UK engages Oman on Yemen, Iran

Tensions involving Iran and Yemen’s civil war pose serious risks for British interests in the region.
Sunday 08/03/2020
Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said (C) meets with British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab (3rd L) in Muscat, March 2. (British Embassy in Oman)
Strong ties. Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said (C) meets with British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab (3rd L) in Muscat, March 2. (British Embassy in Oman)

DUBAI - British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab recently made his first official visit to the Arab Gulf for security and trade-related discussions in Oman and Saudi Arabia. The United Kingdom is looking to reinforce security and trade ties to the region as it moves into a future outside the European Union.

While the United Kingdom aims to define a new global role for itself following Brexit, tensions involving Iran and Yemen’s civil war pose serious risks for British interests in the region.

Raab met with Yemeni leaders, including President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in Riyadh as part of renewed efforts to find a political solution to the 5-year-old war in Yemen. Earlier, Raab had been in Oman to meet the new ruler, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, and Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi.

Raab’s visit came as British-Oman relations have seen an upsurge. This year the two countries will mark the 220th anniversary of the Unshook Treaty, which declared the bond between the two countries should be “unshook to the end of time.”

Last May, London and Muscat signed the Oman-UK Comprehensive Agreement, which lays out a framework for bilateral cooperation. Trade between the two sides has surged, last year soaring 90% to $3.7 billion.

The United Kingdom accounts for about half of all foreign direct investment (FDI) into Oman, making it the largest source of FDI. The British credit agency, UK Export Finance, is playing a growing role to facilitate trade with approximately $3.9 billion of financing available specifically for projects in Oman.

Enhanced UK-Oman trade ties bode well for Oman, which saw economic growth decline nearly 1% in 2017 after healthy growth of 5% a year earlier. Now Oman Vision 2040, which features 65 Key Performance Indicators, is aiming to kick-start a new economic development model that focuses on the non-oil sector. International partners, particularly the United Kingdom, will undoubtedly be important to its success.

Beyond trade, the United Kingdom attaches particular importance to ties with Oman given its diplomatic efforts and potential future role in staving off a regional conflict with Iran and in help for finding a political solution to Yemen’s protracted conflict and gradual implosion.

Under the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, Oman attempted to occupy a neutral space on regional conflicts and strategic disagreements. Following his ascension to the throne, Sultan Haitham, an Oxford graduate and career diplomat who served 16 years at the Foreign Ministry, including as under-secretary and secretary-general, declared the country would continue its efforts as a facilitator of peace under the same principles of Sultan Qaboos.

Sultan Qaboos, whose death in January ended a reign of 50 years, was a highly respected and valued partner in the Arab Gulf for the UK. Britain’s Prince Charles and Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Oman in January after his death.

Oman has performed a critical backchannel role over the years on regional issues, notably facilitating secret talks between Washington and Tehran that led to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal, between Iran and world powers.

In 2015, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recognised the role of “[o]ne of the esteemed leaders in the region” who had brought a message from the American president saying he was “willing to resolve the nuclear issue with Iran and lift the sanctions.”

Muscat and Tehran have maintained cordial relations for decades. Those ties survived the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attended Sultan Qaboos’s funeral in January.

Now that the JCPOA looks doomed under US President Donald Trump, and following the US killing of Iran’s most important military official, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, Oman could again have a crucial role to perform. Alluding to the same, prior to Raab’s visit, days earlier US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also made a short visit to Muscat where he met with bin Alawi.

Muscat has made efforts to broker indirect talks between Houthi rebels, who last year pledged allegiance to Khamenei, and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen for some time. The Yemen conflict remains politically unresolved but when a solution is eventually found, Muscat’s role and mediation support could well be recognised as instrumental once more.

Oman’s search for the middle ground diplomatically has not always been smooth but it has brought about comparisons with the Swiss approach at times. Oman was the only Arab Gulf country that maintained its embassy in Damascus throughout Syria’s 9-year-old civil war. Last autumn, Oman hosted Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in what was seen as a major development for the Middle East.

When the British-flagged ship Stena Impero was seized by Iranian forces carrying crude oil last year, Muscat was quick to call for its release and for restraint from Tehran.

As the United Kingdom deepens engagement with Oman — two years ago it announced a new British naval base to be hosted there — both sides will look forward to using their steadily growing influence to ensure the region can move towards accelerated dialogue and diplomacy.