Sultanate of Oman- can bridge the widening Gulf, with its independent foreign policy; having equally good relations with both of Saudi and Iranian led West Asian poles. Oman kept indifferent amid political tension and geo-sectarian hostilities and ideological Iranian and Saudi conflict. Sectarian differences which are rooted in several centuries past could not compels Oman foreign policy, even in hard times when ideology was used as key instrument to advance political and strategic interests.
For Oman, however, its not an easy task to manage relations between two warring poles but Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said has been skillfully tackling the foreign policy challenges keeping its neutral pasturing, recently joined Saudi-led counter-terrorism alliance but kept itself distant on Yemen coalition. Rest of the regional countries has taken either side wither its week or stable, due to ideological inclination of the ruling class or sectarian believes of the majority.
Geographical proximity is not the key factor to influence the interstate relations, its the national interest. Even if a country is away from the geographic borders of Iran, and bordering Saudi Arabia sharing culture and lingual similarities, for example Yemen, it can be associated with Iran due to the sectarian inclination of a major chunk of its population on the other hand a country like Bangladesh is deemed to be natural ally of Saudi Arabia due to its religious affiliation. But it does not apply in the case of Oman. Sultanate of Oman is unique in many different aspects.
Majority of population in Oman belongs to Ibadi sect of Islam. Ibadis are neither Sunni nor Shi‘ia, other than Oman they exist mainly in East Africa, the Mzab valley of Algeria, the Nafus mountains of Libya, and the island of Jerba in Tunisia. The Ibadi attitude toward kuffar ni‘ma, whether they be sinning Ibadis or non-Ibadi Muslims, is that one should practice “dissociation” (bara’a) toward them. This “dissociation,” however, is usually an internal attitude of withholding “friendship” (wilaya), rather than outright hostility. The practice of dissociation (bara’a) does not imply enmity. Nur al-Din al-Salimi (1869-1914)
Above stated religious doctoring gives Oman a unique geopolitical touch to look at the two religious and political powers of the region indifferently. With regards to the religious concerns of Omani people it does not make any difference for them wither Iran is more powerful or Saudi Arabia is overshadowing Iranian religious identity.
When it comes to trade and finance, Oman shares the Strait of Hormuz with Iran and maintains cordial relations with Tehran. Oman’s emergence as a critical trade hub linking Iran to several continents is consistent with the sultanate’s independent foreign policy, which often operates outside the Gulf Coordination Council (GCC) framework. Oman helped to mediate secret U.S.-Iran talks in 2013 that led to the historic nuclear deal signed in Geneva two years later. It has also helped to free American hostages in Yemen. The lifting of sanctions on Iran also enables the sultanate to deepen energy relations via Iran with gas-rich Central Asia.
The passage of the interim nuclear agreement in November 2013 marked an important step toward building a Central Asian-Iranian-Omani trade nexus. Muscat’s attitude towards Iran differs from that of the rest of the GCC for commercial reasons. Iran and Oman have jointly developed an oilfield in the Gulf and a deal to build a pipeline to ship Iranian natural gas to the sultanate was signed in 2014.
On the other hand Oman’s fellow GCC states also have much to gain from the sultanate’s enhanced infrastructure and its access to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. When the Omanis began constructing the Duqm Port in 2013, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognized a chance to decrease their dependence on the Strait of Hormuz for transferring their own oil and initiated plans to connect their roads, railways and pipelines to Duqm.
As a rule, Muscat has preferred good bilateral relations with all over possibly confrontational regional alliances. Despite its divergence from standard GCC policies, Muscat has always been careful not to step on any neighbor’s toes. As a result, Oman’s lack of conformity has not damaged relations with fellow GCC members, and several disbursements have been made of the $10 billion aid package agreed in 2011 to help Muscat cope in the wake of the uprisings. This aid remains vital for the sultanate; with decreasing hydrocarbon prices.
On political grounds as well, Oman is a politically stable country on the southeastern corner of Arabian Peninsula, surrounded by some of the world’s most sensitive geopolitical fault lines and important trade corridors. The sultanate is set apart from neighbors by mixed populations, languages and sectarian identities too. Thanks to its independent foreign policy and security cooperation with West, Muscat has cautiously and pragmatically navigated through the region’s geo-sectarian divisions to maintain positive relations with all powers.
Since the Syrian crisis began, Oman unlike other GCC states, has maintained diplomatic relations with Damascus despite the fact that Saudi Arabia had closed its embassy and had recalled its diplomats and staff and all employees at the outset of the conflict, according to Arabia.net. Oman’s bin Alawi visited Syria in the summer 2011, and Oman did not cut its diplomatic and political relations with Damascus. After more than four years of the Syrian crisis, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem visited the Omani capital, Muscat, in the first visit of its kind to a Gulf state since 2011. He met with the Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi to discuss bilateral relations and the Syrian crisis.
Oman had been stable in its positions starting from the Iraqi crisis, and then passing through Yemeni crisis and Syrian crisis. It has been refusing to intervene in the affairs of the other countries. With its unique diplomatic position in the region, Oman is seeking to play regional mediator in solving the crisis afflicting the Arab and Gulf region. Oman has been trying to organize direct meetings between Riyadh and Tehran, the two key regional backers of the opposition and government of Syria respectively, according to Al Sharq Al Awsat newspaper.
Oman’s commercial, cultural and geospatial links to non-Arab lands are also rooted in its history as ruler of an empire that stretched across portions of modern-day India, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, Mozambique and Tanzania. Oman’s pan-Indian Ocean identity often transcends its Arab/Islamic identity and its membership in the Saudi-led GCC.
In August 2014, the foreign ministers of Oman, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan met in Muscat to sign a memorandum of understanding — “Establishment of the International Transport and Transit Corridor” — within the framework of the Ashgabat Agreement, signed in 2011 to establish a corridor among the four countries, since then Indian and Kazakhstan has also joined.
At the same time, while preserving financial support from the GCC, the Oman can render diplomatic mediation will help in balancing between regional powers and thus safeguard its stability. Having forged a role as a mediator between Iran and America, Oman has shown its willingness to try its role at Syria to encourage talks on solving that country’s crisis.
Muscat has the regional and international contacts and the peace-making experience, while needs to make such efforts for internal political reasons. Omanis believe this Swiss-Style peacemaker role is vital in helping to prevent the Middle East from sinking even deeper into chaos. Oman by sticking to its independent foreign policy and its religio-political doctrine of avoiding conflicts and hostility will soon be able to mediate between the two confronting powers of this region.