Terrorist Organizations," Thompson Reuters, March 2, 2016.
26 "Is Sectarian Balance in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar at Risk?" American Enterprise Institute, October 21, 2013.
27 "Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy," Congressional Research Service, April 26, 2016.
28 "Salman Ascends Throne to Become Saudi King," New York Times, January 22, 2015; "Qatar's Emir Transfers Power to Son," Aljazeera, June 25, 2013; "Kuwait's New Emir Sworn In," NBC News, January 29, 2006; "UAE Leader Chosen after Ruler's Death," CNN, November 2, 2004; and "Bahrain: Key Issues for U.S. Policy," Congressional Research Service, March 24, 2005.
29 "Gulf Ambassadors Pulled from Qatar over 'Interference,'" BBC News, March 5, 2014.
30 "Saudi Threatens to Block Qatar's Land, Sea Borders," Arabian Business, March 10, 2014.
31 "Oman Uncovers 'UAE Spy Network,'" Al Jazeera, January 30, 2011.
32 "Saudi Arabia and Turkey's Pipeline Wars in Yemen and Syria," Asia Times, June 12, 2016.
33 Yemen's Big Brother: What Has Saudi Arabia Done for Yemen Lately?" WikiLeaks, June 18, 2008.
34 "Saudi Arabia and Turkey's Pipeline Wars in Yemen and Syria," Asia Times, June 12, 2016.
35 "Sleepy No More," The Economist, April 6, 2013.