Oman holds rare hope as Mideast peace­maker

Sul­tanate work­ing to defuse re­gional wars

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Dis­creet and strate­gi­cally lo­cated, the small sul­tanate of Oman helped kick-start se­cret nu­clear talks be­tween Tehran and Wash­ing­ton in 2013.

Now many in the U.S. and the Mid­dle East say the Persian Gulf na­tion, a neu­tral safe haven in Shi­ite-Sunni clashes rag­ing across the re­gion, may hold the key to de­fus­ing Saudi Ara­bia’s clash with Iran-backed rebels in Ye­men be­fore it erupts into all-out war.

Cur­rent and for­mer U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say Oman, whose Ibadi Mus­lim lead­er­ship is be­holden nei­ther to Sunni-led Riyadh nor Shi­ite-dom­i­nated Tehran, is uniquely suited to play peace­maker as the two vie for in­flu­ence over prox­ies in Ye­men and else­where.

One U.S. of­fi­cial said Oman, which bor­ders Ye­men and Saudi Ara­bia and sits across from Iran on the Strait of Hor­muz, is seen as a “Switzer­land of the Mid­dle East.”

“Ob­vi­ously, this is a loose com­par­i­son, but when it comes to be­ing a po­ten­tially neu­tral peace­maker on the re­gion’s very com­pli­cated chess­board, Oman seems ea­ger to play that role,” the of­fi­cial told The Wash­ing­ton Times on the con­di­tion of anonymity in or­der to dis­cuss sen­si­tive is­sues freely.

With Ye­men’s con­flict heat­ing up — Saudi jets pounded Shi­ite rebel tar­gets Wed­nes­day, as Wash­ing­ton warned of gains by Sunni al Qaeda fighters in the na­tion — Oman is work­ing over­time be­hind the scenes to­ward pre­vent­ing a wider es­ca­la­tion.

The na­tion’s for­eign min­is­ter sig­naled a de­sire last week to bol­ster U.N. ef­forts to me­di­ate a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion be­tween the Shi­ite Houthi rebels and Riyadh. In a twist that drew al­most no West­ern me­dia at­ten­tion Wed­nes­day, Omani of­fi­cials wel­comed Ira­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif for meet­ings in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal of Mus­cat.

An­a­lysts say the moves are driven in part by Omani fears that Ye­men’s fight­ing could spread across the bor­der, but they also fall into a pat­tern in which Oman is the only Arab na­tion that skep­ti­cal Ira­nian lead­ers trust.

“Oman prac­tices its own brand of Is­lam and doesn’t fit into the Sunni-Shia divide, so it’s im­mune to the over­ar­ch­ing re­gional sec­tar­ian di­vi­sion,” said re­tired CIA of­fi­cial Bruce Riedel, who spe­cial­izes in se­cu­rity and Mid­dle Eastern af­fairs at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

It helps ex­plain how Oman has been able to avoid fric­tion with Saudi Ara­bia de­spite flirt­ing diplo­mat­i­cally with Iran and be­ing the only mem­ber of the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil to re­sist join­ing Riyadh’s mil­i­tary coali­tion against the Houthis.

Oman also takes a dis­creet ap­proach, re­vealed two years ago when the world’s me­dia dis­cov­ered that Mus­cat was host­ing se­cret meet­ings be­tween the U.S. and Iran. Top Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials man­aged to keep the meet­ings se­cret from other world pow­ers as they ham­mered out the pre­lim­i­nary ba­sis for nu­clear talks that sub­se­quently ad­vanced through high-pro­file ne­go­ti­a­tions in Switzer­land.

The re­al­ity, said one U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial who spoke with The Times, is that Omani Sul­tan Qa­boos bin Said Al Said is adamant about keep­ing a low pro­file.

Where other Persian Gulf na­tions have sought to project neu­tral­ity by back­ing global for­eign news out­lets such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera, the Oma­nis “are not pub­lic­ity hounds,” said the of­fi­cial, who asked for anonymity in or­der to speak freely on the mat­ter.

“They’re fo­cused on sta­bil­ity. That is first and fore­most in their minds,” said the of­fi­cial. “Any­thing they’re do­ing diplo­mat­i­cally flows from that pre­cept.”

Mr. Riedel said Oman is “an in­de­pen­dent force” for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, but most no­tably be­cause of its re­li­gious unique­ness.

Be­tween Tehran and Riyadh

Some 70 per­cent of Oma­nis are Ibadi Mus­lims. The sect prac­tices its own brand of Is­lamic, or Shariah, law, and is said to have been founded long be­fore Is­lam’s Sunni and Shi­ite de­nom­i­na­tions.

