Asharq Al-Awsat met with the Omani foreign minister in his office in Muscat as he was recording a piece for a documentary on late Saudi monarch King Fahd Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The interview comes at a crucial time, both for Oman domestically and the wider region.
In a televised address from Germany on Wednesday to mark Oman’s 44th National Day, Sultan Qaboos issued a speech reassuring Omani citizens about his health. He said that he had made “great progress” in his treatment, adding that he will be receiving additional treatment in the coming period. The Omani ruler has been receiving medical treatment in Germany for the last four months.
Muscat is also preparing to host a vital summit between representatives of Iran and the P5+1 group of nations (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. There is a November 24 deadline for Iran to reach a final deal with the P5+1 over its nuclear program, with pre-deadline talks scheduled in Muscat for November 11.
Beyond this, the GCC is also facing a number of disputes involving Oman, not least the push to form a Gulf Union, something that Muscat has firmly rejected. While questions remain over whether the GCC will go ahead with the Gulf Summit scheduled to take place in Doha in December amid ongoing diplomatic disputes between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on one side, and Qatar on the other.
Relations between GCC members states have been strained ever since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in March, alleging that Qatar was meddling in the domestic affairs of its fellow GCC members. GCC states also accused Doha of failing to respect the Riyadh Agreement, a security pact drawn up by the GCC last year. Although there have been signs of rapprochement between Qatar and its fellow GCC members, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have yet to send their ambassadors back to Doha.
In an exclusive interview withAsharq Al-Awsat, Omani Foreign Minister Youssef Bin Alawi spoke about the Omani succession, Muscat’s hosting of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran and a number of GCC issues.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Firstly, we thank God for the Sultan’s good health following his recent televised address. However, he also said that he will be receiving additional treatment in the coming period according to his “medical program?” What can you tell us about this?
Youssef Bin Alawi: What was said in the Sultan’s speech is that he will be subject to a medical program that will be decided by doctors. Nobody else can control this [medical] program.
Q: Despite the recent good news about the Sultan’s health, there are some concerns in the region about the post-Sultan Qaboos period, may God preserve him. What do you think?
There are no such concerns in Oman. Everybody is certain that just as the Sultan built the country to what it is today, he is committed to preserving its future to the same standards. Therefore, the Basic Statute of the State law (passed in 1996) contains the spirit of the issue of succession. There has rarely been a vacuum [in Oman]. The ruling family’s history in Oman goes back 260 years or more in this regard without appointing crown princes.
In the past, tribal leaders would swear allegiance to the figure that wanted to ascend, but now there is a state. The Sultanate [of Oman] has become a state of institutions, and so we must refer to these institutions.
Q: According to the Basic Statute of the State law, a successor will be appointed within three days either based on the Sultan’s own testament or the agreement of the ruling family. Is this true?
No, the ruling family is the one that decides. The successor is not necessarily chosen by the Sultan. The ruling family decides.
Q: What about fears of a power vacuum during this period?
There is no vacuum. As you know, Oman is all Arabs, we are not divided by sect or madhab [religious school of thought]. This is part of our culture of citizenship and this is the basis on which we have built our state of institutions, namely the Omani people.
Q: Let us turn to the Iranian nuclear dossier and Oman’s role in mediating between Tehran and the P5+1 group of nations. You are preparing to host a meeting between Iran, the US and the EU over Iran’s nuclear program. Was this meeting held at the request of Washington or Tehran or did Muscat take the initiative to offer to host this conference?
There is agreement between all parties that this meeting should be sponsored by Oman . . .And we welcomed this.
Q: So there is consensus between the West and Iran that Oman should serve as mediator on this issue?
They agreed that this meeting should take place in Oman.
Q: There are Gulf fears over the Iranian nuclear program and that Tehran could seek to turn this into a nuclear weapons program, for example. Does this agreement guarantee that Iran will not become a nuclear state?
That is the basis [of this agreement]. The objective of all of this is to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear state. We are part of the region. The risk exists, but this is being dealt with. When risks are not dealt with, this leads to disaster. But when risks are just part of normal life and are under control . . .That is what we want to reach.
Q: US President Barack Obama said that he will not accept a “bad deal” with Iran. Must it either be a “good” deal or no deal at all?
Everybody wants a “good” deal but how can you measure this? Everybody wants to reach an agreement, even the Iranians. Nuclear weapon technology is something that is beginning to recede. Why? This is not because this technology is not effective or destructive but because advanced countries now have alternatives. This is a deterrent weapon that can only be used after the decision has been made to destroy yourself and others. But now there is other less expensive and more effective means of deterrence. For example, we all know that biological weapons are just as dangerous [as nuclear weapons] and do not require warplanes or missile. In just one night, you could find a region without any people.
