Mediators in the Middle East: Oman

Situated between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a war in next-door neighbour Yemen, Oman is right in the middle of one the trouble hotspots of the Middle East. Yet, the country has mastered a delicate balance act and did not get involved militarily in any of the clashed surrounding it. Instead, Oman has undertaken various initiatives in order to reduce tensions where possible.

The chief architect of this foreign policy based on diplomacy, neutrality, and non-intervention is Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. Under him, Oman has an era of stability without frequent coups or long-lasting unrest. Qaboos came to power in a bloodless coup in 1970. Since then the small Gulf state has been the go-to intermediary in many conflicts.

To give you an idea in which conflicts Oman has intervened here is a quick summary:

The Gulf Crisis:

Oman did not join the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. While Kuwait has been the main mediator in this conflict, Oman has stayed mostly out of it. While the country may not have taken any sides publicly, trade with Qatar has increased significantly since the start of the crisis. In fact, this is probably one of the few instances in which Oman benefits financially from its neutrality.

Iran Nuclear Deal:

During the negotiations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) colloquial known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, Oman provided the much needed neutral ground given the known conflict between the United States on one side and Iran on the other. Through Oman, information could be exchanged discretely. Since it is so well connected across the region, Oman´s contacts were a valuable asset in the course of the mediation. The United States and Iran officially do not have diplomatic relations. Oman, therefore, presented a backdoor through which negotiations could take place. Qaboos government not only facilitated meetings, but also secured the release of hostages. In short, “Oman was instrumental in bringing the United States and Iran to the table together” as Shohini Gupta argues in her piece for the Foreign Policy Journal.

Yemen:

Similarly, to its stance on the GCC crisis, Oman has not joined any coalitions in favour or against the Yemeni government and not supported the military action led by the United States and Saud Arabia. Oman has hosted talks between the rivalling fractions in Yemen. Furthermore, it has secured the release of hostages and delivered humanitarian aid. It has closed its border though and primarily focused on preventing a spillover of the war into Omani territory.

The Omani method of conflict mediation: 

The outlines mentioned above are of course only short summaries of Oman´s involvement. Nonetheless, the countries formula to conflict-dispersion has become apparent. In each dispute it diplomatically intervened, Oman has relied on its strongest assets: domestic stability, neutrality and connections. While these are important to any mediator, Oman differs in its approach. Douglas Leonard, in his piece for the ETH Zurich´s Center for Security Studies, offers an interesting assessment. He refers to the influence of Oman´s main string of Islam, Ibadi, has in its approach to peace-making. Mediators are part of the Omani tribal culture and Leonard states:

“In helping to resolve these disputes, Oman’s approach works in part because it is discrete, non-coercive, sound and tested, and because it is defined according to principles of Islamic jurisprudence which are accepted by Sunni and Shia jurists alike.”

To sum it up, in addition to Oman´s decision to remain as neutral as possible; good relations with various countries, its mediator activities are also backed up by a certain degree of religious authority. So far, this approach has served Oman well. Aside from the altruistic motivation of spreading peace or at least reducing conflict in a volatile region, it most importantly ensures the country´s safety. The primary objective for any country. Making itself a trusted go-between has helped Oman to gain influence. As one report puts it:

“No regional or even global players (United States, United Kingdom, China) would have an interest in seeing the economic collapse of Oman due to its diplomatic policy as a mediator and its strategic geographic position.”

Oman found its niche in the geopolitical mosaic of the Middle East. What remains to be seen is how long the small state can preserve its position. Neither the GCC crisis nor the civil war in Yemen shows signs of slowing down. The pressure on Oman is rising. Keeping in mind that the ageing Sultan Qaboos won´t stay in power forever, it may only be a matter of time when Oman will have to take a side.

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Resource of the Day: MSC Media Library

The annual Munich Security Conference (MSC) took place from 16-18 February. The conference aims to promote peace through dialogue. Security experts, policy-makers, heads of state and business executives from around the globe participate in this high profile event. This year´s conference theme was:  “To the brink – and back?”

However, impressions from the conference paint a rather sobering picture. Tough speeches showed less room for dialogue and revealed how hardened the stances in various conflicts have become. German diplomat and MSC chairman Wolfgang Ischinger remarked:

“I was hoping we could delete the question mark at the end of 2018 MSC. But sorry: things are getting worse instead of getting better. Risks increasing. Back from the brink? Not really!”

Nonetheless, for observers of the Gulf it was an interesting event. After all, how many opportunities are there to hear high-ranking representatives of countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel at the same event? This brings me to the Media Library. The MSC puts most of the speeches and panels online. I encourage you to take a moment and browse around. Free access is provided not only to previous conferences, but also to roundtables concerning cybersecurity and energy, core group meetings, and other gatherings.

