Nov 13, 1995
A Unique Foreign Policy Produces a Key Player in Middle Eastern and Global Diplomacy
To understand Oman's current foreign policy is to understand how skilled diplomacy works—how balancing interests, tolerance toward differences, and a determined search for mutual benefits can open international doors and keep them open, even during conflict. While other nations in the Middle East have been driven by ideology and short-term gains, the Sultanate of Oman has pursued its own course, holding to the belief that peaceful negotiation is essential to the overall, long-term goals of Omani security and prosperity.
This view of Oman's foreign relations is expressed in Joseph Kechichian's Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy. After numerous interviews with high-ranking Omani officials, including His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Sa`id Al Bu Sa`id, Kechichian concludes that Oman has made great strides in foreign policy relations since 1970, when Qaboos deposed his father to lead a nation not only lying in a region dominated by hostility and warfare, but isolated from the world as it faced severe internal problems of political unrest, civil war, and extreme underdevelopment. In 25 years, Qaboos has changed an isolated and unstable Oman into a leader in Middle Eastern and global diplomacy.
What are the elements of Qaboos's foreign policy approach that have made it unique and successful? Kechichian begins his analysis by describing the origins of the Omani nation-state to identify trends in Omani diplomacy and to trace the historical path that led to the Oman of 1970. He then details the evolution of Oman's modern-era relationships with the other Arabian Peninsula states, states in the Persian Gulf region, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, the Soviet Union and its successor states, and several countries in the Far East, South Asia, and Africa.
What he finds consistently evident in Qaboos's foreign policy is pragmatism. Qaboos overestimates neither Oman's capabilities nor other nations' intentions toward the Sultanate. Nor does he rule out former enemies as potential partners, or the use of bold initiatives that, though unpopular with his fellow Arab rulers, serve the long-term goals of securing Oman's political, economic, and military needs.
Working from foreign policy principles of nonintervention in other countries' affairs, respect for international law, and adherence to a nonaligned policy, Qaboos has promoted compromise and peaceful resolution, encouraging even warring countries to find commonalities and acceptable tradeoffs. This characteristic was evident from the beginning: He stays on the best terms possible, never breaking diplomatic relations. Keeping in mind Oman's reality—its history, geography, diverse population, economy, and strategic Middle East location (both during the Cold War as an East-West confrontational point, and in the Cold War's aftermath as regional aggressors have arisen)—he seeks solutions to Oman's needs in the larger arena by diligently pursuing international relations beneficial for the long term.
When Qaboos came to power in 1970, his father, Sultan Sa`id bin Taymur, had looked to England and India for Oman's world relations, shunning connections to Arab neighbors. Qaboos's "idea of Oman" as a regional power led him to reverse this situation by establishing direct diplomatic relations with Arab and other states and by gaining admittance to the League of Arab States (LAS) and the United Nations in 1971. Qaboos thus ended the Sultanate's long isolation, placing Oman within the Arab and larger world, a pragmatic way to start securing the country within the region. This move and many others Qaboos was to make in responding to internal and external factors constitute the playing out of a unique foreign policy that evolved through what Kechichian sees as four phases from 1970 to 1994.
The first phase, consolidation (1970-1975), entailed building relations with the Arab and larger world in an effort to mitigate Oman's dependence on Britain, legitimizing Oman's independence, achieving internal unity by dealing with political unrest in the north and ending the Communist-backed Dhufar War that had been threatening the Sultanate since 1965 in the south, and addressing Oman's poor standard of living.
Oman's most important foreign relations accomplishment in this period concerned Iran, which asserted its hegemonic claims by taking two islands of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Oman at this time had few resources for solving its internal problems, let alone regional ones. Acknowledging the Shah's regional pre- eminence, Qaboos sought and obtained Iranian military assistance in fighting the Dhufar rebellion, as well as an Omani-Iranian border agreement in the Straits of Hormuz. By offering the Shah the explicit support of an Arab Gulf ruler and direct involvement in quelling Omani instability that could spill over into Iran, Qaboos secured a border agreement, essential aid, and the stature associated with being treated as an equal by the region's then most powerful country.
