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OMAN: An Original Foreign Policy

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Patrol at seaLong considered as a high conservative and pro-Western country, Oman has quietly developed an original foreign policy, the most striking feature of which is probably its balanced policy towards revolutionary Iran. At first, Sultan Qabus regarded Khomeini’s regime with a deep suspicion. The Shah of Iran had been a close friend who had sent his troops in the mid-1970s to help Oman crush a Marxist-inspired guerilla war in Dhofar. After the start of the Gulf war, Sultan Qabus feared that the Iranians would try to occupy Ras Musandam, Oman’s stronghold on the Arab side of the straits. It was Rashid Abdullah, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, who first built a bridge between the two countries, telling the Iranians not to consider Oman necessarily as an American ally and that it was worth trying to speak to the ruler and convince him to start a dialogue with the Iranians. That led Oman to adopt aa more open stance towards Iran at Muscat GCC summit in November 1985.

Oman's Neutrality

Explaining Oman’s “neutrality” in the Gulf war, Seyid Haitham bin Tarek, Sultan Qabus’ undersecretary for foreign affairs, says that “it makes common sense, when you look at how this war started, and what is its outcome. Moreover, do not forget that Iran is a Moslem country. And our national interest was not threatened”.

Omani-Britisg manoeuvreShowing an infrequent comprehension of Iran’s revolution, which was partly provoked, he says, by the Shah’s “neglect of rural areas” Seyid Haitham bin Tarek emphasises that it was a “revolution that had not had the time to mature because the war started almost immediately after”.

The Sultan’s undersecretary for foreign affairs would not make any comment on Iraq, saying only that the Iraqis, who are “sensitive” about Oman’s dialogue with Iran, however “understood our aims” and accepted that it was “kept at exactly the same level” with both countries.

It is interesting to note how Omani citizens who hold no official position and have no reason to be diplomatic are quite frank about their feelings towards Iraq and Iran. “It’s clear that Iraq attacked Iran”, says a young Omani intellectual, who claims that most people in Oman feel their country should be neutral between Iraq and Iran. “ We do not trust Saddam Hussain”, he says. “We remember his support to the Dhofar uprising, and we know he is a merciless dictator”. On the other hand, this young man, who is part of the Omani establishment, and by now way subversive in his way of thinking, objects to the “unfair treatment” by the Western press of the Iranian revolution. He wonders “how we can choose between a so-called socialist Iraq that we know too well, and a government of Islam that has not had the time to establish itself”. Expressing the hope that the Iranians understand that “it was not a war with the Arabs, but with Iraq”, he concludes, “How could we choose between Arabism and Islam? It is a big choice”.

A conciliatory posture towards Iran

Sultan QabousHard facts have also pushed Oman to adopt a more conciliatory posture towards Iran. Of all the GCC states, Oman is the only one to have waged war in recent times, and it is obviously an experience nobody wants to repeat. “We know what war means”, says a top-brass Omani officer. “We had it twice -- in northern Oman in the mid-1950s, and in Dhofar in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. We do not like war. Without these wars Oman would not be a backward country. We would have overtaken the Saudis”.

Omani leaders also feel that with a total population of less then 10 million people, the GCC countries cannot seriously contemplate acting against Iran -- a nation of 50 million people. “We are not a power which can go into a war. Kuwait is not a big power and it should not have spoken like a big power”, says one Omani official.

Oman went quite a long way to avoid being dragged into the conflict. As Seyid Haitham bin Tarek revealed to this reporter, the Omani navy was, during the recent conflict, “under orders from Sultan Qabus to keep away from any contact with the Iranian gunboats when they were chasing tankers. The conflict was not with Oman. And if we had retaliated, we would have sparked a new conflict”.

Oman’s caution towards Iran also shows in its relations with the United States. A special agreement gives the Americans the right to preposition military equipment on Masirah island, but Washington has to get permission from Oman every time it wants to use it. According to a western military observer, the United States would most likely get permission during a conflict with the Soviet Union, but not against Iran. Sultan Qabus is far too afraid of a repetition of the events which took place in Lebanon. “The United States would pull out for political reasons, and let the Omanis face the consequences”.

Recently, there have been a number of contacts between Iran and Oman. Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian foreign minister, has visited Muscat several times,, as have deputies, Besharati and SheikholIslam. Yusuf al Alawi, the Omani minister of state for foreign affairs, went last year to Teheran, followed by the Omani minister of trade. But these frequent exchanges of views do not mean that Sultan Qabus is going all the way towards Iran. “Iran is presently the most unpredictable place in the Middle East”, remarks an Omani official, “so  we are  not keen to give Iran everything at the same time. We give tit for tat. They must show that they are willing to pacify the area, that they are not supporting terrorists; the peace talks at Geneva must progress, and any seeds of another war must be eliminated”.

Since Bahrain has been chairman of the GCC, it is conducting most contacts with Iran, Iraq and the UN secretary-general. But this does not prevent Oman developing its bilateral relations with Iran, with the hope it can contribute towards a definitive settlement of the Gulf war. During recent contacts with West European visitors -- Sir Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign secretary, and the commander of the French fleet in the Indian Ocean -- Sultan Qabus stressed that there is a “new element” in the area (the cease-fire) and that foreign fleets’ visits in the Gulf should again be “discreet and friendly”.

(The Middle East magazine, May 1989)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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