THE RIGHT BALANCE

Oman 2015 | DIPLOMACY | REVIEW: DIPLOMACY

For Oman, geopolitical realities and shifting balances of power necessitate a pragmatic policy of cooperation and mediation.

His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said established his diplomatic prowess during his first year on the throne at the age of 29, when he offered general amnesty and integration to the rebelling Dhofari tribesmen—some six years into the country's protracted separatist uprising. This definitive counterinsurgency-cum-nation-building took place in conjunction with extensive international cooperation that ensured an outcome in favor of the Sultanate. Over 40 years later, as revolutions and civil wars have redrawn borders and upended the balance of power in the Middle East, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has successfully steered his country through the regional turbulence. In late 2014, Oman's strong international reputation made the Sultanate the preferred location, and negotiating partner, between Iran and a US-led delegation. One year earlier, the Associated Press revealed that secret talks between the US and Iran had been held in Oman in March 2013, which had paved the way for the deal between Iran and the P5+1. These international policy successes—built on a reputation for quiet, yet successful diplomacy—are anchored by a system of stable internal governance that has made Oman an attractive international partner.

The Sultanate of Oman is a hereditary monarchy with a population of 3.9 million, with 1.7 million non-nationals in residence. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has ruled the Sultanate since 1970, and has sole authority to amend the country's legal system through royal decree. Oman's ministries draft laws and citizens provide input through the 84-member Majlis al-Shura (the Consultative Council), which is an elected non-partisan organization with a four-year mandate. In 2011, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said increased the powers of this council by requiring the Council of Ministers to refer draft laws to the Majlis al-Shura for amendment or approval. The Majlis al-Dawla (the State Council), meanwhile, is comprised of 71 members, who are appointed by the Sultan, and in conjunction with the Majlis al-Shura are responsible for reviewing legislation, recommending policy, and conducting studies on public policy. A 32-member cabinet of ministers serves in an advisory capacity to the Sultan, advising him regarding government decisions. Security forces report to civilian authorities.

Speaking to an audience in London in late 2014, Oman's Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sayyid Badr bin Hamad Al Busaidi, explained that peace is a prerequisite for prosperity. This position underpins Omani foreign policy and defines its transnational relationships. While the Sultanate has a storied legacy of non-alignment and reticence to engage in conflict, recent events have shown that Oman places a premium on its national interests, especially in light of geopolitical realities. The Sultanate is situated on the Straight of Hormuz, the narrow body of water that is a conduit for 20% of the global crude oil trade. Across the Gulf from Oman sits Iran, with whom the Sultanate has maintained cordial relations, despite Iran's cool relations with many of Oman's neighbors. Having acted for some time as an intermediary between the West and Iran, Oman was again called upon to mediate talks scheduled for November 2014, bringing together Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Catherine Ashton, who represents the EU.

With sectarian politics wreaking havoc in the region, Oman maintains a cultural distance because the majority of its population is neither Shia nor Sunni, but rather Ibadi. A defining characteristic of Ibadism is that it is not a sectarian practice. Ibadis, while cleaving to a strict interpretation of sharia canon, worship happily in any mosque and welcome practitioners of other sects into their places of worship. This tolerance extends to non-Islamic faiths as well, providing a cultural underpinning for Oman's conciliatory position and willingness to work with other states. While many Arab countries broke their ties with Egypt following the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, Oman refused to do so, prioritizing peaceful relations. At the same time however, Oman maintained close ties with its Arab neighbors, and joined the six-member GCC when it was founded in 1980.

Back home, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said is responding to the dominance of oil and gas revenues in the country's economy by strengthening state institutions, fighting corruption, and taking other steps to diversify beyond the oil trade. One component of this strategy is winning loans and signing cooperative deals with other countries. Following the Arab Spring, the GCC pledged $10 billion in aid to Oman. A large part of this aid is being spent on a railway stretching from Oman through the UAE and Saudi Arabia to Kuwait. At the same time, a series of trade deals signed with Iran will see increased economic ties once sanctions on the latter are eased. In 2013, trade between Iran and Oman was a mere $250 million; however, a deal to buy gas over the next 25 years will tag another $60 billion on to that figure. In March 2014, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani landed in Muscat for his first official visit to an Arab state, where he was welcomed by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. One outcome of the trip was a $1 billion deal to construct a natural gas pipeline connecting Iran's Hormuzgan province with Sohar. By 2017, Iranian gas is expected to be flowing in Oman.

