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03/03/2020

Oman, Switzerland of the Middle East

Oman, Switzerland of the Middle East

In one of the most tumultuous regions of the world, in which the fate of nations is determined by coalitions, there is only one state which has friendly or non-belligerent relationships with all other states. It has based its relationships with other states on the principles of international relations and has been recognized as a mediator by other states. That country is Oman, a powerful, stabilized, and above all, an independent state, reminiscent of Switzerland.

 

WHO IS THE NEW SULTAN OF OMAN?

Haitham bin Tariq Al Said is the new 65-year-old sultan of Oman who ascended to the throne on January 11, 2020, after the death of his cousin, Qaboos bin Said. Normally, Sultan Qaboos’s son should have been ascended to the throne, however, because he didn’t have a son, Haitham became Sultan.

Sultan Haitham, who is an Oxford graduate, has been Oman’s Minister of Culture for 18 years and had already served as the secretary of the Foreign Ministry. He was also in charge of Future Vision Oman 2040. His father, Tariq bin Taimur, was the mayor of Muscat and Oman’s Prime Minister. Tariq bin Taimur was one of Sultan Qaboos’s biggest supporters when he ascended to the throne. Since Tariq bin Taimur had lived and was educated in Turkey and Germany, he was familiar with the social laws of the European states. Applying the European laws in his own country, he got recognized as one of the founders of modern Oman.

Haitham bin Tariq has a hand in international affairs. He had different responsibilities in Oman’s Foreign Ministry from 1986 to 2002.

The new Sultan of Oman can generally be considered a modernist and a person who is willing to negotiate with the world.

OMAN’S KEY ROLE IN THE REGION

The Middle East, as the heartland of the world, has always been prone to major events such as the Arab Spring, the emergence of terrorist groups, and western states’ interference, particularly the United States of America. Therefore, the powerful states of the region, politically and ideologically on different fronts, caused the formation of political, military, and even economic coalitions. However, one state endeavored to stay away from these conflicts and play the role of an intermediary. That state is Oman.

The Omanis are religiously different from other Muslim states. They are disciples of Ibadism which is neither Sunni nor Shiite. This difference at first isolated Oman from Arabian Peninsula but with Sultan Qaboos’s ascending to the throne in the early 70s, this difference turned out to be one of Oman’s strengths because it prevented the state from the need to interfere in religious conflicts in the region.

 

On one hand, conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran regarding Iran’s influence in the region and conflicts between The United Arab Emirates and Iran on three small but highly important islands (The islands of Abu Musa & Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb) in the south of Iran, had no negative effects on Muscat-Tehran relationships. And on the other hand, military relations between Oman and UAE had no negative effects on Tehran’s and other regional states’ relationships with Oman. Even the tension between Muscat and Abu Dhabi on an espionage crisis caused by UAE, could not negatively influence the relationships between Riyadh and Muscat.

Even in cases such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, Saudi Arabia and UAE’s cutting off relations with Qatar, Oman neither supported Riyadh nor Abu Dhabi and remained neutral. And none of these issues had negative effects on the relationships between Arab Countries and Oman. Therefore, it can be claimed that the regional countries, particularly the Arab countries and Iran, have recognized Oman as a totally independent state.

 

SWITZERLAND OF THE MIDDLE EAST, ANTIQUITY, AND INDEPENDENCE

Oman has been nicknamed Switzerland of the Middle East since the two countries are politically similar. This appellation may appear strange to most people, however there are reasons which make it logical:

Historically, Oman was able to develop more relationships with non-Arab states compared to its other Arab neighbors. One reason for this is because of its geographic position and its historical capability in the shipbuilding industry. Oman is a non-Sunni and a non-Shiite state which helped the country strengthen the spirit of nationalism. They are disciples of Ibadism religion and preach Islam according to their own ways.

When isolated, states are left with two options, they either surrender to superpowers or with strengthening, become a power themselves. Oman chose the latter. Oman’s isolation which originates from its particular religion and geographic position played a role in the country’s independence.

Therefore, Omanis’ independence, diplomatic and political power, economy, and the spirit of peace-seeking are the most important reasons that make Oman the Switzerland of the Middle East.

MEDIATION BETWEEN IRAN AND ISRAEL

Channel 13 of Israeli TV claimed in a report that in 2013 Oman attempted to mediate peace talks between Iran and Israel but Benjamin Netanyahu did not agree with it. Even the head of Mossad gave a green light to the suggestion, however, Netanyahu’s stance ruined the talks.

When Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s president, whose policies were a lot different from those of his predecessor, Oman thought it could negotiate with president Rouhani and act as a mediator between Iran and Israel.

Alongside this issue, other talks started between Iran, the European Union, and the Group 5+1 which after two years led to JCPOA. The ways were secretly paved for these talks during the years before 2013 by Iranian and US negotiators in Oman.

Also in 2018 and after Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, there were whispers about Oman’s attempts to trigger peace talks between Iran and Israel which have never been confirmed.

Oman’s Foreign Minister, Yusuf bin Alawi, visited Tehran six times last year which increased the possibility of Oman’s intermediary role among Iran, Israel, and the US.

WAS IRAN READY FOR THE TALKS? IS AN IRAN-ISRAEL RELATIONSHIP EVEN POSSIBLE?

From Iran’s point of view, Israel is a fake country and does not recognize it. However, Iran’s enmity toward Israel goes back to the period prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. At that time, the Iranians would back Palestinians but the Shah of Iran would support the Israeli government. Mossad even trained special intelligence forces of Iran’s Shah named SAVAK. Therefore, the enmity toward Israel has been internalized in the Iranians’ memory. And now one of the most important characteristics of the Islamic government is the enmity toward Israel.

Therefore, on one hand, Israel is seriously worried about the influence of Iran in the region, particularly its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. On the other hand, Iran will lose its legitimacy if it reaches a peace agreement with Israel. Therefore, according to these reasons, talks between Iran and Israel is basically impossible.

OMAN’S STANCE ON PALESTINE-ISRAEL CONFLICT AND THE DEAL OF THE CENTURY

As we have pointed out, Oman, unlike other Arab countries, has good relations with Israel. The Palestine issue is the red line of all Muslims of the world and because of this Oman is not able to openly take stances against Palestine even it does not support the legal rights of the Palestinians.

Oman has always tried to overtly support Palestine and covertly support Israel. Oman has manifested such behavior in its stance toward the Deal of the Century.

Donald Trump’s speech in the inauguration of the Deal of the Century was given in the presence of UAE and Bahrain’s ambassadors whose presence cannot be meaningless. Nevertheless, The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIP) which Oman is a member of, rejected the initiative.

Oman has not taken a stance against the Deal of the Century, however, after the inauguration of the initiative, published a stamp whose design conjures up to mind the Palestinians’ right of ownership over Quds.

Therefore, Oman is either still assessing the Deal of the Century initiative or is planning to support both sides in order to side with the demands of Palestinians and Israelis in the first step and preserve its neutrality in the second step.

 

RELATIONS WITH SAUDI ARABIA AND THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

If Saudi Arabia and The United Arab Emirates had the right to choose between Haitham bin Tariq and Asa’ad bin Tariq, they would certainly pick the latter to be the king of Oman, because these two brothers are different from each other in such ways that could change the fate of a country.

Asa’ad bin Tariq is adventurous and a person who has a spirit for militarism and in this point of view is very similar to Mohammad bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed and even has been educated in the same academy just like Mohammed bin Zayed, the Royal Military Academy of England, Sandhurst.

However, Haitham bin Tariq follows the policies of Oman’s previous Sultan and additionally is interested in solving issues through diplomacy, unlike Asa’ad bin Tariq. He believes in Oman’s neutrality in the international arena, signifying that Saudi Arabia will have to continue to tolerate a non-allied and powerful neighboring country.

Maybe the only country that has a tense relationship with Oman is the United Arab Emirates. The negative relations between the two states have different reasons:

 

  • In 2011, Oman successfully discovered a UAE spy web on its soil. This issue is the most important reason for the tension between the two countries.

  • Oman remained silent over missile attacks on Saudi Arabia which prompted The United Arab Emirates’ criticism.

  • The Yemen Crisis and Saudi Arabia’s and UAE’s ruthless attacks on Yemen is also another controversial issue between the two countries.

  • Oman’s Support for Qatar when it was economically sanctioned by Saudi Arabia and the UAE which made Riyadh and Abu Dhabi angry.

It can generally be interpreted that Oman’s autonomy in decision making and The United Arab Emirates’ attempt to disrupt this autonomy caused the conflict between these two states.

