Neutrality and Diplomacy: A History of Foreign Policy in the Sultanate of Oman

An academic piece by Hussein Noureldin

8 April 2019

It is well known that the Middle East has been one of the most volatile and unstable regions in modern history. In this perpetual desert of conflict, however, there is an oasis of peace in Oman. Since 1970, Oman has adopted a foreign policy uncharacteristic of any other nation in the region. Surrounded by Saudi Arabia to the west, Iran to the north, and Yemen in the south, Oman is literally in the middle of the region’s biggest rivals and superpowers. It is this geographical arrangement that is one of the defining factors of the Sultanate’s outlook on international affairs. Unlike many of its more radical, conservative, and problematic neighbors, Oman is a country renowned for its peaceful and tolerant society guided by Sultan Qaboos. Since assuming power in 1970, the country’s beloved despot lifted Oman out of isolation, stagnation, and an insurgency crisis in the southern Dhofar region. Prior to Qaboos’ reign, Oman was severely underdeveloped, desperately lacking the basic elements of a functional society such as infrastructure, political organization, and social wellbeing. The Sultanate has modernized tremendously since then with one of the primary accelerators being its skilled diplomacy. Arguably the most important mediator in the region, Oman is relied upon heavily by the West to foster peaceful relations among regional actors to reduce the potential for conflict between the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Beyond that, it has played a significant role in several issues, including the Iran-Iraq War, the JCPOA, the Yemen crisis, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Oman also sees itself as responsible for “the safety of navigation and freedom of transit [in the Strait of Hormuz]”, possibly the world’s most important oil passageway, as well as “preserving the security and stability of the region.”[1] This paper will explore the key characteristics of Oman’s neutral foreign policy, the domestic motives for this approach, as well as its significance to the stability of the Middle East.

Before discussing the complex geopolitical implications on Oman’s unique foreign policy, it is critical to dissect the historical events that led to the adoption of this approach and Sultan Qaboos’ ascent to the throne. During the late 600s AD, a breakaway school of Islamic thought known as the Khawarij became prominent in the Islamic Caliphate of the East. One of the main sects were the Ibadia who, unlike the other two sects of the Khawarij, were not radical fundamentalists.[2] The Ibadia follow a self-described “moderate sect of Islam”, and have explicitly dissociated from their Khawarij origins.[3] Founded in 685 AD by Abdullah bin Ibada, Ibadism is a central part of Omani values and is touted as one of the “most significant force[s] in Omani politics.”[4] In their early history, the Ibadia were the “most respected members of the Basra community” in Oman. Their distinctly moderate beliefs led to the creation of an Imamate in Oman in 750 AD after the fall of the Umayyads. The Caliphate based in Baghdad consequently became hostile as a result of this establishment; starting in 896, Oman faced ten successive attacks over the course of two centuries.[5] The invasions “attempted to destroy the Omani community, which refused to acknowledge the Caliphate or pay taxes.”[6] These invasions were ultimately resisted and the Imamate was lived on, but did not prove to be a permanent fixture due to the “tribal nature” of Omani society that was more concerned with local community autonomy.[7] Oman never truly found a balance between the imamate tradition and the sultan’s authority, and this was particularly evident under the leadership of Sultan Said bin Taimur who ruled from 1932 to 1970.

Sultan Said’s rule was arguably more important for what it brought about after the reign rather than during. In short, Said’s reign was characterized by bureaucracy, isolationism, and incompetence. Unable to cope with the Dhofari insurgency in the south from the late 1960s to 1970, the country’s future looked bleak. The Sultan’s forces were under attack by the Arab-nationalists from Dhofar, in addition to Imamate claims for independence in the interior of Oman at the UN. The dire situation was amplified by the Sultan’s “refusal to approach the Dhofar crisis as a political conflict rather than a purely military one.”[8] All these factors alarmed Sultan Said’s son, Qaboos, who “realized that the situation could be tolerated no more.”[9] The attacks on the Sultan’s forces were the last indication that a “fundamental change in policy was required”, leading to Qaboos carrying out a bloodless coup with the support of a few followers against his father on July 23, 1970.[10] This marked the beginning of a transformative period for the country, starting with a re-evaluation of Oman’s foreign policy.

Despite the huge presence of Ibadi values, it is the “underlying geo-strategic realities” which ultimately shape Oman’s foreign policy.[11] The Sultanate’s “pragmatic neutrality on the international stage” is primarily owed to Oman’s geo-strategic positioning in the Strait of Hormuz.[12] Oman is vital in maintaining this passageway with Iran — a responsibility most other Gulf nations would struggle to uphold given their uneasy relationship with Tehran.[13] With a tiny military capacity and historic relations with all of its neighbors, Oman can ill-afford to take sides on key issues that threaten the stability of the Gulf region. Often described as “the Switzerland of the Middle East”, one of Oman’s key foreign policy objectives has been “diplomatic bridge-building” through low-profile diplomacy and international institutions. This was instrumental in Sultan Qaboos establishing Oman’s presence in the international system, unlike his predecessor who rarely looked beyond Britain and India as strategic allies.[14] During the height of the Dhofar insurgency in 1973, the Shah of Iran sent thousands of troops to support the Sultan’s armed forces as a result of Qaboos’ diplomatic efforts.[15] Even after the Iranian revolution in 1979, Oman crucially maintained relations with the incumbent Ayatollah’s regime, forming an agreement “to regulate ship movement in the Strait of Hormuz.”[16] This was a testament to the Sultanate’s diplomatic expertise under Qaboos as most of the other Gulf countries did not cope well with the regime change, most notably Saudi Arabia.