Oman is also forging new ties with the East. As the Chinese economy makes inroads into the MENA region, Oman is at the forefront. In 2013, Oman exported 180 million barrels of oil to China, according to Arabian Oil and Gas, accounting for 60% of the Sultanate's total oil exports. While the oil business dominates the headlines, companies from Oman and China have inked construction deals including a power plant, roads, a port, water management, and shipbuilding. This economic integration is happening alongside educational and cultural diplomacy. In 2010, the Omani-Chinese Friendship Association was formed to strengthen friendship and cooperation between the two countries in the economic, social, cultural, and scientific fields. This trend is likely to continue well into the future, as Beijing has plans to boost its investment in the region with the recent signing of the 2014-2017 China-GCC Strategic Action Plan, of which Oman is an important partner. Meanwhile, India is stepping up its engagement with Oman. There is a significant India presence across the productive sectors in Oman. India's exports to Oman almost doubled during 2012-13, compared to the previous year. Oman's significant expatriate population—1.7 million according to the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI)—also keeps the Sultanate cosmopolitan in its outlook. Indian expatriates are the most prominent at 597,334, followed by Bangladeshis (508,774), Pakistanis (223,219), Ethiopians (44,411), Indonesians (30,734), Filipinos (29,251), Egyptians (23,094), Nepalese (12,806), and Sri Lankans (12,468). These expatriates go on to establish transnational ties, bringing their culture with them and transmitting Omani customs and practices upon their return. Trade ties are also enhanced through these migratory mechanisms. For all of the countries prominently represented by expatriates in Oman, bilateral trade has been on the rise. And while Oman is making efforts to reduce its reliance on imported labor, its cosmopolitan disposition remains one of its strongest suits.

OMAN & AFRICA

The continent of Africa and the Sultanate of Oman have relations that date back to ancient times when traders from both regions were using the maritime routes along the Indian Ocean rim to trade their goods. During those years, there were no national borders defining sovereign states as we know them today. While Oman had a scarcity of certain food resources due to the harsh local climate during summer times, Africa had an abundance of agricultural and other resources. The relations between the Sultanate and the African continent remain strong, especially on the East Coast of Africa. The Sultanate has recently donated $1.8 million to America's National Museum of African Art to promote Oman's ties to the region. To mark cultural boundaries with Africa, the sultanate provided Tanzania with over $100,000 in equipment and training for the preservation of historical data, including that of the period of the Omani empire. After President Zuma's visit to the Sultanate, back in 2011, the country witnessed a heavy inflow of South African business visitors to Oman. The total trade between the two countries has shown a strong increase over the past five years, with growth averaging at 178.09% over 2009 to 2013. Several trade agreements between the two countries have been concluded, especially between the Ports of Sohar and Salalah with Richards Bay Industrial Development Zone. The benefits of these initiatives could potentially be expanded to other South Africa provinces since Sohar serves as an entry point to other GCC countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. In 2013, the Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Company launched a new shipping service between the Port of Salalah and Mogadishu. This is considered a milestone for bilateral trade between Oman and Somalia. An estimated $116 million annual increase is expected as a result of the new route. Kenya opened an embassy in Oman in 2011. The country exports tea, coffee, meat, and farm products. On the other side, Kenya imports oil, petroleum products, plastic, aluminium, and small boats from Oman. Kenya is exploring the possibility of buying fibre-optic cables and machine tools from the Sultanate too. Kenya's coastal region still depends on fresh water, consequently the country aims to use Omani desalination technology to meet the growing need for potable water.