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.
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.