ON PRAGMATISM

Oman 2014 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: BALANCED RELATIONS

Oman's foreign policy choices have been flexible and evenhanded, stemming from its traditional openness to the outside world.

Since the accession of HM Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said in 1970, Oman has followed a foreign policy unique in the GCC region. The strategy is one of absolute pragmatism, and has led to a heterogeneous array of policies that occasionally run counter to those of neighboring Arab countries, but largely reflect Oman's conciliatory attitude toward relations with other states. The past four decades have seen Oman assert its individuality by unswervingly pursuing its economic, military, and social goals through the balancing of numerous alliances.

The government's ability to look outward and engage with different nations is very much related to the country's time-honored seafaring tradition and its strategic location on the Strait of Hormuz. This geographic fortuity places Oman in a unique position at the center of a number of global rivalries. Oman has enjoyed close relations with Iran since the days of Shah Pahlavi, and managed to maintain the relationship following the 1979 revolution. This adaptability is characteristic of HM Sultan Qaboos' foreign policy. At the same time, the country spent much of the 1970s lobbying for joint security initiatives with its Gulf Arab neighbors, an endeavor which culminated in the establishment of the GCC in 1981. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, Oman attempted to act as a mediator, but ultimately took neither side and maintained relationships with both sides. Its largely non-aligned and neutral behavior, exceptional in the region, has seen the Sultanate run ahead of the pack in many foreign policy initiatives.

This facet of Omani strategy is not lost on its friends. “Oman has a long-established policy of maintaining good relationships with all countries, and the UK greatly respects this position," noted Britain's Alistair Burt, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Hundreds of years of trade with Britain have forged a resilient connection between the two nations. The UK remains the largest foreign investor in Oman, with 36% of the total stock of FDI. The relationship is proving valuable for Oman's military, too, with a recently signed £2.5 billion deal for 12 Typhoon and eight Hawk aircraft. A 1980 Joint Facilities Agreement (JFA) with the US was the first such agreement with an Arab nation, and paved the way for a close military relationship. Oman provided capacity and facilities for the US Army following the First Gulf War, and the JFA still stands.

Sea-based trade connections explain the country's diverse linguistic makeup, with Swahili and Baluchi both widely spoken, among other languages. The country's long coastline on the Arabian Sea influenced its intercontinental maritime ventures, and has led to centuries-old relations with East Africa and the Indian Subcontinent. From Tanzania to Somalia, Oman traded with the continent and much of its population became engaged in international trade. “The strength and depth of this bond are borne out in the constant links connecting huge swathes of the populations of both nations," notes Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. This diaspora was called on to return by HM Sultan Qaboos in the 1970s, and played a central role in the modernization of the country. Similarly, a long-standing trading history with India and Pakistan has facilitated warm relations with both countries, and accounts for the prominent position of the Baluchi language in the Sultanate. Established connections such as these lead to the mixing of cultures and people, and the strong familial connections that exist between Oman and its longstanding trading partners are yet another reason for the government's enlightened disposition in the international arena.

As new challenges and conflicts materialize in Oman's ever-troubled hinterland, particularly in Syria, Somalia, and Iran, the establishment will need to consistently reconsider policy, though it is clear that their strategy has been working well. A society “capable of expressing their opinions and ideas in acceptable language, through sensible logic, and [of following] a prudent vision based on a proper assessment of matters," in the words of HM Sultan Qaboos, will be reflected in equally pragmatic foreign policy decisions going forward.