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Oman and the GCC: A policy of ‘don’t stand so close to me?’

The Omanis have always been accused of taking a different stance in foreign policy from the GCC

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

Oman’s rejection of the Gulf union is not something new. About 18 months ago the Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi had said that “There is no Gulf union” and that ideas about it only exist in the minds of journalists. This time, however, the Omani minister went a step further by saying that Oman would withdraw from the GCC if the other countries went ahead with the idea of the union. This sent shockwaves reverberating around the region. To make a public remark, in passing, about withdrawing from a thirty year old alliance hit hard the little confidence remaining in the GCC. Maybe the Omanis felt that they weren’t heard the first time and they needed to be more vocal about it. Or maybe they felt the Americans were also pushing towards more integration between the Gulf States. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s talk in Manama was clear in that the United States wanted to deal with the “the GCC as an organization” in matters of security. And Oman was not going to let that pass without a strong and loud: “NO!”

The timing of the threat of withdrawal from the GCC could not have been worse. It comes during the culmination of Omani efforts to bring the West and Iran to the negotiating table, making it very hard to resist thinking that the Omani efforts also brought the Omanis and the Iranians much closer to each other than before. And it seems that Oman is keen to be the first who reaped the benefits of Western-Iranian rapprochement, since it played an important role in making it happen.

Realists or autistic

The Omanis have always been accused of taking a different stance in foreign policy. It was one of the three Arab countries that did not break its ties with Egypt after the 1978 Camp David Accords. As the Iran-Iraq war raged in the 1980s, Oman still kept positive relations with Iran despite the fact that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain felt that Iran presented a clear and present existential threat to their existence. While it retained relations with Iran it also sought to ward off Iranian threat by intensifying its security alliance with the United States and working closer with Gulf countries on security issues. It even allowed the United States to use its Masirah Island in the U.S. operation to free the embassy hostages in Tehran. In 1994, Oman and Israel moved closer together and in 1996 they agreed on opening trade offices in both countries. Even after those offices were closed in 2000, because of the Second Intifada in 2008, the foreign ministers of the two countries Yusuf bin Alawi and Tzipi Livni met in Qatar.

The Omanis, on the other hand, think of themselves as realists and pragmatists and they imply that the other Gulf States are moved by emotional or reactive considerations. I believe that that all of the Gulf States are as realist and pragmatic as the Omani. The difference is that the Omanis have tended to avoid sugarcoating their decisions with ideological rhetoric such as the Iranians or fraternal discourse as their counter parts in the GCC have. The Omanis have been quite blunt about their national interests; and this can be disconcerting to politicians and observers who are in the habit of espousing idealistic expressions of national interests.

‘Don’t stand so close to me?’

So how would the Omani position against a Gulf Union be in its national interest?

There is a tragic reality about the relations between the GCC countries; which is that the Gulf States are as worried of each other as they are of Iran and Iraq. And the smaller Gulf States are worried about the Saudis as much as they are about the Iranians and the Iraqis. And that those smaller GCC states seek to balance the Saudis and ward off what they perceive as Saudi potential threats by creating unitary alliances with the United States, or rapprochements with Iran and Iraq. Realizing this is the crucial step to understand Oman’s foreign policies and its current stance against any gulf union.

The security concerns of the GCC countries from each other and from Iran and Iraq have intensified with the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement which explains the Saudi keenness to go ahead with a union, and the Omani keenness to reject it at all costs.

Oman’s security has always been based on an alliance with the United States. And the Omanis are very clear about that. Bin Alawi couldn’t have been clearer when he said: “let me lay it out to you, our region had witnessed threats all through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, even before the oil we had faced many threats and challenges. And after the oil the West has been concerned with our region and had developed interests in our region and is now committed to the security of the region. And when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait Western powers immediately intervened and dealing with military threats will remain on this basis; it is a Western responsibility because they have their interests here. I say it frankly we are not willing for a military confrontation with our neighbors.”

I am not happy with Oman’s position. But ranting against it will not help us in understanding it, nor in intervening positively to retain the health of the GCC

Abdullah Hamidaddin

One cannot be clearer in asserting that his country’s security is totally based on the U.S., and that the Gulf States cannot provide for their own security. And within this larger security paradigm the Omanis have sought to hold middle positions with all regional powers, in particular Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Israel. One may even go as far in saying that being in the GCC was not to ward of security threats from Iran or Iraq, as much as it may have been to feel safer vis-à-vis the Saudis. Oman needed to be close enough to the Saudis to feel safe, but not too close to feel threatened or to raise concerns in Iran. The GCC seems to have been Oman’s tool to do that and a Gulf Union would defeat its purpose, as it would bring the Saudis too close. Something the Omanis will avoid at all costs.

Saudi-Omani destiny

Since the role in the U.S.-Iran rapprochement was revealed Oman has been accused of betraying the GCC, of stabbing it in the back, of feeling alienated because of its different culture, of conspiring with Iran against the Sunnis of the GCC countries. And it got worse with Oman’s last bombshell. All such analysis in my view is nonsense and harmful. While I may not agree with Oman’s approach, it can hardly be considered backstabbing as Oman had always been open about its policies. And states do not make such strategic decisions based on their desire for cultural purity. The most ridiculous thing of course is to say that the Ibadis of Oman and the Shiites of Iran are conspiring against the Sunnis of the other GCC countries!

I am not happy with Oman’s position. But ranting against it will not help us in understanding it, nor in intervening positively to retain the health of the GCC and the security relations between Saudi Arabia and Oman. It is when we see matters the way they Omanis see them that we can change things for the better, or at least manage the current reality in a more fruitful way. For in the end, Saudis and the Omanis are neighbors. We are one people, destined to live with each other.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

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