Hard-line Wah­habi cler­ics in Saudi Ara­bia have been known to look down on the Ibadi, but the sect is gen­er­ally viewed as eth­ni­cally and re­li­giously closer to the rest of Riyadh’s Gulf Arab brethren than to Iran.

Oman is a mem­ber of the Arab-dom­i­nated Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil, with Saudi Ara­bia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emi­rates. But its oil out­put is rel­a­tively mea­ger — at less than 1 mil­lion bar­rels per day — and its geo­graphic prox­im­ity to Iran makes it an ea­ger pur­suer of en­ergy part­ner­ships with Tehran.

The prospects of such part­ner­ships may ex­plain Oman’s in­ter­est in fa­cil­i­tat­ing a nu­clear deal that would ease West­ern sanc­tions on Iran.

But Sul­tan Qa­boos clearly does not see his na­tion’s close­ness to Tehran as mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive to its Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil membership — or its re­la­tion­ship with Riyadh.

“Part of the rea­son the Oma­nis have not joined [ei­ther side] in the war in Ye­men is be­cause they want to keep open the pos­si­bil­ity that they could the be a me­di­a­tor,” said Mr. Riedel. “They’d be a ne­go­tia­tor that both sides have faith in.”

The catch is that nei­ther the Saudis nor the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Ye­men have shown much in­ter­est in talk­ing.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion also ap­pears am­biva­lent. One of the of­fi­cials who spoke with The Times said the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity does not have a hard po­si­tion “on what Oman should or shouldn’t be do­ing” at this stage of the con­flict.

State Depart­ment spokesman Jeff Rathke told re­porters Thurs­day that the U.S. has no “spe­cific com­ment” on Oman’s de­sire to me­di­ate but said the United Na­tions is lead­ing a push for dia­logue be­tween the war­ring fac­tions in Ye­men and U.S. of­fi­cials sup­port it as “the way to achieve a po­lit­i­cal res­o­lu­tion.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been ea­ger to as­sure Saudi Ara­bia that Wash­ing­ton stands be­hind Riyadh’s cam­paign against the Houthis de­spite the ap­pear­ance of closer U.S.-Ira­nian ties over a pro­posed fi­nal nu­clear deal.

Deputy Sec­re­tary of State Antony Blinken, who ap­peared in the Saudi cap­i­tal this week, said U.S.-Saudi weapons de­liv­er­ies are be­ing ex­pe­dited and in­tel­li­gence shar­ing in­creased in sup­port of the cam­paign.

‘A cross­roads coun­try’

The U.S. has long sold weapons to Oman, in­clud­ing F-16 fighter jets, and Amer­i­can lead­ers have a his­tory of us­ing Sul­tan Qa­boos as a dis­creet back chan­nel to Tehran.

A 2013 re­port by the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice noted that “suc­ces­sive U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tions have gen­er­ally re­frained from crit­i­ciz­ing the Iran-Oman re­la­tion­ship, per­haps in part be­cause Oman has some­times been use­ful as an in­ter­me­di­ary be­tween the United States and Iran.”

Less clear is the ex­tent to which Oman will be able to play that role.

In an in­ter­view with The Times, Mr. Riedel pointed to con­cerns over the sul­tanate’s sta­bil­ity. Sul­tan Qa­boos’ gov­ern­ment eas­ily sup­pressed a smat­ter­ing of Arab Spring-style protests in 2011.

But de­clin­ing oil prices have put pres­sure on Mus­cat, and un­cer­tainty looms over who will rule when the 74-year-old sul­tan’s reign ends.

Some 85 per­cent of Oman’s pop­u­la­tion con­sists of peo­ple born af­ter Sul­tan Qa­boos came to power by over­throw­ing his fa­ther in a 1970 coup.

“There are re­ally two ques­tions at play with Oman,” said Mr. Riedel. “The first is: How do they pre­vent a Saudi-Ira­nian re­gional war from spilling into their coun­try? The sec­ond is: How much longer does Qa­boos have, and what hap­pens when he’s gone?”

“There’s no clear suc­ces­sor, no son. There are a bunch of cousins, but it’s a very untested field and no one knows where they stand,” he said. “Oman is a cross­roads coun­try, com­ing to a mo­ment of great sig­nif­i­cance in its his­tory. It’s def­i­nitely a place to be watch­ing.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry talked with Yusuf bin Alawi bin Ab­dul­lah, Oman’s min­is­ter of for­eign af­fairs, dur­ing a meet­ing of Persian Gulf del­e­gates in March. Oman helped kick-start se­cret nu­clear talks be­tween Tehran and Wash­ing­ton in 2013.

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