By Mohammad Mazhari

There are some concerns about Abu Dhabi’s intentions in Muscat: GSA

August 24, 2021 - 16:45
‘Oman is very mature and pragmatic’ 

TEHRAN - Chief executive officer of Gulf State Analytics (GSA) says Omanis are concerned about the United Arab Emirates’ interference in other Arab states.

“In Oman, there are some concerns about Abu Dhabi’s intentions in the region and the implications for Oman’s own national interests,” Giorgio Cafiero tells the Tehran Times.

A pillar of Omani foreign policy is the impartial promotion of geopolitical balance in West Asia, undergirded by business-like if not fully amicable relations with all in the region, including Iran. Muscat leverages its unique ability to serve as a facilitator of peace and to function as a trusted and credible party that can provide channels for dialogue. The Omani belief that long-term peace, prosperity, and stability in the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council require extinguishing fires in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf helps explain why Muscat invests resources in this Switzerland-like role.

However, the Saudi-Emirati interference in other countries including Libya, Syria coupled with their three-and-a-half-year blockade of Qatar has raised questions about whether Oman’s policy in the region can prove successful or not. The Saudi-led coalition has turned into a threat to other Arab states.

“Notably, after Oman and Kuwait observed Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt blockade Qatar in mid-2017, officials in Muscat and Kuwait City had questions about what this bloc of Arab states might possibly intend to do to other states in the region down the line, particularly those which would not be willing to kowtow to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on all major foreign policy issues in the Middle East (West Asia),” the DC-based consultant notes.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: How do you evaluate Oman's contribution to the peace process in the region especially when it comes to Yemen?

A: The Sultanate of Oman is a regional balancer that does not align with one geopolitical bloc against another. This was underscored by Muscat’s decision to avoid entering the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen as well as Oman's neutral positions in the civil wars that have recently plagued Libya and Syria. Regarding Yemen, Oman has been the only member-state within the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that has never taken part in any military action in that country since the Houthis captured Sana'a in 2014. Muscat’s refusal to enter the anti-Houthi coalition in March 2015 has enabled Oman to serve as a trusted and credible diplomatic bridge between the Houthis and other actors such as Washington and Riyadh. Oman has its own national interests in play. Given that a continuation of the multiple and intersecting conflicts in Yemen poses a threat to Omani security, officials in Muscat want to see the warfare wind down in Yemen. 

In general, Omanis are very passionate about Yemen and are genuinely concerned about the war-torn country's future. There are deep ties between Omanis and Yemenis, whose countries share a 187-mile border, based on geography, history, as well as economic, ethnic, familial, tribal, and religious links. From Oman's perspective, helping Yemenis resolve their various conflicts, which have led to much death, destruction, and numerous humanitarian disasters is a moral obligation.

Of course, there are limits to Oman's ability to help the Yemenis wind down conflict in their country. The Omanis alone can't solve Yemen's problems--many of which are beyond Muscat's control. Nonetheless, out of all countries in the Middle East (West Asia) - and also the world at large - it is safe to say that Oman has been the most credible and respected diplomatic actor in Yemen, maintaining positive relations with most of the major Yemeni factions, fellow Arab states, Iran, and the West. 

Q: While some Arab monarchies like Emirates and Qatar were trying to expand their military presence in other countries, Oman preferred to take the role of broker or mediator. Why? And was Oman successful in this regard? 

 A: Perhaps in manners that one could compare to Algeria or China, Oman strictly adheres to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign countries. Other GCC states played very active roles in the wider Arab world following the eruption of “Arab Spring” protests in 2010/2011. Some GCC members intervened militarily in Libya and Yemen, while also funding certain anti-Assad militias in Syria and bankrolling the Egyptian coup of 2013. But Oman never interfered in these Arab countries following the revolutions and revolts of 2010/2011. This has been consistent with a long-standing Omani tradition of maintaining neutrality in most regional conflicts.

Q: Oman has the closest ties with Iran in comparison with its Persian Gulf partners. Do you consider historic roots for such relations or just joint interest in this period of time? The ties between Muscat and Tehran were cozy even before the victory of the Islamic revolution in 1979.

A: Regarding Iran, Oman is very mature and pragmatic. Officials in Muscat realize that Iran is a permanent neighbor, and it serves Oman and Iran’s interests to establish a good working relationship. 

From the Omani perspective, Iran has never posed any major threat to the Sultanate’s own security, which is different from the perspectives of some other GCC states that do see Tehran as not only a regional challenge but also an internal one too. Pro-Iranian groups in the Middle East (West Asia) have never been hostile to Omani interests. 

Many factors help explain why Oman and Iran have an overall positive relationship. One of them is the history of Iran’s support for the Sultanate amid the Dhofar rebellion. Because the Shah of Iran deployed Iranian forces to fight the Marxist rebels in Oman, and some of these Iranians lost their lives in that armed conflict of the Cold War era, Omanis to this day remain grateful to the Iranians for their help during that period of crisis. Notably, Iran’s 1979 revolution did hardly anything to fuel problems between Muscat and Tehran. Although Oman was slightly on Saddam Hussein’s side at the very beginning of the Iran-Iraq War (a.k.a. the “Imposed War”), Muscat ultimately maintained neutrality throughout that eight-year conflict and even hosted ceasefire talks between the Iranians and Iraqis.

Q: Mostly differences between members of the Persian Gulf council don’t come to the surface. Do you confirm that there is a hidden competition between Oman and other Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf, especially the Emirates?

A: In Oman, there are some concerns about Abu Dhabi’s intentions in the region and the implications for Oman’s own national interests. Notably, after Oman and Kuwait observed Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt blockaded Qatar in mid-2017, officials in Muscat and Kuwait City had questions about what this bloc of Arab states might possibly intend to do to other states in the region down the line, particularly those which would not be willing to kowtow to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on all major foreign policy issues in the Middle East (West Asia).

Of course, the al-Ula summit of January 2021 resulted in partial GCC reconciliation, and a lifting of the blockade imposed on Qatar 43 months earlier. But no one should be naïve enough to believe that the al-Ula agreement resolved the fundamental issues which have produced much division within the GCC. Those divisions are still there, but what remains to be seen is how the rulers of GCC countries choose to address and manage those sources of tensions. 

Q: Why didn't Oman try to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia while Iraq is very enthusiastic to host the talks between Tehran and Riyadh?

A: Muscat always welcomes dialogue between regional rivals and adversaries. When other Arab powers such as Iraq or Qatar try to facilitate talks and/or mediate between various actors, Muscat can always be counted on to fully support those efforts. My understanding is that the Iranian-Saudi talks have been taking place not only in Baghdad but also in Doha and Muscat too. 

At this period of time, all countries in the Persian Gulf realize that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks in Vienna may fail to revive the 2015 nuclear accord. But regardless of the JCPOA's future, Oman and other countries in the sub-region believe that the Iranian-Saudi talks, which started in April 2021, must carry on. Muscat will always encourage and help facilitate greater dialogue between member-states of the GCC and Tehran, as well as between different Arab states.


 

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