In the Lion’s Den: Oman’s Foreign Policy, Part 1

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Oman is a name that few would recognise, unfamiliar to many and difficult to find on a map. To those somewhat familiar with geography, images of an antique, “exotic” desert might appear in one’s mind. However, upon a deeper examination, it becomes clear that this small country located on the fringes of the Arabian Peninsula possesses an interesting and rather significant footprint on the politics of the modern Middle East. Perhaps most intriguing is the recent visit between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said.1.“Israel’s Netanyahu meets Sultan Qaboos in surprise Oman trip” : Al Jazeera Although it appears that this meeting is simply one of several surprise visits between Israel and various Arab-Muslim states, this trip to Oman is not unique.2.“Israeli Minister Tours Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque Days After Netanyahu Visits Oman” : Haaretz In fact, in December 1994, Oman hosted a visit between Sultan Qaboos and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.3.“Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy” : Congressional Research Service This was followed by another bilateral meeting between Qaboos and Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1996.4.“Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy”: Congressional Research Service While these overt meetings may seem incongruent with the ideas of the Arab-Israeli conflict, one must consider these events within the framework of Oman’s geopolitical and geostrategic goals.

When examined in this light, a different picture emerges. Oman, unlike many of its contemporary neighbors, has been viewed by scholars as a stable nation and is often touted as being the mediator of conflicts in the Middle East.5.Joseph A. Kechichian, “Oman: A Unique Foreign Policy Produces a Key Player in Middle Eastern and Global Diplomacy”. The Rand Corporation With this context in mind, these meetings with Israeli delegations become only a minute act within Oman’s long-standing policy of foreign neutrality and diplomatic openness. Throughout its history, Oman has stood on the sidelines with pragmatic policy and careful strategy, opting for example to provide medical assistance and establish peace negotiations in Yemen rather than participate in the Saudi-led “Peninsula Shield” coalition.6.“UN: Oman ‘pivotal’ for Yemen peace” : Middle East Monitor In addition, Oman has maintained open diplomatic channels between itself and Iran, putting itself at odds with other members of the GCC.7.“Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy” : Congressional Research Service Oman is a nation that operates in many dimensions and can be best defined as a country following the policy of its sultan. However, these policy decisions are not shaped by the whims of a despot acting irrationally. Rather, they are defined by realistic geopolitical concerns that face Oman to the present day. In this article series, we will be examining Oman’s geopolitical challenges and goals. From there, we will take a glance at several major historical events that directly impacted Oman and analyse how Omani foreign policy to these events reflect the country’s geopolitical aspirations.

The Geographic Dilemma

Figure 1: Political map of Oman and its relation to the wider Middle East. Source: Google Maps.

The country of Oman is situated in the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, bordered by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E) to the north, Yemen to the west, and Saudi Arabia to the northwest. Its interior is defined by two (though some scholars argue that there are three) major regions: Muscat, the northern coastal plain straddling the Al-Hajar Mountains, and Oman proper, the main desert interior that borders the Rub al-Khali Desert.8.Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 90. Historically, the region’s placement in the Arabian Sea meant that it was in prime positioning for trade, as caravans from Syria and Iraq would make their way down to Oman before heading off to Indian and East African markets.9.Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 261. The coastlines of Muscat are home to natural deep-water ports and in 1552 CE, Muscat was captured by the Portuguese in order to use such ports for their own colonial ambitions.10.Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 243. In the mid-1600s, Oman once again asserted independence, and despite new European trade routes rising in the 1700s, Omani merchants maintained a strong a presence in Indian Ocean trade and Oman itself became a colonial power in East Africa.11.Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples. By the early 1900s, Oman’s strategic positioning between Iran, which held oil owned by British Petroleum, and India, the Crown Jewel of Britain, resulted in an influx of British interference that would last until the 1970s.12.James L. Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, 123.

Figure 2: A detailed map of Oman’s Musandam Peninsula on the Strait of Hormuz. Source: Geocurrents.

Besides Oman’s mercantile positioning, the country holds two key elements that have defined its geopolitics. The first is Oman’s control over the Musandam Peninsula.13.“Oman’s Geographic Challenge” : Stratfor It is a strip of land that exists outside of the de jure Omani territory and is cut off by the U.A.E. save for its access to the sea. This gives the Omani Sultanate major political clout, as it owns the most significant choke point on the Strait of Hormuz. This point is key when one factors in the geographic situation of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. Much of the Saudi monarchy’s oil is derived from its eastern provinces and many tankers, consequently, must use the Strait of Hormuz to export their oil shipments out to foreign markets.14.“Saudis ‘foil oil facility attack'” : BBC News Iranian oil fields also use the Strait of Hormuz for their own transportation, and while much discussion has revolved around the Saudi-Iranian conflicts over the strait, few have touched upon Oman’s incredibly strategic positioning here.15.“Major Iranian Oilfields” by the University of Austin, Texas A quick look at Figure 3 can help illustrate the significance Oman’s position is and how valuable control over the Musandam Peninsula is.

