Wednesday, 6 January 2016



There is only one country in the entire Middle East that is not involved in conspiring or fighting and that is Oman. International observers often do not perceive this circumstance, too busy as they are in looking at the bloody events across the region. But if tomorrow you had to look for a country capable of setting up a negotiation, an informal facilitator, only Oman could be capable of doing so. This is the policy that Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said and the Ibadis, the Islamic sect under his rule, have carried out since 1970, when he ousted his father.

The Ibadi vision is imbued with tolerance and moderation and is dedicated to social good. The sect is somewhere in between Sunnis and Shia and this has aided the Sultan in keeping at large from the political and religious struggles undermining the Arabian Peninsula. Along such a religious attitude, there is also the peculiar culture and tradition of Oman: a country of seafarers, explorers open to the outside world and very distant from the tribal and beduin societies of the other Arab people in the area.

This is one of the reasons why Qaboos has always offered is wiseness and maintained good relations with all the actors in the region. During his 35 years of reign, the Sultan has fared his country from the Middle Ages to the modern era without the frictions and uprisings that such a social process usually carries with it.

The role in the nuclear deal

The recent deal signed by Iran and the United States on Tehran's nuclear program is in good portion the result of the Omani secret mediation that, particularly during the early stages of the negotiations, helped overcome the diffidence that froze any progress. Even though the official multinational talks started in 2014, the first secret contacts between Iran and the United States date back to 2011. Although their results were modest, they allowed for the first hurdles between the two countries to be overcome. At that time Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran's Prime Minister and Ali Akbar Salehi its Foreign Minister. The Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei had given his blessing to the opening of the talks.

A year later, in July 2012, another preparatory round was held in Muscat between two delegations. The Americans were represented by Jake Sullivan from the State Department and Puneet Talwar from the National Security Council, while the Iranian head of delegation was Saade Jalili. After an interruption in the Autumn of 2012 due to the US presidential elections that confirmed Barack Obama in office, a new round of secret talks was held in March 2013. This time around the delegations had a higher profile: the Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns, and the Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Ashgar Khaji. These preliminary negotiations aimed at exploring the room for a deal.

A second pause was necessary during the Iranian elections in the summer of 2013 that ended up in the appointment of Hassan Rouhani as PM and Jawad Zarif as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Sultan Qaboos's visit to Tehran in August 2013 was targeted at giving the final boost to the negotiations between Iran and US.

This means that before the multinational talks kicked off, several issues had already been ironed out during the secret talks hosted by Oman. And this is thanks to the services of Sultan Qaboos. This also implies that both parties have always been eager to finding a solution and that once Rouhani came to power, all he had to do was follow a negotiated track that had already been defined prior to his appointment.

The role in the Syrian crisis

Oman has also tried to negotiate in the Syrian crisis. The evidence to this is the visit paid by the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walid Moallem, in Muscat in August 2015 following an invitation by Qaboos. The Sultan expressed his willingness to help find a negotiated solution to the war. The event is even more politically relevant if we consider that that was the first visit by a Syrian minister in a country of the Gulf since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

yusef alawi
Yusef Alawi

Qaboos was able to offer a diplomatic exit route to the conflict both because of his reputation and the trust conferred to his role. Furthermore, Oman has kept a different stance from the other countries member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It has never taken position in the sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shia, it has never supplied any party with weapons and has only provided humanitarian aid. The Omani stance on the Syrian crisis was outlined back in October 2012 with a public statement by the reign's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yusef Alawi. Furthermore, Qaboos has never interrupted the diplomatic relations with Damascus despite voting in favor of Syria's suspension from the Arab League in November 2011.We don't know whether this initiative will have a follow up as the Syrian crisis is more and more entangled now that the Russians have entered the equation. That said, Oman will be a safe harbour for discreet talks and if international diplomacy wishes to seek a negotiated exit strategy.

