THE TALLEYRAND OF MUSCAT

Oman 2017 | DIPLOMACY | REVIEW: DIPLOMACY

Oman reaps the benefits of its strategic diplomatic balancing act between Iran and the US, which culminated in the successful implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in January 2016. The fruits are many and real: new infrastructural deals, automotive plants, and air routes, to name but a few.

Oman's recent reputation as a savvy diplomatic operator is not without merit. Wedged between two much larger proxy-warring neighbors with inimical geopolitical and ideological claims upon the region, Oman must dance to an ever-changing and increasingly chaotic tune. If only the Saudi-Iranian rivalry were the only thing at stake: Oman has also fought hard to remain neutral in the vicious civil war raging in next-door Yemen, a vastly underreported struggle that's left large swathes of its peninsular neighbor in ruins. Add to this its proximity to the pirate-infested waters that have plagued the Horn of Africa for the past decade, and the challenges to the country's security, peace, and prosperity are legion.

How then, does it remain year in and year out a bastion of all three? In a region torn asunder by sectarianism, religious extremism, and geopolitical instability, much of Oman's success can be attributed to its deft diplomacy. In a nimble balancing act, it has expanded commercial ties with Iran without alienating the Gulf countries, expanded its commercial and diplomatic ties to former colonies in East Africa, enhanced its strategic partnership with China along the East African seaboard and the Indian Ocean at large, and remained a quiet but constant friend to the old matron of maritime mastery in the region, the US.

To be sure, the biggest news in recent years has been the quiet revolution in Oman's increasingly fruitful relationship with Iran. Though a member of the often anti-Iranian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Oman has parlayed its historic and transcontinental ties to modern-day India, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, Mozambique, and Tanzania to escape the Gulf and retain an independent diplomatic hand concerning Tehran. As a result, it stands to handsomely gain as Iran increasingly depends upon Oman's ports as its stepping-stone to entering Arab, African, and Asian markets.

It was no secret that Oman played a crucial role in getting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) passed between Iran and the P+5 that lifted sanctions on Teheran and went into effect in January of 2016. Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Sibaveh said, “Friends at times of need are few and Oman stood with us through thick and thin, and we do not forget our friends." As recompense, Iran made good on that promise several months later, announcing in March the establishment of a USD200 million joint venture with Oman called Orchid International Auto to build an automotive plant in Duqm on Oman's Arabian Sea coast. In partnership with Iran's largest automaker, Iran Khodro Co., Oman's state-owned investment fund, is partnering with a private Omani investor to start producing in 2017 what they hope will be 20,000 cars a year by mid-2018. Iran also has plans for several other projects in the country, including a hospital complex, a nanotechnology plant, and the inauguration of flights between Oman and Chabahar, Iran.

Close as Muscat and Tehran have grown in the past few years, the ties that bind them predate the JCPOA by decades and are rooted in a much richer, and in some ways more ironic, history. Though Oman is one of the Islamic Republic's few friends in the world, it was not on bad terms with the Shah either. When an anti-monarchist, pan-Arabist socialist rebellion sprung up against Oman's monarch, Sultan Said (father of the incumbent Sultan Qaboos) in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the Shah that came to his rescue to prevent the creation of a south Yemen-backed socialist republic. Weathering the ideological storms of the Cold War, the Omani-Iranian relationship has also survived the “postmodern" return to theocracy in 1979, when Muscat was one of the few Arab states not to break off relations when the mullahs took power.

On the contemporary geopolitical front, Oman has straddled a fine line between strengthening its ties with Iran without overly alienating Saudi Arabia. To be sure, Riyadh has often been an overbearing presence—one from under which many in Muscat are happy to now be emerging. And however bereaved at Iran's newfound normalized international status, it is not as though the Saudis could not see this coming as a result of JCPOA. That being said, while Riyadh cannot in good faith begrudge the Omanis for opening their doors for business, they are less sanguine about the Sultanate's neutrality in the Yemen civil war—especially when many in the Saudi-US-UAE camp accuse Iran of using Oman as a corridor through which to ship arms to Houthi rebels.
While Oman ardently denies such charges, it has draped a grey cloak of suspicion over its ties to the rest of the GCC in the past year. Nonetheless, perhaps it is unrealistic to expect Oman to escape a flaming regional imbroglio sucking in the rest of its neighbors completely unscathed. Thus, while the mutual recrimination with Riyadh is unfortunate, at least it was not unforeseen.