The transition phase (1976-1980) brought more financial attention to domestic needs now that the Dhufar War and civil unrest were ended, and continued pursuit of closer ties to Oman's neighbors. To deal with internal issues, Oman asked for and received significant financial assistance from several Gulf states. These ties did not prevent Oman's independent show of public support for Egyptian President Sadat's peace efforts with Israel in 1977 and Sadat's 1978 role in the U.S.-sponsored Camp David peace talks. Oman was one of only three Arab states not to break diplomatic relations with Cairo for recognizing Israel, and it did not attend the 1978 Baghdad Rejectionist summit condemning Egypt, an action for which it was ostracized by the other Gulf states. In 1979, when the Shah of Iran was deposed by the Ayatollah Khumayni, Qaboos kept the established Omani-Iranian tie in place. Simultaneously, he tried to prevent possible aggression by proposing a $100 million protection plan for the Straits of Hormuz. When the five other conservative Gulf states—Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—dismissed this idea (as they had his other calls for joint security efforts), he turned to the United States, signing the 1980 Facilities Access Agreement, at that time the first and only such agreement between an Arab state and the United States. This military accord with a Western power once again showed Qaboos's readiness to do what he deemed essential for Oman's long-term security interests.
The maturation period (1981-1985) saw war between the two largest regional states, Iran and Iraq, continuing. That conflict plus other area tensions finally led to the culmination of Qaboos's long-time efforts to help form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which brought the six conservative Gulf countries together in what was the Arabian Peninsula's first jointly provided security effort. While participating in all regional security activities as part of the GCC, Oman took no side in the Iran-Iraq War, managing to retain all regional relationships and its security ties with the West. Qaboos also called for direct Israeli- Palestinian talks to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict—another unpopular stand in the Arab world, but one that made sense for long-term security.
In the last phase, that of progress (1986-1994), Qaboos was recognized as the regional figure who could be turned to with confidence on security issues. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Omani forces participated in the UN liberation effort, and Oman granted the United States access to prepositioned supplies and facilities in Oman via the Facilities Access Agreement (renewed in 1990). At the same time, Qaboos retained his nation's diplomatic ties to both Iraq and Kuwait, attempting to create opportunities for crisis resolution. When his efforts failed, he broke with his former foreign policy principle of nonalignment, reasoning that the rule of law necessitated formal alignment against an Arab government.
In this period Qaboos also persevered (to no avail) in trying to bring Iran and Iraq into negotiation after their war. In addition, in 1994 he invited official Israeli government representatives to a conference on water desalinization, a precedent he then followed by welcoming Israel's Prime Minister Rabin to Oman—the first public visit by an Israeli leader to an Arab Gulf state. At a time when the GCC had no relations with Israel and intended none, once again Qaboos stood alone.
Qaboos has achieved much during his first 25 years. His "idea of Oman" has been realized, as have other goals aimed at long-term security, most notably the 1981 creation of the GCC and the 1993 signing of the last of the border treaties with Oman's neighbors. In support of another primary objective, Oman's internal development, Qaboos has negotiated with many countries to obtain the diverse forms of aid needed to tap Oman's domestic assets and upgrade Omani living conditions. Although Oman has remained an autocracy, Qaboos has opened paths to citizen participation in government, most notably by establishing the Majlis Al-Shura [State Consultative Council] in 1991. Two members of this council are women; Qaboos has called upon women to take a serious role in Oman's social and political evolution, saying they should not be relegated to subservient positions. "Women and men are companions," he has declared, in yet another show of independence from the other Arab rulers. Again, pragmatism is at work: He does not want to exclude 50 percent of the country's potential. If Oman is to prosper, domestic harmony must be maintained and all internal strengths must be drawn upon.
Today's Oman is internally stable, economically prosperous, and established as a nation integral to foreign relations in the Middle East and the world. Qaboos's pragmatic, independent approach in bringing Oman to this point owes much to the Ibadhi interpretation of Islam practiced there. In his 1994 National Day Speech, Qaboos once again asserted Ibadhi virtues, asking Omanis to reject momentary causes and religious fanaticism, and to be tolerant and forward-looking: "Obstinacy in religious understanding leads to backwardness in Muslims, prevalence of violence and intolerance." From this Ibadhi heritage comes the underlying principle of Qaboos's approach: Steadily and consistently seek security and prosperity through nonviolent means.