I read an interview with Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi in the Okaz newspaper and prior to that I watched his interview on Russia Today. The two interviews raise many questions about Oman’s policy.
For those who do not understand it, Oman is an ambiguous country. However, the foundations of the sultanate’s foreign policy, at least as we understand it, can be summarised by one word, isolation. Muscat’s government has refrained from engaging in regional conflicts for decades despite holding positions that it expresses.
Not all states can adopt the Omani approach because most disputes impose themselves on states. Kuwait was invaded by Saddam, and Saudi Arabia would have faced the same fate if it had not fought him. Likewise, some UAE islands are occupied by Iran and Bahrain’s political system is under threat of change from Iran. Not all the peace enjoyed by the sultanate was the result of separating itself from conflicts and axes. There is also the geopolitical factor; its position on the map has limited its choices to not offending its neighbours, the GCC and Iran. The sultanate is fortunate to belong to the Gulf Cooperation Council which is made up of peaceful countries that share land borders. This does not lessen the wisdom of Sultan Qaboos, who for decades followed a policy of distancing Oman from conflicts and axes and distanced his country from committing to any position that may be costly.
We must also say that we do not know of a state in the world that can live in peace only because it chooses to do so. It can only live in peace if others allow it to do so, like the neutral state Switzerland, which signed an agreement on neutrality in Paris in 1815. Oman’s neutrality is also the decision of its neighbours, the Iranians and the Gulf countries. Although its dealings with the Iranian regime are a source of discomfort for all its Gulf neighbours, all of them are keen on its stability. The sultanate experienced the Arab Spring ordeal when the whole region was disrupted by it in 2011, but it overcame this phase through political and economic support from GCC countries that stood by Oman economically and in terms of security.
Yemen is the only neighbour that is a source of potential danger to Oman and it poses a bigger threat than the sultanate has ever known since the 1970s. It is also a source of danger for Saudi Arabia. From the interview with Alawi, Muscat’s policy towards Yemen does not appear to match that of the other Gulf states. Oman’s vision regarding the Syrian crisis also differs to that of GCC countries. In its outlook on both the Yemeni and Syrian crises, Muscat appears closer to the Iranian regime than it does to its Gulf neighbours. Gulf countries believe that the Iranian regime is behind these crises and that it threatens them more than ever, especially since the Iranians started negotiating with the United States. Oman has played the role of messenger in these negotiations and then became a centre for secret negotiations.
After news of these secret negotiations came to light in the Wall Street Journal, a senior Gulf official told me “We are not angry that there are negotiations between the two enemies Iran and the US, and neither are we angry that Oman is secretly playing this role behind our backs. The most important thing is the results, and we will be happy if Iran accepts to stop all its hostile and military projects in exchange for the west giving up on its boycott and confrontation”. Unfortunately, it turned out that they were not peace negotiations, but a brief reconciliation between Iran and the west at the expense of the security of the Gulf states and the entire region.
Yemen has become an arena for the Iranians after the Muscat negotiations. Although Oman is not directly linked to this, Washington’s reconciliation with the Iranians has allowed the regime in Tehran to dare to escalate and open new fronts. The coming days may prove that Yemen is a threat to everyone, not just Saudi Arabia, if Iran is left to exploit it as it is trying to do today.
Without the political agreement that will restore legitimacy in Yemen that was engineered by the United Nations and supported by Oman as part of the GCC, Yemen’s war may continue for a long time. Such a tragic end is not in the interests of Oman or Saudi Arabia and is definitely not in the Yemeni people’s interests. The continuation of the war in Yemen only suits the strategy of Iran which is fighting a war against Gulf countries and the Arab camp, and that supports the strife in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and the tension in Bahrain. It does not, however, suit Oman which is a more civilised country that keeps away from war.