Looking Back to Move Forward

On a brighter note, Oman has been making important strides in rekindling ties with former imperial possessions in Africa. In November of 2013, it donated USD1.8 million to Washington's National Museum of African Art to highlight Oman's ties to East Africa. Later that year it also awarded USD100,000 in equipment and training to Tanzania to help that country preserve historical data. More importantly, Omani investors have promised USD100 million to help revive Tanzania's fledgling national airline and revive direct flights between Dar es Salaam and Muscat. There is also a flurry of foreign direct investment. While Oman Trading International Ltd. has expressed its intention to invest USD50 million in fuel storage facilities across Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique to better supply African markets, the Oman Oil Company recently established its first regional office in Tanzania under the aegis of Oman Energy Limited.

It is also looking much further east. By 2013 bilateral trade with China had already reached USD13 billion, making Oman China's fourth-largest trading partner in the Middle East. A combination of mostly oil, methanol, paraxylene, and polypropylene, Oman's trade with China represented 30% of all exports that year alone. With more than 40 companies present, China's investments in Oman are thought to be valued at more than USD2 billion. And the ties are not merely commercial or natural resource-related—which is after-all the centerpiece of Chinese foreign policy so far this century—they are also geostrategic and military.

With a huge interest in keeping the Indian Ocean and its various tributaries “open for business," the Chinese have been very active in the fight against piracy in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, to name but a few. Since 2010, warships from the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducting anti-piracy operations have made over 20 port calls for supply and replenishment at Port Salalah, making Oman a focal point for China's greater Middle East security policy. For two countries that have gone decades without regime change, this strategic rapprochement is a remarkable feat; after all, it was the same People's Republic of China that gave substantial military, financial, and political support to the socialist Zhobar rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s that came as close to anything to toppling the Omani throne in the 20th century.

Closer to home, Oman has also remained a quiet force for stability. When Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif visited Oman in May 2015 to discuss the situation in Yemen, Muscat agreed to serve as an intermediary between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reach a ceasefire as soon as possible. Though the situation in Yemen remains worse than dire, Oman has managed to weather Saudi criticisms that it has lent too much of an ear to Tehran since that conflict began; and rather dexterously, it has also managed not to alienate its other activist GCC neighbors such as the UAE and Qatar, both of whom are eager to take the fight to the Houthis in a more serious manner. At the end of the day, perhaps it is Sultan Qaboos' extended memory that has served Oman well; after all, even if it has to go back to 1963, Oman remembers all-too-well how quickly wars can creep across its border from Yemen.

Despite its closer ties to Iran and its increasing cooperation with the Chinese navy, one ought not forget that other major player in the Gulf, the US. As if to bring its Talleyrandian skills full circle, Oman has also managed to remain on Washington's bright side over the course of the past five years' chaos. Perhaps as only a rooted relationships can be, the US and Oman share a rich diplomatic historic of mutually overlapping ties. Not only are Sultan Qaboos and Secretary of State John Kerry long-time personal friends, but Oman was also the first country in the Middle East to sign a free-trade agreement with the US, partially in reward for allowing US soldiers to be stationed on its soil and partially in return for maintaining warm, if not official, ties with the state of Israel since the 1980s. As a result, the US has remained quiet about Oman's growing cooperation with Iran.

Friends with Benefits

Meanwhile, Oman has also emerged in the past 18 months as the principle intermediary between the US and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as American diplomats have occasionally gone to great lengths of secrecy to meet with Houthi representatives in Muscat. And Oman's ingenious backchannels are not restricted to communicating between the US and merely one regional pariah; in October 2015, Qaboos dispatched his foreign minister to Damascus to deliver a private message for Bashar al-Assad from Secretary Kerry himself. Though most of these talks occur in Muscat, Oman has also taken pains to bolster its presence in Washington. In 2014, it is said to have paid USD16.5 million, twice the purported value, for a property three blocks north of the White House that will serve as a cultural center promoting “mutual respect and understanding" through a series of “outreach programs, scholarships, lectures, educational resources and cultural partnerships."
Not unsurprisingly, Muscat's recently flourishing friendship with Washington has resulted in more than an uptick in cultural exchanges. In a region whose politics often seem to rest on a floor of quicksand, it pays to remain vigilant. Thus under the Obama administration, the White House has cleared USD6.6 billion in major weapons sales to Oman, including 18 F-16 jet fighters and a USD1.28 billion sale of Raytheon's National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS). Should the country ever lose its hard fought neutrality in the region, it would quickly see who its real friends are.