Oman’s supposed policy of neutrality does not convince anyone anymore

Muscat’s precarious balance is increasingly unrealistic and ultimately untenable.
February 11, 2018
Red-carpet treatment. Omani Deputy Prime Minister Fahd Bin Mahmud al-Said (R) welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah  al-Sisi upon his arrival in Muscat, on February 4.     (AFP)
Red-carpet treatment. Omani Deputy Prime Minister Fahd Bin Mahmud al-Said (R) welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi upon his arrival in Muscat, on February 4. (AFP)

Omani officials gave Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the red-carpet treatment during his first state visit to the Gulf country. Despite the predictable exchange of pleasantries and well-meaning pledges of enhanced cooperation, the unmentioned elephant in the room was Qatar.

There was no mention of the small Gulf country in official statements issued during the visit but Omani and Egyptian leaders could not see eye to eye on Muscat’s neutral position in the dispute pitting Qatar against the Saudi-led Arab quartet.

All signs point to the position of the sultanate on this issue becoming contentious for Egypt and other members of the Arab quartet who resent Doha’s cosy relations with Tehran and suspected ties to extremist groups.

Oman, saying it seeks to maintain a policy of regional and international neutrality, portrays itself as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” However, with the polarised geopolitical climate in the region as well as the economic challenges facing the sultanate, Muscat’s precarious balance is increasingly unrealistic and ultimately untenable.

Fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, which vehemently object to Qatar’s policies, are increasingly unconvinced by the sultanate’s supposedly non-committed stance on the dispute between Doha and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. Oman’s moves, which include recent agreements with Doha to develop bilateral investments and trade, suggest thinly veiled, undeclared support for Qatar.

Many Gulf analysts agree that the quartet no longer sees Oman as a neutral party. The prevailing view is that the logistical, economic and commercial advantages Muscat provides for Qatar are not much different from Iran’s and Turkey’s declared support to Doha.

Gulf capitals are also unimpressed by Muscat’s official stance of neutrality towards Iran at a time when Tehran’s designs are perceived as an existential security threat to the region.

News that Muscat was instrumental in secretly bringing Iran and the United States to the negotiating table that led to the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also did not sit well then with its fellow Arab Gulf countries.

More recently, there was Oman’s failure to downgrade diplomatic ties with Iran after the Saudi diplomatic mission in Tehran was attacked by an Iranian mob in January 2016.

Muscat’s stand in the Yemen war is also followed with suspicion. While the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was fighting in support of the internationally recognised government against Iran-allied Houthi rebels, an October 2016 report revealed that Iran had increased its illegal military support to the Houthis and that weapons were being smuggled to Yemen through Oman.

With such questionable stances, it is becoming unrealistic to expect the Saudi-led bloc to continue bailing out Muscat from serious economic woes that cause social unrest in Oman.

In March 2011, GCC countries stepped in to help Oman and Bahrain with a $20 billion stimulus package but that would be a very unlikely scenario today. The Gulf countries have their own budget concerns and priorities. They are entitled to drawing their conclusions about where each country of the region stands. Oman’s so-called neutrality does not convince anyone anymore.

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