A member of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), Oman has had to balance its position to ensure it does not side too much with one side nor “become a puppet to either [Iran or Saudi]”, which has presented several problems for its role as a neutral mediator.[17][18] Its facilitation of the Iran Nuclear Deal, refusal to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, and non-participation in the Qatari boycott have been scrutinized by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have applied economic pressure on the Sultanate in efforts to “force it into line.”[19] Since the creation of the GCC in 1981, the Sultanate has always tried to ensure that the organization did not morph into “an anti-Iranian coalition”.[20] However, the lack of alignment with GCC initiatives on key issues in recent years has called its position into question among the Gulf states; nonetheless, its neutrality should not be undermined by its mediation efforts.

Oman has been precarious in avoiding hard alignments, even with the Gulf countries. This is one of the central themes of Oman’s foreign policy as much as it is a determinant of its domestic security. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website, the country’s support lies in the “cooperation between countries or regions”, prioritizing “respect of international laws and conventions.”[21] Oman’s emphasis on diplomacy and international institutions is a reflection of the country’s humanist ethos, evidenced by its anti-war approach to Middle Eastern conflicts. During the Arab Spring, Oman was the only GCC state to not support any factions in the wake of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, in addition to hosting negotiations between warring groups in the Libyan crisis.[22] The latter exemplifies Oman’s leadership in its neutrality as part of its mission to promote peace and stability in the region.

Such value for peace is reminiscent of Western enlightenment thinkers such as Erasmus, who shares many parallels with the Omani outlook in his famous work, Against War. Aside from their respective sectarian influences, both ‘policies’ fundamentally oppose war from a similar philosophical approach. Erasmus asserts that “even if war were ever justifiable… an unjust peace is far preferable to a just war.”[23] This sentiment can be seen in Oman’s recent discussion with Israel, a state unrecognized by all of the Gulf states including Oman. While the Arab community is united in supporting the Palestinians, Oman recognizes that hostility toward Israel will not amount to any real solution despite their unjust actions in Gaza and the West Bank. Therefore, Arab states must work toward “the peace [they] may not fully attain” as it is the best chance of achieving a two-state solution.[24] This pragmatic judgement is central to Oman’s policy implementation.

Sultan Qaboos, at the helm of foreign policy decisions, has been consistent in his approach since assuming power which has legitimized Oman’s stance among the international community. Despite maintaining a tight grip on power since 1970, the sultan is renowned as “the most worldly and best-informed leader in the Arab world”, even allowing citizens to vote for members of his advisory council.[25] However, a significant risk of the Sultan’s political omnipotence is with the ambiguity of succession, which could pose a serious threat to Oman’s relatively independent position among the surrounding powers after Qaboos’ reign. The Sultan’s policy “which relies on restraint and non-exaggeration” is also characterized by “discretion” in its diplomacy and “sound judgement” in decision-making, enabling Oman to adeptly forecast the consequences of various issues and act in its best interest while embracing neutrality.[26] Its policy has also been vital in deterring terrorism, with Oman ranked as one of the few countries to have a terrorism index of zero; by comparison, the United States has a score of 5.4.[27] Not only has Oman’s strategic neutral policy helped maintain its domestic security, but it has reinforced its role as the Middle East’s key intermediary from disputes to multilateral agreements.

Oman’s first mediation initiative commenced during the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1980 to 1988. Guided by international laws and US support, Oman was able to broker productive negotiations without aligning with either side. According to the Secretary General of the Omani Foreign Minister at the time, Oman “was neutral [because] there was no interest in continuing this war”, a sentiment that was embraced by Iran but criticized by Saudi Arabia.[28] Oman was able to defuse tensions between 1985 and 1988 by constantly sending foreign ministers to promote a ceasefire, calling for the implementation of UNSC Resolution 598.[29] Muscat’s position was made clear through several diplomats’ statements making recommendations to the parties involved. In regard to fragile relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, an Omani Undersecretary of the GCC advocated for cooperation, saying “if Iran wishes to develop relations with the GCC states, it must be convinced of the need to improve relations with Saudi Arabia.”[30] This once again proved to be more than just rhetoric as Oman hosted foreign ministers of both states to work on reviving diplomatic ties.[31] The fact that Oman was able to mediate such a complex conflict while managing to maintain cordial relations with both parties and its GCC neighbors shows the extent of its diplomatic prowess.

