Why is Oman against a Gulf union?

Historic ties with Iran play a part in Oman’s refusal to embrace a stronger union of six Gulf states

Paul Crompton
Paul Crompton - Al Arabiya News
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Oman’s staunch refusal to join a proposed union of six Gulf states is due to its historic ties with Iran and its wish to not “antagonize” the Islamic Republic by cementing bonds with its GCC allies, experts say.

The sultanate’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi said on Saturday that he was against a Saudi Arabia-proposed union that would upgrade the current Gulf Cooperation Council, composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

While the Saudi-proposed union would have little practical impact, its “symbolic” value as a possible anti-Iranian coalition would be incompatible with Oman’s interests, according to Matteo Legrenzi, an associate professor at the Venice-based Ca’ Foscari University.

“What the Saudis were expecting was [a] symbolic endorsement of their idea of a more stricter union,” said Legrenzi, who is the author of a book entitled The GCC and the International Relations of the Gulf.

Oman turned down the proposal because they know it would “antagonize” Iran, he said.

The sultanate’s desire for steady relations with Iran goes back to the 1970s, when Iranian forces – then under the command of the Shah’s regime – and British allies saw off a rebel uprising in the country, known as the Dhofar Rebellion.

Although the Shah’s government has been out of power for over three decades, Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos maintains friendly relations with the Islamic Republic.

The good terms Oman’s ruler has maintained with both Iran and the United States allowed him to broker secret talks between the two nations early this year. These meetings are said to have led to November’s landmark nuclear deal reached between Iran and a group of world powers.

Maintaining a degree of neutrality is high on the sultanate’s list of prerogatives, according to Afshin Molavi, a research fellow at the Washington-based think tank, New America Foundation.

“Oman is the Switzerland of the GCC when it comes to foreign policy,” said Molavi, who added that the longstanding Omani-Iranian alliance – while stronger under the Shah – is “not ideological at all.”

The GCC has an existing joint military force, known as the Peninsula Shield, which was deployed to quell Bahrain protests in early 2011.

While Oman is keen on maintaining ties with both the Gulf states and Iran, it manages to keep ties both cordial and distant at the same time, according to Thomas Lippman, scholar at the Washington D.C.-based Middle East Institute.

“The Sultan has always held his cards very close to his chest in terms of international relations, [and] has done considerable work, particularly on the Iran front, in trying to rebuild some bridges across the Gulf,” said Lippman.

But is there widespread support for the union among other states besides Oman?

“I don’t think there’s been that much impetus for genuinely integrated security apparatus [in the Gulf],” said Richard LeBaron, a Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, and former U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait.

“I’m not sure even now that the other members of the GCC other than Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are entirely enthusiastic about the idea,” he added.

Saudi Arabia has made several calls for greater unity between GCC members.

This is fuelled in part by the kingdom’s wish to integrate and combine security apparatus against nearby Iran, according to Alon Ben-Meir, a senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

“Saudis feel that a security union is going to become almost like NATO,” Ben-Meir told Al Arabiya News.

A large-scale Gulf-wide security treaty would deter Iran from trying to intimidate the smaller GCC allies, he added.

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