On Sunday, July 11 the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tarik Al Said, arrived on his first foreign trip since becoming leader of the coastal nation on the Arabian Peninsula, following the death of his cousin, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who had ruled as Sultan since overthrowing his father in a 1970 coup. The Oman News Agency announced that Sultan Haitham bin Tarik discussed recent developments in the efforts to establish a cease-fire in Yemen, as well as the Iranian nuclear program. The two countries also stated in an announcement that, “the importance of cooperation and dealing in a serious and effective manner with the Iranian nuclear and missile issue with all its components in a way that contributes to realizing regional and international security and stability.”
The trip represents an important gesture from a country known for a quiet domestic scene but an larger diplomatic presence. Following over a decade of civil war during the Dhofar War ending in 1976, the Sultanate has since developed a reputation of serving as a neutral diplomatic back channel in the Middle East and beyond. This diplomatic reputation extends decades into the past. According to a report by Joseph A. Kéchichian at the Rand Institute in 1995, Oman stood out because while “other nations in the Middle East have been driven by ideology and short-term gains, the Sultanate of Oman has pursued its own course, holding to the belief that peaceful negotiation is essential to the overall, long-term goals of Omani security and prosperity.” Building on that, Omani diplomat Mohammed bin Awad al-Hassan said in a 2020 interview with NPR that Oman endeavors to show countries through their diplomacy that “the use of force is not the best tool to resolve differences.”
Since 1970, Oman has not severed relations with any nation and has even notoriously stood by its insistence on diplomatic immunity through crises like the war in Syria. Theodore Karasik and Andreas Paraskevopoulos note in an article in Inside Arabia that fellow GCC countries have largely worked together on many regional developments like the Qatar blockade. With this outlook, Oman has facilitated many key diplomatic breakthroughs spanning different conflicts and time periods. Oman has played a role in facilitating negotiations on the war in Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthis, as well as in other theatres of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. As the country is populated by followers of the Ibadi branch of Islam, the country has managed to stay out of the conflict between the two major regional powers whose differences are often framed as a Shia-Sunni sectarian rivalry.
The Sultan’s meeting with his Saudi counterparts, the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and King Salman, has the possibility to contribute to two different trends. First, the visit could represent an extension of Oman’s role on the international stage over the last few decades, particularly in the Middle East, as a diplomatic intermediary guided by a largely neutral, humanitarian ethos. The new sultan’s trip to Neom could extend the legacy of his cousin Sultan Qaboos into the future, creating new personal ties as a leader with a similar perspective on how his country should act.
On the other hand, the trip could be the start of a new era as Oman’s shifting domestic situation, particularly in the economy, may shape an different future in Oman’s role on the world stage. Oman, like many other countries in the region and across the world, is facing an unemployment crisis as well as an economy still reliant on public sector jobs and state run enterprises. The lack of good job opportunities or follow-through on reform promises has led to protests in the typically calm country, raising the stakes for the continued economic struggle following the coronavirus pandemic.
The country has already engaged the International Monetary Fund for economic consultations, but according to Bloomberg, Oman has also begun developing economic ties as a rapid pace with countries like Saudi Arabia. This includes opening the first land crossing for trade and transportation and multiple upcoming agreements on issues of “commerce, culture, investment promotion and post and transport.” Due to these growing economic ties, Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group argues that, “Sultan Haitham is viewed in Riyadh as leaning toward Saudi in terms of Gulf Affairs.”
These economic woes facing the country threaten to derail the long-standing Omani diplomatic approach as Sultan Haitham may shift his country’s trajectory as he maneuvers to rescue the economy and prevent or crack down on dissent and protest. Closer ties of any kind with Saudi Arabia as opposed to Iran could upset Oman’s ability to serve as a neutral negotiator as Saudi Arabia will hold more leverage to sway its action. Bringing Oman into the Saudi fold may compromise the unique conditions that allowed Oman to establish its diplomatic bona fides.
Currently, the world benefits from countries like Oman who facilitate diplomatic problem solving, maintaining a unique presence on the international stage while remaining relatively insulated from the geopolitical rivalries and tensions, staying out of the fray with also rejecting isolationism. In this way, countries like Oman act how international institutions and mechanisms should by building a reputation of effective diplomacy and brokering agreements. This model differs from other diplomatic approaches, including those of the great powers of the last century.
The United States, for instance, has presided over one of the most high-profile diplomatic negotiations of the last half century: the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Decades later and with constantly evolving political alignments within American leadership, multiple rounds of talks have failed. Part of this failure can be attributed to America’s status as a geopolitical hegemon and its complicated entanglement with various Middle Eastern countries. In particular, the non-NATO alliance between Israel and the United States has cast doubt on its ability to serve as a truly neutral party.
Oman is on the other side of the spectrum of diplomatic actors, keeping itself out of geopolitical developments, even at the local level, while still participating vigorously in brokering diplomatic solutions to conflict. With the ascension of Sultan Haitham, Oman is entering a new political era, only demonstrating the need for non-state bodies to take on responsibility for diplomatic negotiation instead of relying on states. While Oman has been able to serve as an effective intermediary, it represents the exception rather than the rule, and has also garnered some criticism for keeping an almost too open approach with countries like Syria who are engaged in violent repression. The world needs more diplomatic forums and organizations whose interests do not sway with the change of one position.
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