Journal Essay

Oman and the GCC: A Solid Relationship?

Giorgio Cafiero and Adam Yefet

Fall 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 3

Mr. Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Mr. Yefet is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics.

Shortly after the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU) in June's historic Brexit referendum, there was much social-media buzz about the Sultanate of Oman holding its own "Oxit" referendum. The chatter followed a statement from the Foreign Ministry hailing the Brits' "courageous decision to leave the EU" and a remark from Ishaq al-Siyabi, former vice-president of the Shura Council, who expressed his hope that the sultanate would hold a Brexit-like vote to determine Oman's future in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).1 Al-Siyabi declared that the Saudi-led institution "hasn't achieved all [its] goals in the past years and the GCC people do not feel the direct results of that amid the security and political differences between the Gulf states."2

The ministry quickly dismissed the rumors of an Oxit as mere "street talk," declaring that the GCC is "moving in the direction of unified processes and the strengthening of ties for the longer term."3 But why did al-Siyabi call for such a referendum? It is useful to take stock of the geopolitical context. Not only is Oman a particularly close Gulf Arab ally of London's, giving Muscat officials incentive to appear supportive of the "will of the people" in the UK; the comment also sheds light on Oman's foreign policy, which often operates outside of the Saudi-led GCC's framework.

Below the surface, Oman's independent approach to international and regional affairs has caused tensions within the GCC over the years. Saudi officials have sometimes accused the sultanate of undermining the council's collective interests by breaking ranks with Riyadh and other Gulf Arab capitals on regional issues such as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

It is no secret, for example, that Oman's recent service as a diplomatic backchannel between Washington and Tehran — which ultimately led to last year's watershed passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — angered the Saudis. Riyadh interpreted the sultanate's hosting of secret talks between Washington and Tehran officials as dismissive of the other GCC states' security considerations.4 One month after global powers and Iran reached the interim nuclear agreement in November 2013, GCC officials met in Bahrain and discussed Riyadh's call for upgrading the GCC from a council into a "union." Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi voiced Muscat's blunt opposition to the idea, stating that Oman is "against a union" yet had no intentions of preventing the other five Gulf Arab states from forming one.5

AN INDEPENDENT FOREIGN POLICY

Unlike other Gulf Arab states, which have to various extents lined up with Saudi Arabia on regional crises, Oman has maintained neutrality and cordial relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Muscat was the center of direct and secret JCPOA negotiations between officials from Washington and Tehran as early as 2012.6 Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the useful role Oman played in the JCPOA's watershed passage last year; the State Department began pursuing the Omani channel only four months after President Barack Obama took office in 2009.7

As to Syria, Oman was the only GCC member to maintain diplomatic relations with Damascus after the "Arab Spring" erupted in 2011, and — unlike Doha and Riyadh — Muscat has not armed any groups in the civil war.8 Foreign Minister Alawi has traveled to Syria for talks with President Bashar al-Assad, and met with representatives of both Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and the head of Syria's political opposition in Muscat in efforts to advance ceasefire negotiations.9 In Yemen, Oman was the only GCC state that stayed out of the Saudi-led "Operation Decisive Storm" campaign. Since May 2015, the Omanis have played a mediating role in the conflict by hosting talks in Muscat between warring factions.10 In 2011, Oman — unlike Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — did not intervene (directly or indirectly) in the Libyan crisis, but instead has hosted talks in the sultanate between warring factions to help broker peace in the beleaguered North African nation.11

Oman was the only Gulf Arab nation that did not join Saudi Arabia's Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, announced by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last December.12 The following month, Oman was the only GCC member to take no diplomatic action against the Islamic Republic after hundreds of Iranians attacked Riyadh's embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad following the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. Muscat officials did, however, condemn the "unacceptable" violence.13

The differences between Muscat and Riyadh's foreign policies vis-à-vis Iran and Tehran's regional allies are largely an outcome of divergent understandings of the Iranian "threat." From Muscat's perspective, it is better to address problems in relations with Iran through dialogue and compromise, rather than hostility and aggression. Lacking a rebellious Shiite minority, Sultan Qaboos never saw the Islamic Republic as an existential threat to Oman's Al Said rulers.14 And, having embraced neutrality in the Iran-Iraq War, Oman was able to maintain Muscat's cordial ties with Iran following the turmoil of 1979, unlike other GCC states whose relations with Tehran quickly deteriorated after the revolution.15

Oman, like other smaller Gulf Arab states, also sees many economic advantages to ties with post-sanctions Iran, particularly in the gas, logistics and tourism sectors. Muscat's and Riyadh's opposite reactions to the JCPOA's passage have underscored major differences between Omani and Saudi foreign-policy strategies and views of Iran. Despite providing an official lukewarm endorsement of the agreement, the Saudis have spent this year reacting to the JCPOA's implementation by urging and pressuring their allies into backing the kingdom's efforts to isolate Iran, while using the kingdom's leverage to retard the partial thaw in U.S.-Iran relations. The Omanis have been eagerly awaiting their "peace dividend" from the JCPOA.

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