Sultan Haitham’s treatment of Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, in Sultan Qaboos’ memorial ceremony, once more reminded the world of the two countries’ deep tension. Although, The United Arab Emirates tried to interpret Sultan Haitham’s treatment of Mohammed bin Zayed as a sign of respect for him, however, Sultan Haitham intended to show that just like his predecessor he is resentful over UAE’s actions against Oman’s security and has not yet forgotten those acts.

 

RELATIONS WITH ISRAEL, IRAN, AND TURKEY

Oman’s stances on Israel is also different from other Arab states.

Oman was one of three countries that cut their relations with Egypt after the 1979 peace agreement was reached between Israel and Egypt. Sultan Qaboos supported direct negotiations between Palestine and Israel and in 1994, when the tensions between Israel and Arabian states were at the highest point, met with Yitzhak Rabin in Muscat. Shimon Peres also visited Oman in 1996. Also, Israel’s Prime Ministers’ third visit to Oman happened in October 2018 when Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman one week after Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to Oman during which he met with Sultan Qaboos. All these visits happened when Oman and Israel did not have diplomatic relations.

Oman has historic relations with Iran, relations which have been preserved during the past century even with regime change in Iran. Mutual strategic goals that exist between the two states, particularly in controlling Strait of Hormuz caused Tehran and Muscat to come to a mutual understanding of each other. Yemen’s security is also another mutual concern of the two states. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) which isolated Iran, Oman was one of the few states that preserved its diplomatic relations with Iran. In general, Oman’s policies over Iran were realistic and Iran’s role in the region has not been overlooked by Oman.

Maybe it is possible to consider Turkey a neutral state in the region after Oman which unlike Oman, Turkey has directly confronted Israel. Ankara is on good terms with most of the regional states and in cases where the relations between Turkey and other states were strained, it was not Turkey’s fault such as Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi Arabia’s intelligence forces in Turkey. It might be for this reason that Oman considers relations with Turkey highly important.

Transparency between Oman’s and Turkey’s policies over Middle Eastern issues has brought the two states to a mutual understanding of each other. Although the diplomatic relations between Ankara and Muscat are not extensive, they have satisfying economic relations. For example, the volume of transactions between these two countries has increased from USD 23.8 million in 2003 to USD 592 million in 2014.

Additionally, it should be kept in mind that Sultan Haitham’s father was born in Turkey, was educated in Turkey, and grew up there. He was fully familiar with the Turkish language and culture. In fact, Sultan Haitham’s grandmother was from Turkey.

Undoubtedly, this Turkish ancestry will influence Sultan Haitham’s personal attitude toward Turkey.

 

SULTAN HAITHAM’S CHALLENGES IN CONTINUING SULTAN QABOOS’ DIRECTION

Sultan Qaboos was responsible for 12 important positions on top of Oman’s government and with his death, we not only see changes on the throne, but there will also be changes in the 11 other important positions at the highest levels of power. Therefore, we will undoubtedly see some changes in Oman’s policies but not likely in its major policies, because even in Sultan Qaboos’ era, one of the most important people in the major decision-making process was Haitham bin Tariq.

One of Sultan Haitham’s most important challenges is the fulfilment of Future Vision Oman 2040. He, who was directly in charge of this program, is now able to proceed more actively with it. The program, which intends to modernize Oman, had been planned by his father and the previous Sultan of Oman. The program emphasizes that Oman’s economy be divided into five sectors of industry, fishery, mines, tourism, and logistics in order to diversify Oman’s sources of income.

Oman successfully decreased its inflation rates from % 1.01 in 2014 to % 0.08 in 2019 and the rate of unemployment from 3.85% in 2014 to 3.08%  in 2019. However, alongside this success, Oman’s national debt increased from USD 3.99 billion in 2014 to USD 42.31 billion in 2018 and it is predicted that in 2024 it will reach to USD 69.6 billion. Saudi Arabia has the highest national debt, while Kuwait has the lowest as of 2018. However, Oman had the lowest national debt in 2014 and is now in 4th place.

Now, in the international arena, the important issue is that perhaps Sultan Haitham is willing to continue Sultan Qaboos’ policies. However, the current circumstances in the Middle East will also influence Haitham’s decision. If tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and Israel and Turkey increase further, Oman will not be able to remain a neutral state.

Sultan Haitham is considered one of the important Investors in Oman and his experience in business may bring economic opportunities in Oman. If this happens, Oman would play a more important role in the Middle East by establishing a counter-economic dependency.

 

 
Mani Mehrabi
Senior international affairs analyst, Faculty member at the Think tank of International Relations (Tehran, Iran)

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