In the chaotic and often violent aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Sultanate of Oman has moved to a different beat, distinguishing itself as a peacemaker and mediator in comparison to its neighboring Arab states. While other Arab nations, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, have cracked down on civil society and peaceful protests, Oman has adopted a more democratic and progressive stance towards societal pleas.
In fact, Oman has been likened as the Switzerland of the Middle East; yet the Sultanate’s role has been much more complex than that of neutrality. Oman has proactively assumed the role of a regional diplomat. In addition to fostering relations with both Sunni Gulf nations and Shia Iran, Oman boasts of its relations with the West, particularly the United States. For this mountainous Gulf nation, riding on the horn of the Arabian Peninsula, peace—rather diplomacy—has been a life-long friend and ally in sustaining the Sultanate’s security.
In the eyes of Oman’s leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, words have been his weapons of choice. Sultan Qaboos has been at the forefront of promoting peaceful negotiations in many recent conflicts. During the heated nuclear negotiations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sultan Qaboos opened his country as an impartial host for mediation, negotiating a nuclear agreement between Washington and Tehran in November of 2013.
In addition, during the Iran-Iraq war, Oman held secret ceasefire meetings and, following the conclusion of the war, Oman held discussions between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom in an attempt to mend relations. Although not all of the Sultanate’s efforts have led to successful peace relations, the efforts have not been in vain. Sultan Qaboos has successfully established Oman as a friend to all.
Oman’s strategic diplomatic maneuvers are not new or simply a result of Sultan Qaboos’s reign. Bilateral relations between Oman and the United States date back 200 years, when Oman became the first Arab nation to recognize the sovereignty of the United States by sending a diplomatic envoy in 1840. In continuation of U.S.-Oman relations, the Sultanate has continued a progressive relationship with the West by being the first Arab nation to send a female ambassador, Hunaina Sultan Al Mughairy, to the United States in 2005.
Despite many strategic and welcomed diplomatic policies, identity over action has been the attributing influencer in Oman’s balancing act as peace negotiator. In other words, Oman’s socio-religious identity has had the most influence in the country’s diplomatic policies. Unlike its Sunni ruled neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council or Shia ruled Iran, the majority of Omanis belong to the Ibadi sect of Islam. This unique religious composition has been the driving force behind Oman’s success as a peace negotiator and the chief reason Sultan Qaboos has been able to sustain harmony in an unstable region. Ibadi Islam’s emphasis on tolerance and peace supports an open-minded and tolerant societal stance towards opposing views. This identity has birthed within the Sultanate a preference for solving disputes through discussion rather than force, allowing Oman the freedom to become a regional mediator.
Given the ebb and flow of tension in the Middle East there seems to be no doubt that Oman will continue to have opportunity to act as a regional diplomat. Iran is increasingly becoming stronger with a more diversified economy and strengthening global relations, while Saudi Arabia is experiencing an uncertain future with a weaker oil-based economy and strained relations with the Obama administration. This, coupled with continued risk of violent Islamic terrorists domestically in the Gulf and regionally by ISIS as well as the civil war in Yemen, could easily lead to increased confrontation.
Although the task seems daunting, as long as Sultan Qaboos rules Oman, the country will, more likely than not, continue as peacemaker and regional diplomat. Yet, given the shaky health of the 75-year-old Sultan Qaboos, political transition in the Sultanate of Oman could lead to a much different future.
Barton Dempsey is a contributor for Providence and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He currently lives and works in DC.
Photo Credit: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said Al Said in Muscat, Oman, on May 21, 2013. By U.S. State Department via Flickr.