Figure 3: A map of shipping routes in the Strait of Hormuz over a one-year duration. Source: Vox.

Oman’s second major consideration lies in its oil producing region. Located just across the border of Saudi Arabia, right next to the Rub al-Khali Desert, one can find many of Oman’s oil refineries and wells.16.“Oman’s Geographic Challenge” : Stratfor Oman is reported as being the seventh largest oil producer in the Middle East and the twentieth largest in the global market.17.“Oman Oil E&P” : Petroman A report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration noted that Omani oil production had “set a new record with annual total oil production in 2016 exceeding 1 million barrels per day (b/d)”.18.“Oman’s petroleum and other liquids production reached record levels in 2016”: U.S. Energy Information Administration Even more significant is the fact that Oman continues to not affiliate itself with OPEC, though it does at least claim support for the organisation.19.Member Countries of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.20.“Relationships built to last: OPEC Bulletin Commentary February 2018” : Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries publications

The Geopolitical Implications

Oman’s control over the Musandam Peninsula and its various oil basins has resulted in geopolitical concerns and security threats. These have manifested into diplomatic tensions between Oman and its immediate neighbors, which have ultimately shaped Oman’s current foreign policy. Its hold of the Musandam Peninsula puts Oman in direct conflict with the Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. All of these nations hold special interests in maintaining the open waterways of the Strait of Hormuz. Threats to close this waterway by Iran have been met with international concern and disapproval, but according to the Institute for National Security Studies, are effective measures at “[deterring] the international community from fulfilling its resolutions and [raising] the cost of any military confrontation with Iran”.21.Yoel Guzansky, “The Straits of Hormuz: Strategic Importance in Volatile Times”.  The Institute for National Security Studies Oman itself does not have the military or naval capacity to completely shut down the Strait of Hormuz, nor does such action align with its strategic interests. Rather, Omani policy lies in understanding this interplay between Oman and its larger, more belligerent neighbors. Conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran over this waterway is much more likely and as a result, Oman must establish a way of protecting itself from the crossfires. At the same time, this is complicated by territorial disputes between Oman and the UAE over the Musandam Peninsula which continue to flare up to the present day despite formal agreements made in 1998.22.“UAE angers Oman again by adding Musandam Governorate to Emirates map” : Middle East Monitor

Figure 4: A geographical map of Oman highlighting the flat deserts of the Rub al-Khali desert. Source: Google Maps.

A different geopolitical issue arises with Oman’s oil basins. Its proximity to Saudi Arabia has historically resulted in some level of Saudi interference in Oman’s domestic situation. One can trace this back to even before the discovery of oil in the region, with Oman using British assistance in the 1920s to deter Ibn Saud from aggressively expanding into the region.23.Kenneth M. Pollack, A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, xxx. In the 1940s, the discovery of oil in Oman resulted in Saudi Arabia disputing the Buraimi Oasis, which was then followed by Saudi support for oppositional forces during the Jabal al-Akhdar War of 1954-1959.24.Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 409. In fact, Saudi Arabia had supported the organisation as its main financier, while also providing munitions and supplies.25.“The Jebel Akhdar War Oman 1954-1959” : Global Security. This act of financing Omani oppositional forces also emerged in the Dhofar War of 1963-1976, where funding, vehicle procurement, and resource funneling to the Dhofar Liberation Front was initially started by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.26.John E. Peterson, Oman’s Insurgencies: The Sultanate’s Struggle for Supremacy. Although Saudi Arabian intervention has declined in more recent years, Oman’s oil positions are vulnerable. While the Rub al-Khali Desert operates as a natural barrier, it is relatively flat and does allow for relatively quick deployment of troops and vehicles should Saudi Arabia attempt to directly invade Oman.27.“The Empty Quarter” : Saudi Geological Survey Furthermore, Saudi Arabia continues to issue negative rhetoric towards Oman, with recent accusations charging Oman as being allied to the Houthi rebels of Yemen.28.“Yemen War and Qatar Crisis Challenge Oman’s Neutrality” : Middle East Institute

