Unlike Saudi Arabia, locked into its hostility toward Iran, Oman has always been able to maintain good neighbouring policy with the Islamic Republic. While Riyadh sees Shia Iran as a dangerous political and religious rival to its own hegemony in the Gulf, Muscat sees it as a natural and necessary partner for regional stability with whom cooperation is needed.
Since last December, when it firmly opposed the Saudi proposal to turn the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a union, Oman has done no more than remaining faithful to its regional position. This position, which marks out Oman from the other monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, is a result of the country’s special geography as much as result of its history and its specific population sociology.
Forged by the Indian Ocean
Unlike all the other GCC countries, whose origins mesh with the evolution of the tribes from the Nejd (Arabia’s central province), Oman’s identity was forged less by the interior of the peninsula than by the Indian Ocean. The sultanate’s past is anchored to the Indian and African shores of the Ocean, and to the Persian world. Zanzibar, the Comoros, the East African coast and Baluchistan were all once part of its colonial empire. As a result of its own history, Oman is an Ibadi monarchy1 with a national population that includes Sunni and Shia religious minorities (who co-exist reasonably well), as well as Baluchis and peoples from the islands of the Indian Ocean. In this whole, which is dominated by the Ibadi Arabs, no minority is excluded from public life and all are included within the state apparatus.
No one doubts Riyadh’s longstanding aim: to rally under its banner all whom the House of Saud has always seen as its vassals. Not so long ago, maps of the Kingdom published in Saudi Arabia omitted to trace the frontiers of the various emirates, as if they were no more than Saudi provinces. In its current configuration, the GCC allows indeed freedom of action for all (which Qatar has not failed to use); but this is above all the result of internal resistance to Riyadh. If the plan for unifying the Arab Gulf states ever takes place, it would limit the freedom of action of union members, by creating a common foreign and defence policy, which would be dominated by Saudi Arabia, and by intensifying economic integration. Indeed, the Kingdom’s wish to close ranks is not shared to the same extent by all the GCC members, and certainly not by the sultan of Oman.
Good neighbouring policy with Iran
In the planned union, what Oman criticises the most, is the aspect of an Arab coalition directed against Iran. First, King Abdullah put the project on the table in 2011 to protect himself from the Arab Spring, by drawing closer together the club of monarchies. He revived it ahead during the GCC summit in Kuwait, on 10-11 December 2013; the planned union would be a response to the weakening of the policy of containment towards the Islamic Republic; such a weakening is due to the interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran on the nuclear question on the one hand, and to the direction Washington would likely push Riyadh into, in order to resolve the Syrian crisis on the other hand. Agreeing to such a union project would be, for the Omanis, tantamount to siding with the Saudis against Tehran – that is, breaking with their longstanding good neighbouring policy and exchanges from either side of the Strait of Hormuz, whose Oman shares protection with Iran, due to their geography.
Muscat has never in fact followed the policy of Riyadh or Abu Dhabi in respect to Tehran, except briefly after the fall of the shah. Imperial Iran (with the United Kingdom) may well have militarily helped Sultan Qaboos, after he gained power in 1970, to end a rebellion2 in Dhofar province, backed by South Yemen - allied to Moscow; but Muscat then became fearful of the Iranian Revolution, followed by the war between Iran and Iraq. When the preparatory work for the GCC began, and in order to face the accumulated threats to regional security (Islamic Revolution, Iraq-Iran war mentioned above), Oman became an fervent advocate for a common security infrastructure, by proposing the creation of a joint army that would be supported by the United States and UK, to which access to its military bases was given.
This idea was turned down by Kuwait, whose delicate geographic position prevented from provoking Iran or Iraq, and did not see the light of day. But Sultan Qaboos reversed his position fairly quickly. In April 1985, he said in an interview in the Egyptian weekly Al-Mousawar: “To be frank, I say that from here, in Muscat, we do not think it will be in the interest of Gulf security that Iran believes we have the intention to establish an Arab military pact that will be forever hostile, or that we are on the way to create a joint force whose aim would be to defeat Iran. There is ultimately no alternative to peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Persians, nor to a minimum of agreement in the region.” More than 30 years later, it is according to this very principle that Oman opposes the Saudi plan for a union of Arab Gulf States. In the name of the same principle, Oman stood also in 2013 as a mediator, when it came to restore direct relations between Washington and Tehran and prepare the interim agreement on the nuclear question.
Reservations of the other states
Alignment with Riyadh against Iran would also mean endorsing the Sunni-Shia confessional fracture that is kept going by Saudi Arabia’s extreme antagonism towards Iran, with the consequences we see in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and GCC member Bahrain. Oman’s sultan fears its effects at home between the various Muslim Omani communities. Above all, he wants to remain outside all this. Oman’s troubles in 2011, touched off by the Arab Spring, stemmed from economic demands (largely linked to its nationals’ under-employment) and discontent over governance. The unrest, however, was by no mean related to problems of political and religious sectarianism, as was the case in Bahrain or the Saudi province of Al-Hasa. Furthermore, any disruption in its independent policy of friendship with Riyadh, US or Iran would put the sultanate in the front line vis-à-vis Tehran, in the event of any incident in the Strait of Hormuz. It might also alter the development of Oman’s existing important economic exchanges with Iran, which the sultanate hopes to develop if Iran ceases to be ostracised by the West.
Muscat is supported by most of the other Gulf States, if only on this economic point. Apart from Bahrain, they are not trying to enforce Saudi Arabia’s union plan, for they themselves fear its effects on their own independence. They are also not far from sharing Oman’s vision of the ultimately positive implications, in terms of stability and economic development, of the reintegration of the Islamic Republic into the region, which is bound to happen sooner or later. So, they were satisfied by the Omani foreign minister’s very clear and direct public declaration on 7 December, just before the GCC summit, opposing the Saudi union project, which was then frozen. In fact, their ambivalent fraternal friendship with the House of Saud is dictated more by their vulnerability, and need for strategic depth in the context of the Shia-Sunni rift - exacerbated by the antagonism between Riyadh and Tehran-, than by any wish to share a common political destiny among Sunni Arab monarchies, a destiny that is defined in opposition to the (Shia and Iranian) Islamic Republic.