Diplomacy has become a hallmark of the sultan’s rule, commended by Western and regional powers alike. During the Iran Deal negotiations, Oman served as a “diplomatic backchannel between Washington and Tehran… as early as 2012”, facilitating the negotiations that ultimately led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.[32] Muscat conducted these secret talks despite Saudi’s efforts to isolate Iran, reiterating Oman’s independent, peace-oriented approach. Although the Sultanate is against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, this “must be analyzed within the context of Oman’s asserting its opposition to Islamist militias, not Iranian/Shiite influence.”[33] As Saudi Arabia continues its anti-Iran campaign through “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthis, Oman was the only GCC member to stay out of the conflict. While power politics and US alliance are clear motives for Riyadh in the Yemeni Civil War, the key difference between Oman and Saudi’s foreign policy is the “divergent understanding of the Iranian ‘threat’”; Muscat prefers to approach the Islamic Republic through “dialogue and compromise” as opposed to Saudi aggression.[34] Unfazed by pressure even from its closest allies, it is no surprise that the United States has relied on Oman as its go-to liaison.

Even after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Sultan Qaboos was explicit in his ambitions of achieving an Arab-Israeli resolution, stating that “the Camp David accords [are] the only means that achieved a constructive step in the direction of reaching a peaceful solution to the Middle East issue.”[35] More recently, Oman set a precedent by hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the capital in October 2018. The talks were centered on working towards a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, praised by the United States as the Trump administration works towards its supposed ‘deal of the century’.[36] Despite downplaying suggestions of a mediator role, foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi explained that “it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as other states] and also bare the same obligations.”[37] The subsequent warming ties between Israel and other Gulf states, such as the Saudi and the UAE, is a result of this diplomatic leadership. The normalization of Arab-Israeli relations is arguably vital to the peace process, another example of the Sultanate’s sound judgement of foreign policy.

From neutrality to diplomatic tradition, Oman is truly an outlier in comparison to the rest of the Middle East. The fact that many are unaware of the Gulf nation’s presence — let alone its importance — is owed to its low-profile, anti-war outlook. Oman has managed to stay out of the many conflicts that plague the region all while retaining influence as a neutral, mediatory actor. The Sultanate manages to preserve ties with some of its allies’ greatest enemies without necessarily undermining its impartiality. Unique in its rigidity and profound in its success, Oman’s foreign policy is pivotal to interstate stability and cooperation, and is a model that should be emulated by other peaceful states in volatile regions.

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Accessed April 6, 2019.

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[1] Oman Ministry of Foreign Affairs. September 22, 2013. Accessed April 4, 2019.

[2] Majid Al-Khalili. Oman’s Foreign Policy: Foundation and Practice. P. 5. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2009.

[3] Ibid.. p. 7–8

[4] Ibid., p. 8

[5] Ibid., p. 7

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 9

[8] Ibid.. p. 64–67

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Sarie Khalid. “What’s Next for the “Switzerland of the Middle East?”” The McGill International Review. December 23, 2018. Accessed April 4, 2019.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Oman Ministry of Foreign Affairs. September 22, 2013. Accessed April 4, 2019.

[14] Majid Al-Khalili. Oman’s Foreign Policy: Foundation and Practice. P. 32. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2009.

[15] Calvin H. Allen and W. Lynn. Rigsbee. Oman under Qaboos: From Coup to Constitution;

1970–1996. P. 72. London: Cass, 2002.

[16] Ibid., P. 190

[17] Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner. “Oman’s Diplomatic Bridge in Yemen.” Atlantic Council. Accessed April 6, 2019.

[18] Edwin Tran. “In the Lion’s Den: Oman’s Foreign Policy, Part 1.” International Review.

December 06, 2018. Accessed April 7, 2019.

[19] Camille Lons. “Oman: Neutrality under Pressure.” Alaraby. May 29, 2018. Accessed April 7, 2019.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Oman Ministry of Foreign Affairs. September 22, 2013. Accessed April 4, 2019.

[22] Giorgio Cafiero and Adam Yefet. “Oman and the GCC: A Solid Relationship?” Middle East

Policy24, no. 3 (2016): 49–55. Accessed April 4, 2019.

[23] Desiderius Erasmus. Against War. Originally published 1515. p. 54

[24] Ibid., p. 55

[25] Robert D. Kaplan. “Oman’s Renaissance Man.” Foreign Policy. March 02, 2011. Accessed April 6, 2019.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Vision of Humanity. “Global Terrorism Index 2017.” 2017.

[28] Majid Al-Khalili. Oman’s Foreign Policy: Foundation and Practice. P. 92. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2009.

[29] Ibid., p. 93

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Giorgio Cafiero and Adam Yefet. “Oman and the GCC: A Solid Relationship?” Middle East Policy 24, no. 3 (2016): 49–55. Accessed April 4, 2019.

[33] Ibid., p. 52

[34] Ibid., p. 50

[35] Majid Al-Khalili. Oman’s Foreign Policy: Foundation and Practice. P. 82–83. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2009.

[36] I24 News. “Netanyahu to visit another Gulf country amid warming ties with Oman.” 2 November 2018.

[37] Al Jazeera. “Oman Says ‘Israel Is a State’ in the Middle East.” Israeli–Palestinian Conflict News | Al Jazeera. October 27, 2018. Accessed April 6, 2019.

Middle Eastern nomad currently up north. Using words succinctly to curtail imminent post-graduate unemployment (Inshallah).