Oman’s Geostrategic Evolution

To combat these security risks, Sultan Qaboos has engaged in pragmatic foreign policy that pushes Oman to be friendly, or at the least neutral, with nearly every country it interacts with. The reign of Qaboos’s father, Sultan Said bin Taymur, was defined by more isolated relations that focused primarily on the United Kingdom and India as its primary partners.29.Joseph A. Kechichian, “Oman: A Unique Foreign Policy Produces a Key Player in Middle Eastern and Global Diplomacy”. The Rand Corporation. This switch has resulted Omani participation in multilateral organizations and new bilateral agreements. One can see this clearly in Oman’s decision to join the Arab League and the United Nations in 1971, a year after Sultan Qaboos successfully usurped the throne from his father.30.United Nations member states list.31.“Profile: Arab League – Timeline” : BBC News Since then, Oman has consistently participated in the international community, as evidenced by its myriad of international agreements and associations.32.“Agreements, Treaties, and Protocols” from the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs..

Figure 5: Sheikh Khalifa bin Ali bin lssa Al-Harthy, the Sultanate of Oman’s Permanent Representative in the United Nations with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Source: United Nations.

Oman remaining isolated from the world would mean that any nation could choose to undermine its domestic security, as was seen in the various attempts at Saudi intervention in Oman (this is coupled with Chinese, Soviet, and Egyptian meddling during the Dhofar War). Without strategic partners like the United Kingdom or more recently the United States, Oman would be left with a relatively small military confronting more assertive enemies. However, Oman has also demonstrated a key ability to successfully operate between its regional neighbors. Locked between Saudi Arabia and Iran, one can see the potential for a low-level proxy conflict occurring within the territory of Oman. To defend itself from such threats, Oman has attempted to work with both sides, ensuring that if conflict were to play out between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it could have leverage and be able to stay neutral in such an affair. To do such, Oman joined the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 and has maintained relatively favorable standings within it.33.“Sultanate of Oman” : Gulf Cooperation Council briefing Oman also maintains a steady, but distant relationship with OPEC, giving itself the ability to influence some aspects of the organisation while also giving Oman greater autonomy in its oil production. 34.“Oman oil minister says majority of OPEC and its allies support cut” : Reuters 35.“Relationships built to last: OPEC Bulletin Commentary February 2018”: Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries publications At the same time, Oman has worked to keep open relationships with Iran and have hinted at bilateral agreements in the Musandam Peninsula.36.“Iran shifting crude exports to Gulf of Oman amid Strait of Hormuz tensions” : BNE

These positions are ones of nuance. Oman, as recounted in U.S. diplomatic cables, recognizes the threat posed by both Saudi Arabia and Iran.37.“Oman: The world’s hostage negotiator” : Foreign Policy While Oman plays both sides, it must ensure that it does not become a puppet to either of them. In the Iranian case, Oman “has chosen to manage the threat by fostering strong working relations with Tehran”. 38.Ibid. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Oman accomplishes this by giving tacit, but often not direct support, to initiatives like the 2011 Bahrain Uprising.39.“Gulf states send forces to Bahrain following protests” : BBC News Oman further deters the Saudi threat by acting aggressively against measures that would weaken Omani sovereignty, such as when Saudi Arabia attempted to create a GCC coalition designed to combat the Iran Nuclear Deal.40.“Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy” : Congressional Research Service

Internationally, Oman has established itself as a mediator of conflicts and as a bastion of peace and human rights. This position is clear in much of Oman’s foreign statements and is exemplified in the 71st Session of the United States General Assembly, where Oman’s delegate proclaimed:

“We, in the Sultanate of Oman, continue to believe that every problem has its own solution if interests converge and if the political will exists, and if concerted efforts are exerted. This is true because people, by nature, tend to love peace and incline towards understanding and peaceful coexistence, which serve the interests of all parties based on the rule that says, ‘There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm.’”41.“Statement of the Sultanate of Oman to the Seventy First Session of the United Nations General Assembly” from the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

By presenting itself as a beacon of peace, Oman positions itself to garner international support in the case that it is threatened by belligerent nations. Oman’s medical aid and peace negotiations in the Yemeni Civil War, a conflict in which it takes no direct part in, has resulted in applause from the European Union and the United Nations.42.“Yemen’s war wounded find comfort in ‘brotherly’ Oman” : Al Jazeera Oman’s image in the international sphere is a safety net it can fall towards should its balancing act between Saudi Arabia and Iran fall apart.