The role in the Yemeni crisis

Loyal to its neutral policy of non-interference, Oman has refused to participate in the Saudi military invasion of Yemen to crush the Houthis. It was a matter of political coherence, but also an issue of not meddling with a destabilized neighboring country that could backfire with yet more instability, terrorism and so forth.Also in this case, in May 2015 and on American request, Oman hosted a meeting between a US delegation and the Houthis to negotiate a cease fire and a solution to the armed conflict. All this was made possible because during the 1994 was between North and South Yemen Oman had hosted peace talks. Before then, back in 1985, Muscat had opened its relations with the Soviet Union.

A constant mediator

It is almost difficult to find a crisis in the Middle East, North Africa or in Eurasia that has not seen Oman play the moderator or favor a mediation. The 1978 Camp David agreement and the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was supported and encouraged by Oman when all other Arab countries were against it. A year later, Qaboos was the sole opponent of the expulsion of Egypt from the Arab League. It is thus not a surprise that Oman and Israel have direct, but not official contacts since 1994 when Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Yossi Beilin, visited Muscat. Until 2000 there were also respective commercial offices in both countries.

The relationship between Iran and Oman has always been a good one. It was so during the days of the Shah – who helped Qaboos quell the rebellion in Dhofar – and they continued to be fine when Khomeini took over in 1979. Even then, several Arab countries had broken their diplomatic ties with Teheran, but not Oman. And Qaboos has always prevented the Gulf Cooperation Council from turning into an anti-Iranian military and political alliance.

Oman has tried to mediate between India and Pakistan in 1985 and between Qatar and Bahrein in 1986. Through one of its diplomats, Qaboos had brought Iran and Iraq to the negotiating table in 1987 during the war, pushed Tehran to accept a UN Resolution and then favored a rapprochement between Iran and the United States. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Oman condemned the attack, but did not cut its diplomatic ties with Baghdad, but instead tried to negotiate a diplomatic solution prior to the American intervention. The then Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tareq Aziz, flew to Muscat to talk with Qaboos three months after the invasion of Kuwait and two months before the outbreak of the First Gulf War.

Oman has also discreetly negotiated a number of prisoner swaps or liberations: in 2011 and 2012 it facilitated the freeing of three American tourists that had entered Iran, while in 2013 it successfully obtained the liberation of an Iranian diplomat held in the UK for 5 years and of another Iranian scientist detained in the US. It was Oman that took care of the United Kingdom's diplomatic relations in Iran when London didn't have an embassy in Teheran.
qaboos mediator
US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian foreign
  minister Mohammad Zarif under the eyes of King Qaboos
An independent and moderate foreign policy

Omani foreign policy, its independence, its innate tendency for negotiations and diplomatic solutions was possible solely because the stability of the sultanate is not guaranteed by regional alliances, but by the military and political support granted by both the United States and Great Britain. A support that is also linked to Oman's strategic position on the Strait of Hormuz where a third of the world's oil production transits via sea. This circumstance has granted Oman the possibility of keeping at large from the pressure and tension in the region.

The legitimate will to survive of a country of 3.5 million people has not prevented Oman from taking stances that went against some of the parties it was mediating for. The most blatant example is the Omani position against the Iranian claims of three island in the Gulf – Abu Mousa, Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb – that belong to the United Arab Emirates. 

A similar independence is shown with regard to the GCC: the Omani Ramadan begins one day after the Saudi one (in a reminder that the Saudis don't rule over Muslims), the country has not adhered to the monetary union (to elude Saudi financial supremacy), and Muscat was against both the sending of troops in Yemen and in Bahrein, where a Sunni minority rules over a Shia majority.

Oman's true problem is its future stability. Sultan Qaboos is 75 years old and has no heirs to hand his throne over to. There is no assurance that his wiseness, his opposition to armed interventions, his continuous research for dialogue, his strong independence from regional affairs will continue once a successor is in place. His health is starting to falter after eight months spent in Germany for some unspecified medical treatment. Rest assured that if the Middle East had seen more leaders like Sultan Qaboos there wouldn't be all the conflicts, sectarian violence and wars that are staining with blood the entire Middle East.

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