Are Oman’s days as a regional mediator ending?
LONDON - Given that the geopolitical climate in the Arabian Peninsula points towards more assertiveness in countering Iran’s regional designs and the Trump administration’s hawkish approach in dealing with Tehran, countries such as Oman, which previously adopted a neutral stance, might have to pick a side.
To de-escalate tensions between Washington and Tehran, Omani Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah last month met with high-ranking US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton in Washington.
Abdullah’s diplomacy failed to yield the results Muscat had hoped for, which was a stark contrast to the days of the Obama administration when Oman enjoyed stronger ties with both the United States and Iran and was able to facilitate a number of hostage releases and set the stage for what would become the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.
“The current US administration is colour blind in relation to Iran and only sees matters in black and white,” a Western diplomatic source told The Arab Weekly. The source, who asked not to be identified, added that with nuances in American engagement with Tehran over and “the Omanis are about to realise that.”
Oman’s neutrality was once tolerated by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) main pillars, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, with threats from Iranian officials due to pressure at home over a deteriorating economy, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi might no longer see Oman’s stated impartiality as acceptable.
For example, in February 2011, when Oman was rocked with countrywide protests calling for more job opportunities, GCC members stepped in to help both Oman and Bahrain with a $20 billion stimulus package.
Despite the support, when the war in Yemen broke out in March 2015, Oman was the only GCC member not to actively join the Saudi-led alliance fighting the Iran-allied Houthis, opting for a more intermediary diplomatic role in the conflict. That move did not endear it to Saudi and UAE officials.
In September 2016, when the Saudi-led coalition officially lodged a complaint with the United Nations over Iran’s arming of the Houthi militia, weapons en route to the rebels were intercepted by supporters of the internationally recognised government in trucks apparently originating from Oman.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi apparently want Muscat to scale back its relations with Tehran and stop the flow of weapons to the Houthis. Its support in the dispute with Qatar would also be welcomed.
There are several ways Riyadh and Abu Dhabi can pressure Muscat, a recent report by geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor stated, including adversely affecting Omani relations with the United States.
“Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could try to convince Washington that Muscat is the weak link in the United States’ anti-Iran regional strategy because the country allows Houthi arms to traverse its soil and Iran to circumvent sanctions and blockades,” Stratfor said.
With the unpredictable nature of US President Donald Trump, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have other options. With regards to the United Arab Emirates, Oman’s main trading partner, Abu Dhabi might pressure Omani individuals and businesses as it did with Qatar after relations were severed in June 2017.
Stratfor said: “They could also raise questions about Oman’s loyalty to US regional goals while simultaneously intimating to Muscat that Washington could take sanctions against Omani businesses, individuals or officials who fail to cooperate with the anti-Iran strategy.”
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could scale back investments in Oman or increase them as an incentive for Muscat to gain support. The two countries could work to influence Oman’s succession process, which could possibly seat a sultan more in line with their concerns.
The likelihood of a full-scale severance of relations, as happened with Qatar, is slim, because such a move might push Muscat to seek alternatives, including deepening its relations with Tehran.
Stratfor said: “Muscat will likely give what ground is necessary to ward off their encroachment but even in making concessions to its larger Gulf neighbours, Oman will be sure to protect its overall sovereignty through yet another geopolitical balancing act.”