Preliminary Conclusions

Oman’s foreign policy is simple. It must maintain its appearance as a country focused on mediation and negotiation in order to gain international approval. This ensures a significant amount of security for the country should any acts of regional aggression occur. Oman accomplishes this by placing itself firmly in the international community while avoiding any hard alignments regionally. These points are made clear on Oman’s official Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, where it is noted that “being an active member in all international organizations of the United Nations, the Sultanate prioritizes respect of international laws and conventions, and supports cooperation between countries or regions”.43.“Foreign Policy”, from the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This focus on international presentation is only furthered by Oman’s declaration that because “peace and security at the regional and international level [are]… the most important objectives of nations and peoples, the Sultanate was and is still working significantly to achieve peace and security for the whole of mankind”.44.“Foreign Policy”, from the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Oman’s regional geopolitical considerations are also reflected in this statement, as the Ministry notes that “its foreign policy and its relations with neighbouring and non-neighbouring states” focus “on the safety of navigation and freedom of transit [in the Strait of Hormuz], thus preserving the security and stability of the region”.45.“Foreign Policy”, from the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It is important to recognize that Oman’s rhetoric here is more than just words. Throughout the course of history, Oman has exemplified this geopolitical strategy by maintaining an image of moderation and peace propagation, acts that are key in securing its own international security. Throughout this series, we will examine several particular moments in order to explore how Oman’s actions within them have reflected this geopolitical paradigm: the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, the formation of the JCPOA from 2015-2016, and lastly, the most recent developments in Israeli-Omani relations.

Edwin Tran

Edwin Tran is a geopolitical analyst focused on the Levantine region. He degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant. He specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

References   [ + ]

1. “Israel’s Netanyahu meets Sultan Qaboos in surprise Oman trip” : Al Jazeera
2. “Israeli Minister Tours Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque Days After Netanyahu Visits Oman” : Haaretz
3, 7, 40. “Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy” : Congressional Research Service
4. “Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy”: Congressional Research Service
5. Joseph A. Kechichian, “Oman: A Unique Foreign Policy Produces a Key Player in Middle Eastern and Global Diplomacy”. The Rand Corporation
6. “UN: Oman ‘pivotal’ for Yemen peace” : Middle East Monitor
8. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 90.
9. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 261.
10. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 243.
11. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples.
12. James L. Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, 123.
13, 16. “Oman’s Geographic Challenge” : Stratfor
14. “Saudis ‘foil oil facility attack'” : BBC News
15. “Major Iranian Oilfields” by the University of Austin, Texas
17. “Oman Oil E&P” : Petroman
18. “Oman’s petroleum and other liquids production reached record levels in 2016”: U.S. Energy Information Administration
19. Member Countries of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
20. “Relationships built to last: OPEC Bulletin Commentary February 2018” : Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries publications
21. Yoel Guzansky, “The Straits of Hormuz: Strategic Importance in Volatile Times”.  The Institute for National Security Studies
22. “UAE angers Oman again by adding Musandam Governorate to Emirates map” : Middle East Monitor
23. Kenneth M. Pollack, A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, xxx.
24. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 409.
25. “The Jebel Akhdar War Oman 1954-1959” : Global Security.
26. John E. Peterson, Oman’s Insurgencies: The Sultanate’s Struggle for Supremacy.
27. “The Empty Quarter” : Saudi Geological Survey
28. “Yemen War and Qatar Crisis Challenge Oman’s Neutrality” : Middle East Institute
29. Joseph A. Kechichian, “Oman: A Unique Foreign Policy Produces a Key Player in Middle Eastern and Global Diplomacy”. The Rand Corporation.
30. United Nations member states list.
31. “Profile: Arab League – Timeline” : BBC News
32. “Agreements, Treaties, and Protocols” from the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
33. “Sultanate of Oman” : Gulf Cooperation Council briefing
34. “Oman oil minister says majority of OPEC and its allies support cut” : Reuters
35. “Relationships built to last: OPEC Bulletin Commentary February 2018”: Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries publications
36. “Iran shifting crude exports to Gulf of Oman amid Strait of Hormuz tensions” : BNE
37. “Oman: The world’s hostage negotiator” : Foreign Policy
38. Ibid.
39. “Gulf states send forces to Bahrain following protests” : BBC News
41. “Statement of the Sultanate of Oman to the Seventy First Session of the United Nations General Assembly” from the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
42. “Yemen’s war wounded find comfort in ‘brotherly’ Oman” : Al Jazeera
43, 44, 45. “Foreign Policy”, from the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.