Q: Is this why Oman shut down its nuclear program?
Yes, we cancelled our nuclear program despite the fact that nuclear technology is guaranteed and there are ways to use this safely. But, at the same time, mistakes can happen. And if a mistake were to be made, this is one that you cannot fix. This would be a real disaster. And if what is needed is electrical power, then there are better options.
Q: Gulf states are unhappy that this issue is being handled directly by the P5+1 and Iran, without any Gulf or Arab participation. As a primary party in this meeting, what is Oman’s view?
We are not a primary party. The primary parties are those with nuclear arms. This is an international issue and the GCC has issued its decision on this. We are not intervening in this issue because it is an international one. We cannot negotiate with Iran on this issue, we do not have the capabilities and experience to do so, nor do we have nuclear arms or nuclear laboratories. So what could we negotiate over?
But we also have arrangements with our friends who have their own interests here [in Oman] and they understand us. One of the reasons why they are insisting that Iran does not have nuclear weapons is based on their interests here in Oman. It is well-known that they will not allow this, and the Iranians are well aware of this.
Q: Oman has very good relations with Iran at a time when Tehran’s relations with other GCC states are deteriorating. How has Muscat been able to preserve these relations?
We believe that these [GCC-Iran] relations contain some tension because of the disparity in views on regional issues. It is difficult for any country to avoid this under the current circumstances. But there is protection in utilizing diplomacy during times of tensions, but as I said previously there are risks.
So it is not in the interests of we, the Gulf Arabs, to unite against a state like Iran. Why? Because this would have huge negative repercussions on all parties. So this diversity in [Arab Gulf] relations with Iran perhaps serves both sides. We do not believe that we need any form of conflict, we trust in dialogue when it comes to our foreign relations. Dialogue is needed when there are differences of opinion, and that is why this dialogue is ongoing.
Q: With all due respect, there is more than a difference of opinion between the Gulf and Iran over Tehran’s increasingly brazen interference in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. This goes far beyond a difference of opinion.
Such interference has become commonplace today and is no longer being governed by international law. The issue is how you deal with this. We must be able to deal with all forms of interference, but nobody can come out and say that this is prohibited for you and permissible for others . . .That it is acceptable for this party to interference but not for you to do so.
Q: What about fears that an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 will grant Iran a greater role in the region at the expense of Gulf states?
Doesn’t Iran have a role already?
Q: This agreement would grant international legitimacy to this role.
Whatever the case, Iran has a role, and this role, in the view of the Gulf, is negative. But Iran is a country with a population of 90 million and which is located on the Gulf coast . . .so how could it not have a role?
Q: And if this role comes at the expense of Gulf states?
If we were able to study and see who this [agreement] would serve or come at the expense of, I believe that this would serve us [the Arabs of the Gulf] more than Iran. This is because our relations with the world are varied, particularly due to our position as major oil exporters which give us extra weight, not to mention the time period where we have surpassed Iran in development which is an advantage for us. While our ability to manage our states which possess comparably low population also puts us ahead of other states . . .while Iran has a large population.
Q: Is Oman playing any role in mediating between Riyadh and Tehran?
We do not play any mediation role in this regard. The differences between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran are well-known to both parties, and they are capable of reaching a compromise, and so this does not need mediation. The bilateral disputes between the two countries accounts for less than 20 or 30 percent of all the differences of opinion, while the rest of the differences are related to the region and not bilateral ties. When bilateral relations in trade develop, this could lead to closer ties. As for the regional issues, the differences over Iraq and Syria between Saudi Arabia and Iran are clear. While the differences over the Muslim Brotherhood are also clear; these are ideological, not material, differences of opinion.
Q: Does this mean that it is difficult to reduce the gap between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
No, this is not difficult, but what is difficult is to find a yardstick for this and we must also acknowledge that ideological differences of opinion are hard to resolve.
Q: If there is no direct mediation, can Oman play a role in bridging the gap between the viewpoints in Riyadh and Tehran?
We are seeking to welcome the Kingdom in this direction but everything in its time. We are not doing this to win glory or fame, and we do not talk a lot about this in the media, but there is a belief that the future of this region must be one of good neighborliness and good neighborliness requires a mechanism [to resolve] interests. Until now, there are disputes over maritime borders which are related to oil and gas finds. This is also something that we must not forget.
