Oman resets GCC ties, joins Saudi anti-terrorism coalition

Sunday 08/01/2017
Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said

London - Oman has officially joined the Saudi-led anti-terror military coa­lition known as the Is­lamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), an in­dication that it wants to improve ties with its fellow Gulf Coopera­tion Council (GCC) members.
The official Saudi Press Agency said Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Ab­dulaziz Al Saud, who is also the country’s minister of Defence, re­ceived a letter from Omani Defence Minister Bader bin Saoud al-Busai­di announcing that Oman would join IMAFT. It is the 41st country to enter the alliance.
The Omani Foreign Ministry said the decision to join the alliance “comes within the common under­standing of the Islamic countries and in particular the role and lead­ership of the sisterly kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.
The sultanate’s decision comes when there has been rampant speculation about strained rela­tions between Oman and other GCC members — Saudi Arabia in particular — regarding Muscat’s re­lationship with Iran.
IMAFT includes countries with large established armies such as Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey. Oth­er Gulf countries in the counterterrorism coalition are the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar. The alliance does not include Iran, Syria or Iraq.
Oman has traditionally been the most independent of Arab Gulf states with regards to foreign poli­cy. 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.
News that Muscat was instru­mental in clandestinely bringing Iran and the United States to the negotiating table that led to the Iran nuclear deal also did not sit well with Oman’s Arab Gulf neigh­bours.
In November, a Bahraini official said a proposal to turn the GCC from an alliance to a union might not include Oman.
Ganem Albuainain, Bahrain’s minister of Parliament Affairs, told the London-based Al Hayat newspaper: “The position of Oman vis-à-vis the union is well known and respected but this should not freeze us. There might be a Gulf un­ion and a Gulf Cooperation Council for those interested in the formu­las.”
Plans for a Gulf union gathered steam in 2013, with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain calling for the shift but Oman outwardly rejected the move. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait abstained from endorsing the proposal. Albuainain said he thought there was “great enthusiasm for the union from the other Gulf members”.
However, the announcement of Oman joining IMAFT seems to have set a possible rapprochement in motion. A Saudi official said Prince Mohammed would make an official trip to Muscat, paving the way for a visit by Saudi King Salman bin Ab­dulaziz Al Saud.
“The recent return to the fold is a realisation that the destiny of Oman is in the Arabian Peninsula,” said Joseph Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh adding that “Omanis are Arabs not Persians and cannot be anti-Arab”.
“We need to remember that the alliance was created for the pur­pose of preventing the spillover from the Iranian revolution; there­fore, from the very beginning, there were disagreements. More re­cently, there has been some pretty tough decision-making within the GCC in that regard,” he said. “Now the Omanis have publicly stated: ‘We are part of the alliance for bet­ter or worse. We are going to be a part of the larger alliance against terrorism."
Talks on an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Oman are nothing new, Kechichian said.
“At the very beginning it want­ed to create the peninsula shield, which is the joint force that exists, to something much more powerful. At the beginning, Sultan Qaboos [bin Said Al Said] was even propos­ing that there would be an army of 100,000 men under command of a GCC general, presumably a Saudi, but the bulk of the soldiers would come from Saudi and Oman. That project was postponed a number of times since then.
“Eventually, Oman is going to be part of the GCC union. There really is no alternative. Small countries cannot make it by themselves in the international arena. They need to be part of strong regional alli­ances.” Kechichian said.
“There is no escaping that Oman is part of the GCC, was a founding member and will also become a part of the union. It’s just a matter of time.”