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Omans independent foreign policy a triumph for global diplomacy

Asha Castleberry is a U.S. National Security Expert and U.S. Army Veteran. She is
an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project (ASP) and a member of the
Truman National Security Project Defense Council. She tweets at @ashacastleberry.
Regardless of the geopolitical challenges in a volatile region, Muscat is gaining
credibility as a regional peacemaker. This summer, Oman attracted attention for its
peaceful image after the U.S. successfully reached its historic interim deal with Iran.
Muscat was one of the first countries in the Middle East to support open talks
between the U.S. and Iran.
Since then, Oman continued its momentum and shown its willingness to take the
lead in peacemaking in the Middle East. In August, Oman received its first visit in
four and half years from the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Muallem, to discuss
key steps in resolving the Syrian crisis. This move could help the Al-Assad regime to
participate in peace negotiations. Also, Oman was one of the first GCC states to
accept an invitation for the Iran-GCC open dialogue summit despite resistance from
several GCC state officials. Oman deeply believes a healthy relationship with Iran
can help achieve regional stability.
Omans 21st-century, independent foreign policy is a growing asset in peacemaking
in the region. Nevertheless, Omans peacemaking role is often overshadowed by
Saudi Arabias regional dominance. When it comes to influence in the Middle East,
Saudi Arabia remains the most powerful gulf state. Ranging from security issues like
nuclear proliferation, countering ISIL, the Syrian and Yemeni crises and the ArabIsraeli conflict, Saudi Arabias position on every issue is critical for U.S. foreign
policy. Since the passing of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, Saudi Arabia has
grown more militarily involved in Yemen conflict and aggressive in arming rebel
groups in Syria.
Despite Saudi Arabias regional dominance, Muscat has positioned itself to do the
exact opposite by pursuing soft power as a priority in their foreign policy. Muscat is
gaining more attention for taking the lead as a peaceful, diplomatic pioneer in the
Arab World. Since Saudi Arabia has not bullied Oman into ceasing this independent
behavior, Riyadh has tacitly accepted Muscats independent foreign policy. Its
historical persistence and success in global diplomacy has helped gain silent
acceptance from Riyadh and the rest of the gulf region.

Omans domestic policy also shapes the countrys desire to maintain an


independent foreign policy. The post-2011 Arab Spring period was one indicator
that caused Muscat to seek long-term security and economic prosperity through
positive foreign relations. Political turmoil fueled by the Arab Spring immediately put
pressure on Sultan Qaboos bin Said to implement political and economic reforms
and led him to reshuffle key leadership in his cabinet and address corruption. Most
importantly, the Arab Spring shed light on the lack of economic opportunities in the
country. Oman faced serious economic downfalls such as a high unemployment
rate and consistent domestic energy demands.
Through its good neighbor policy, Muscat balanced its economic interests by
expanding its ties with key allies regardless of geopolitical challenges. Muscat
believes that maintaining a reputation of openness with all countries--even with
unpopular states, like Iran will attract foreigners. As a result, Muscat secured major
economic projects separately with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Oman reached an
unprecedented agreement with Iran to build a major natural gas pipeline.
Meanwhile, it is also scheduled to build a major road linkage with Saudi Arabia that
will boost economic growth by strengthening tourism and building new businesses.
In light of their security policy, Muscat maintains a minimum military defensive
posture, which is not surprising for a country that is eager to be a regional
peacemaker. Omans small armed forces with a limited military strength is another
factor of why Oman would pursue diplomacy over defense to counter regional
threats in a rough neighborhood especially around the Strait of Hormuz- a critical
oil-supply passage that connects the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Also,
internal security is essential for the Sultan Armed Forces (SAF). SAFs top security
priorities are mainly focused on tackling domestic concerns, including border
security, weapons smuggling, and narcotics trafficking. For several years, the U.S
has provided assistance to address Muscat's national security priorities by investing
over ten million of dollars in military aid. Despite the 2011 Arab Spring, Oman is
experiencing significantly low domestic threats.
When it comes to joining regional security coalitions, SAF lessened its role in
regional coalition efforts within the last decade. In 2013, Oman initially rejected
Riyadhs plan to form an economic and military command. Its resistance to forming
a military command stemmed from its desire to play as a mediator for the U.S.-Iran
deal and its support of establishing a nuclear-free trade zone in the region.
Oman has taken a similar approach in responding to both the counter-ISIL mission
and the Yemen conflict. For the counter-ISIL mission, Oman plays a limited role but
pledged to provide both military support and humanitarian aid. In addition, Oman
pledged to prevent the flow of foreign fighters. In fact, several local Omani media
outlets reported that the country generated no foreign fighters serving in Iraq and
Syria and remains committed to countering finance terrorism. Another factor to note
is that sectarian strife between the Sunni and Shia communities is not a major issue
in Oman. Sunni-Shia communities co-exist peacefully, which also reflects their
foreign policy decisions with Iran. This is not surprising when the Sultan and the
majority of the people follow Ibadi Islam. Traditionally, Ibadi Islam tolerates religious
differences and prohibits sectarian violence in Oman.

Despite its limited military role in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Oman would rather
contribute their diplomatic power. Oman believes it can help facilitate bringing the
Al-Assad regime to the table to work with key stakeholders. For humanitarian
support, Oman contributed donations for Syrian refugees but recently criticized
along with the rest of the GCC states for their zero-tolerance policy of taking in a
significant number of IDPs. If the country decides to reverse their its policy, Oman
will probably be the best country to accommodate Syrian refugees compared to the
rest of the Gulf states. For the Yemen crisis, Oman is the only GCC state that
provides no military contribution to Operation Decisive Storm. Instead, Muscat
repeatedly attempted to mediate open dialogues between the Al-Houthi group and
the Saudi-led coalition. Just two months after the start of the mission, Oman also
facilitated the first open dialogue between the U.S. and Al-Houthi group.
Omans incomparable, pragmatic foreign policy is achieving significant gains in the
most perplexing of regional dilemmas. As a result, Omans independent policy is
increasingly becoming monumental in peace and security issues for the
international community.
Omans independent policy also complements the Obama administrations goal of
resolving issues through pragmatism and diplomacy. The U.S. has gained positive
results from their current relationship with Oman. However, this relationship is at
risk depending on two possible factors. First, this bilateral relationship may change
depending on who will be win the U.S. presidency in 2016. Presumably, Oman and
the rest of the international community will not support to rescind the Iran deal.
Regardless of political changes, the presidential administration should continue
working with Oman to bring Iran to the table to discuss other key issues. This could
help facilitate discussion on the release of American prisoners, countering ISIL in the
region, and ensuring security for Israel and the rest of the Gulf region. Second,
Oman may also face governmental changes in the near the future. Sultan Qaboos
has ruled since 1970 and is now over seventy years old. His health provoked
concern when he did not attend the last U.S.-GCC Summit. The Sultans successor
may continue an independent foreign policy or the international community may be
confronted with changes in Omans foreign policy. Until then, Muscat will continue
to resolve issues through diplomatic means rather than military power.
PS21 is a nongovernmental, nonpartisan, non-ideological organization. All views
expressed are the authors own.