Q: Do you think there is acceptance in Saudi Arabia and Iran to pursue this rapprochement?
Of course, there has been no disruption whatsoever in the issue of convergence of views [between Saudi Arabia and Iran]. This is something that may have happened during the era of former president Ahmadinejad on the part of Iran. But in any case, the issue is not one of lack of desire, but rather one of hard-line views and philosophy.
Q: Oman has a harsh view opposing the Gulf Union. Do you think Muscat’s opposition to the Gulf Union justifies the sharp comments that you issued before the Kuwait summit?
Simply put, I was at the [IISS] Regional Security Summit in Manama. To be frank, I did not want to talk but brother Nizar Madani [Saudi State Minister for Foreign Affairs] was reading a speech from a paper which spoke in detail [about the Gulf Union]. We had agreed that the issue of the Gulf Union would not be raised outside of the framework of the GCC. So, he [Madani] spoke about an issue that he should not have brought up in the first place. While the text of this statement was written in a way that we understood as Saudi Arabia expressing its displeasure towards a number of issues in this regard while in our view, the issue of the Gulf Union should not have been brought up. So I decided to explain Oman’s viewpoint without entering into controversy. I wanted to put forward the other side of the view. If we did not comment, that would mean that we agreed with the view of Minister Madani. At the same time, we did not want to create an uncomfortable situation. I told Sultan Qaboos that this is a difference of opinion within the GCC and we are not against the Union, while the decision-making mechanism in the GCC allows us to object to the Union project and this is not something that we have availed ourselves of. All that we said is that we would work with the Union because we are part of the region, but that we would not be a part of it.
Q: You shocked Gulf states when you said that the current generation of people in the Gulf are “not qualified” to form a Gulf Union?
That is true. The current generation is not qualified. This is a generation that has not achieved anything. However, the only thing that is preventing this [union] is bureaucracy. While all the governments, [political] elites, intellectuals and media figures are theorizing and thinking wistfully about this Gulf unity. The question is: Who benefits from this unity? It must be the people. But if there is an Omani teacher who goes to teach in another Gulf states he does not receive the same advantages granted to the citizens there. The most important thing is to link the interests of the people, not governments.
Q: You famously said that Oman would not join the Gulf Union, not in 2010, and not in 2100?
The Europeans had a strategic goal that they worked hard to achieve but which ultimately they failed to realize with the EU. So why should we copy them?
Q: You said that there is no point in securing greater Gulf military cooperation to deal with threats and instead that we should rely on the West to defend our interests.
Because that is the reality.
Q: Until when should the Gulf rely on the West in this regard?
Until we change our mindset and stop getting involved in problems that we cannot deal with. If we could not go to war because our ammunition would run out in a week or 10 days, then we should not go to war.
Q: We are on the eve of a vital Gulf summit set to be held in December in Qatar. Despite statements to the contrary, there have been no signs of reconciliation between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE and Qatar.
The crisis is over, but in terms of emotions it may still be ongoing.
Q: But the political crisis is over?
It is over.
Q: But Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have yet to return their ambassadors to Qatar?
This is just emotions . . .but when we measure this on the level of states, and there is a crisis at the basic level, when this crisis is resolved then the crisis is over, but your feelings [towards this crisis] remain.
Q: Do you think the summit will go ahead in Qatar?
It should go ahead in Qatar. As a regional body we must hold this summit at its scheduled time despite people’s feelings. Differences of opinion cannot be resolved without meetings and dialogue.
Q: But away from feelings or emotions, what has happened on the ground?
On the ground, nothing has happened.
Q: So relations have not returned to how they were before?
We need to look to the future and not the past.
Q: Qatar has said that it has fulfilled all the conditions for reconciliation while Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE have called for action, not words.
We haven’t heard anything more than what has been written in the media. But Oman, as a state, has material interests that we must adhere to and this includes, for example, the passports issue [Qatar offering nationality to Bahraini citizens]. Our brothers in Bahrain have reservations about this, and Qatar has failed to respond to this to the degree wanted by Manama. But, at the same time, Qatar has confirmed that it has a law that does not allow it to naturalize more than 50 people a year from across the world. So I do not believe that it is worthy to have disputes between our countries over issues such as this.
Q: So you are sympathetic with Qatar’s position?
I am sympathetic because we must forget about the past. This is something that I say to all parties honestly. If somebody makes a mistake and maybe he is sorry about this, this is a question of ethics and it is up to you to take a position. But to sentence him to death [for this mistake]? Well, this is not permissible.