Anyone with an eye for Gulf politics ought to look at the following speeches:

Without taking too much away, Saudi Arabia and Israel view Iran as too involved in Syria. Iran, of course, denies any involvement and rejects accusations of furthering terror. Qatar´s emir delivered a compelling speech, describing the ways his country has prospered despite the blockade, and how the EU may serve as an example of peaceful conflict resolution. From the looks of it, neither the blockade of Qatar nor the conflict in Syria shows any signs of slowing down. That was the main message. Clashes are escalating, not just in the Middle East. In the words of Daniel W. Drenzer:

“It is not that people are frankly acknowledging reality. It is that they are acknowledging that they have no idea how to fix any of the problems.”

Iran Protests: Update / White Wednesdays

The demonstrations across Iran have now pretty much stopped. On the surface, seemingly nothing has changed. A casual observer might think that this was yet another suppressed protest, similar to the Green Movement, which came about in the contested 2009 Presidential Elections. The protests did not lead to any visible changes. However, at the very least they served as a reminder to the rest of the world that Iranians are far from content with their current socio-economic and political situation. Behnam Ben Taleblu states in Foreign Affairs:

Slogans chanted during the protests, such as “Leave Syria and think about us,” should remind audiences of the sharp cleavage that exists between the priorities of the regime versus those of the people.”

Given that domestic problems remain, future protests are not improbable.

One movement, however, has garnered more attention this the mass demonstrations dispersed; White Wednesdays. Since last year, Iranian women have taken to the streets, removing their veils in protest to the law that requires all women to wear a hijab. Lone this year, more than 20 women have been arrested. Iranian activist Masih Alinejad started the movement. She founded My Stealthy Freedom, a platform dedicated to supporting women who publicly remove their hijabs. Employing the hashtag #whitewednesdays women in Iran share pictures and videos of participants across the country. Women from diverse religious backgrounds and even men joined in all united in their demand that women ought to be able to choose whether to cover themselves and not to be forced to do so. With the veil as a symbol, Alinejad´s initiative serves to show the many constrictions women face in Iran. In weekly updates, she shows what obstacles they face simply based on gender divisions. One story features a female singer not allowed to perform alone stage.

While this movement shows no signs of slowing down, Alikarami points out that women´s rights groups in Iran are very diverse and by no means unified. She states:

“Their differences in approach have sometimes resulted in fundamental internal splits among activists, raising the prospect of losing sight of the larger objective of female emancipation and gender equality.”

In order to further equality, actual legislative changes need to be achieved. The chances of this happening would consequently be much higher if the different groups came together and decided on joint strategies. As Mark Shields puts it:

“There is always strength in numbers. The more individuals or organizations that you can rally to your cause, the better”.

Iran Protests: How has the regime reacted?

Now in the third week, Iran´s nationwide protests show no signs of slowing down. Meanwhile, the government in Tehran is feeling the rising pressure.

Employing the usual rhetoric, Tehran has accused the United States and Israel of interfering in domestic politics. It has also staged and publicized pro-government protests while the state-run media has not reported the actual extent of the counter dissent.

Surprisingly, President Rouhani has not condemned the protests outright, but conceded that the people have some legitimate reasons. It should be noted, that he referred to generational differences and not the regime criticism.

Security forces have been employed to quash the demonstrations. According to the New York Times, 25 people died so far. IranWire, a side run by Iranian journalists, reports that more than 3500 people have been arrested up to now. The side has created an interactive map to show where protesters are imprisoned.

There are concerns about how demonstrators are treated once detained. Approximately three detainees have died in prison. Officially labelled suicides, the family of a deceased state that the body indicates otherwise. However, further information is difficult to obtain due to a lack of government transparency and that not everyone is in the position to speak out publicly. During the 2009 turmoil, though, evidence about the abuse and killing of detainees in at least one prison came to light, sparking a public outcry.

Additionally, other measures taken include disrupting internet access. Social media has played a crucial role in organising demonstrations during the early stages of the Arab Uprisings. Iranians are using the same tools. IranWire states:

“In a survey, 60 percent of Tehranis and 54 percent of the residents of provincial towns who participated in the unrest said that counter-revolutionary channels and especially Amad News had incited them.”

Blocking specific apps such as Signal and Telegram show the regime´s increasingly sophisticated ability to control the flow of information. The Centre of Human Rights in Iran published a report, which details the advancements the current regime has made to track Iranians and their online communications more effectively.

Will the demonstrations last? In my next blog post, I will provide an update and see whether any significant changes have occurred.

Iran Protests: Who and Why

Starting in last December, Iran is currently dealing with protests all across the country. These are the biggest demonstrations since the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests better known as the Iranian Green Movement.

Based on information that has made it out of Iran, many young people are protesting. Some are working class, lending credibility to the claim that economic grievances are the reason for the unrest. Students are also going out in numbers, highlighting the political aspect of the demonstrations.

