Oman resets GCC ties, joins Saudi anti-terrorism coalition
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.”