Oman’s pursuit for neutrality is at risk since it signed an agreement to allow the United States to use its Duqam and Salalah ports. Although little has been made public about the agreement, one sentence in the US statement on the signing of the agreement highlights the nature of the deal: “The agreement reaffirms the commitment of both countries to promoting mutual security goals and highlights the enduring strength of the US-Oman strategic relationship, reflecting US support for Oman’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The agreement brings the US Navy to Iran’s doorstep and, according to some, in the vicinity of Pakistan’s Gwadar port to keep a closer eye on Chinese maritime activity in and out of the Strait of Hormuz. In the aftermath of this agreement, it is predicted that Tehran-Muscat ties will nosedive, yet the evolving posture of Oman still leaves room for the strategically-located Gulf state to still avoid taking a hard posture against Iran.
Prior to the renewed US sanctions, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates used to object to Oman’s close economic and political ties with Iran. Besides, Oman was also accused of turning a blind eye to Iran smuggling weapons to Houthis in Yemen from its soil. Muscat denies any such implicit involvement or oversight in transferring arms to the Houthis.
While external pressure has been soaring, Oman is preparing to go through a monumental transition since its independence from British rule in 1971. The country’s founding leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is battling cancer at the age of 78 and he appears very fragile. To make matters worse, not only has the issueless monarch not nominated an heir-apparent but he has also left the power transfer process unclear. Although a few names of prospective successors have been circulating, there are also rumors of two sealed envelopes containing the Sultan’s will and the name of the heir-apparent. The moderately-rich Gulf state will be at risk of internal turmoil if the their apprent name does not go down well with Oman’s influential tribes. Besides, Muscat may be vulnerable to external forces, neighboring as well as distant, during the succession process.
The Omani ruler is aware of the threats facing his country and the royal family. Last November, the Omani Sultan played host to an unexpected guest in broad daylight. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife were hosted with full media coverage. Although formal diplomatic ties are non-existent, the bilateral warmth on show left little to the imagination. Earlier contacts between Tel Aviv and Muscat date back to 1994 when Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin paid a secret visit. Two years later, both sides opened trade offices, which were eventually shut down in 2000 due to the second Palestinian uprising.
While Oman’s economic and security compulsions led it to warm ties with Israel, the later exploited the opportunity to make inroads in the Gulf Arab country enjoying cordial ties with Iran, its public enemy. The ties between the Oman and Iran extend beyond the economic and diplomatic spheres as the Omani and Iranian navies regularly hold anti-piracy drills in the north Arabian Sea, on the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz to be more specific. No other Gulf country is as close to Iran as is Oman. The Omani initiative of hosting Netanyahu was also aimed at impressing the United States as well as the European powers. The message relayed from Netanyahu was: Oman is a moderate Arab country, which wishes to pursue a bold policy of co-existence.
Muscat’s bid to attract the confidence of western powers signifies a forward-looking approach. Hosting Netanyahu during Donald Trump’s presidency was an act addressed to Washington. Oman deserves more attention and acknowledgment, and it knows it can do more to appease the United States. It goes without saying that France maintains military assets on Omani soil. Over a year ago, Muscat cemented its ties with the United Kingdom by providing her ships berthing rights. Later, a logistical support agreement was also signed with India as well.
Oman was also responding to the concerns of its bordering neighbor to end its neutral posture with Iran that it has always championed for them to continue investing in Muscat’s infrastructure. Besides setting up a joint investment fund with Oman, the Saudi government has also poured $210 million in its flagship Duqam port, which has been under-development since 2011. Omani ports of Sohar and Salalah have attracted Emerati capital too.
Since the signing of the US-Oman agreement, some commentators have tried analyzing it through the US prism of containing China. From the 1970s till the 1990s, China had been a top importer of Oman’s hydrocarbons. Besides, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has been using logistical facilities at Oman’s ports for about two decades while its vessels have participated in bilateral and multilateral naval drills. Beijing is an important contributor to anti-piracy deployment missions and exercises. Thus, if Muscat is compelled to take a side in the Iran-Arab gulf tug-of-war, it can preserve its neutral posture in the US-Sino conflict.
Given its vital strategic location, Omani diplomacy has been perfecting the art of preserving Oman’s interests by balancing external powers, such as the Ottomans, the British and the Portuguese. No wonder Muscat has been able to frustrate the efforts of a Gulf union, although it has not been alone in this endeavor. The Omani decision to decline participation in the allied Yemeni operation as well as in the blockade against Qatar emboldened the Iranian leadership, resulting in back to back visits as well as joint military drills with Muscat.
The United States urgency to isolate Iran and Muscat’s tricky transition from Sultan Qaboos to the next generation has compelled the leadership to choose sides. The prospect of strengthening Israel-Oman ties will further cause a wedge in ties with Iran. Their annual bilateral trade has soared to over $1 billion. Amidst changing geopolitical compulsions, the Omani specialty of low-profile regional troubleshooting has gradually come to a real test.
Optimists may like to expect Oman-Iran rapprochement to lead to Tehran evading its isolation in its increasingly polarized neighborhood. Omani diplomacy, which resulted in close bilateral interactions in 2015 between Mohammad Javad Zarif and John Kerry, can be employed to prepare the ground for future US-Iran talks. The US and its allies will not mind Oman still preserving its role as a backdoor diplomatic channel with Iran. The scenario will depend on two questions: a). Will Trump like to proceed to the 2020 US presidential elections while engaging Iran diplomatically but without achieving his goal of regime change in Tehran, b). What guarantees will Tehran need to give negotiations another chance despite Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal? To revive its stance of neutrality in regional issues, Oman will require miracles. Until then, the Gulf Arab state will be seen as a newer addition to the US strategic fold vis-à-vis Iran.