People on the streets are voicing their discontent with the economic situation. The country is still recovering from the sanctions imposed by the international community before the Iran Nuclear Deal was reached. Unemployment is especially high among young people. An unpopular new budget includes, among other things, the implementation of new taxes and cutting down support for people living in poverty.

While domestic investment is limited, Tehran has nonetheless been spending billions supporting its allies in the region. Syria´s Bashar Al Assad would likely not be in power anymore if it was not for the financial and military support by Iran. Additionally, the regime finances Shia militias in Iraq, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Different from previous unrest in the past though is the outspoken criticism of the current regime, especially Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iran is a theocracy, in which as the name implies, religious elites have significant power over the state. Plenty of regulations are in place restricting personal freedoms. Women do not have equal status to men. Consequentially, they face discrimination in and outside the workplace. A widening gap between the rich and the poor is furthering social inequalities. The system is perceived as corrupt and protestors are calling for significant reforms if not for a regime overthrow. Heshmat Alavi states in a Forbes article:

“The Iranian people no longer fear in expressing their true feelings, seen in the nationwide slogan of “Death to Khamenei.” Such a brave measure in the past would bear the potential of earning you a heavy prison term, if not a death sentence.”

Now, whether or not the protests will actually lead to significant changes remains to be seen. In the meantime, discontent with the current economic and political situation is widespread enough for the demonstrations to go into their third week.

How the regime has reacted to the protests and possible long-term implications of the demonstrations will be the topics of my next blog posts.

 

Resource of the Day: E- International Relations

E-International Relations is one of my favourite sites for a more academic take on developments in world politics. Easily my favourite part of it are the free e-books written by experts in their respective fields. During my studies, those helped me when I could not access similar articles. Students even have the opportunity to submit essays and articles for publication. I have put together little overview of books that deal with Middle Eastern politics:

 

Mediations on Diplomacy: Comparative Cases in Diplomatic Practise and Foreign Policy” by Stephen Chan.

I recommended reading his chapter entitled “The Separability of Jihad”. Among other things, it deals with Saudi Arabia´s connection to various extremists groups in the Middle East. Chan gives an interesting analysis on the role Wahhabism play in Saudi politics and society. Additionally, he shows the similarities between extremists’ ideologies across the region.

 

Caliphates and Islamic Global Politics” edited by Timothy Poirson and Robert L. Oprisko

If you want to get to grips with the Islamic State (ISIS), then this book is well worth given a read. The chapters cover many aspects such as ISIS during the Arab Spring, how ISIS governed its territory, as well a discussion on what an Islamic democracy looks like. I found this compelling, broadening my understanding of ISIS beyond my studies. At lot has happened since the book´s publication in 2015 but groups like ISIS are not defeated easily, making it important that we understand how they operate. This book is a good start.

 

The Arab Spring of Discontent” edited by Al MacKay

Published in 2011, it covers the early impressions of the Arab Spring. For Gulf interested readers, the book has chapters on Yemen, the GCC states and how they dealt with uprisings there as well as Iran.

 

The anatomy of a crisis: Perspectives on the 2009 Iranian election” edited by Stephen McGlinchey and Adam Groves.

Iran´s 2009 elections were highly contest due irregularities in the results, leading to widespread protests and the Iranian Green Movement. The contributors present background the election, what lead to the demonstrations, the West´s reaction, as well as the standing of the former president Ahmadinejad´s in Iran around that time.

I found the presentation of how women viewed this election particularly insightful. Fear of more oppression as Ahmadinejad was very conservative, and the question of how to proceed in such a climate, really gave me a better understanding of this episode in Iranian politics.

 

Taxes in Arabian Gulf

From January 2018 VAT will be introduced in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.

http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/business/gulf-states-say-goodbye-to-taxfree-reputation_49278
I do not find that necessarily surprising. In fact, this had to be expected. The oil price has been low since June of 2014 when it dropped from $115 to $35 per barrel. For background information on this, check out this Washington Post article.

The price has since not recovered to previous levels. It is estimated that Saudi Arabia currently needs oil to be sold at $70 per barrel to break even. Since that is not the case, it is only logically that taxes will be implemented.

More taxes could follow. I wonder about the resulting long-term effects of such measure. As the old motto goes:
“No taxation without representation.”

With regards of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) we are talking about oil monarchies or rentier-states. Their ruling bargain is based on an exchange. Put simply, the state (in charge of the selling of oil) provides a whole range of services such as an extensive welfare state and the population in return does not make demands for more political representation.

Now that Saudi Arabia and UAE seek alternative sources of income, this time from their own populations, things could change. I doubt we will see any major developments quickly. Over time however and with the implementation of other taxes, the people’s relationship to their respective state may change.
In a region infamous for its instability, I wonder what forms this shift will take?