“Omanis see Iran as the Shi’ite neighbour that will always exist”

Giorgio Cafiero is co-founder of Gulf State Analytics (GSA), a geopolitical consulting firm that assesses risks and opportunities among Gulf Cooperation Council for lenders, traders, investors, policymakers, and other parties. Based in Washington DC., it defines as “a team of renowned economists, political scientists, former diplomats, and regional experts”. In this email interview for an article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, he evaluates the situation in Oman and the legacy of Sultan Qaboos, credited as the “facilitator” of the recent Iran nuclear deal. (Read more…)

Hassan Rouhani (L) and Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said during a visit of the Iranian President to Muscat. © All Rights Reserved

Hassan Rouhani (L) and Sultan Qaboos bin Said during a visit of the Iranian President to Muscat
© All Rights Reserved

Qaboos has been praised as the Arab ruler who opened the gates to a historical agreement between Persians and Americans. Who is the Sultan?

Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970 when he ousted his father in a bloodless palace coup backed by the British. When Qaboos rose to power four and a half decades ago Oman was an impoverished backwater beset by a Marxist insurgency sponsored by the Soviet Union, China and South Yemen.

On the domestic front Qaboos’ legacy will be shaped by his success in terms of stabilizing the country and developing Oman’s economy through strategic investments made possible by Oman’s oil wealth.

Between 1970 and 2015, life expectancy in Oman increased from 49 to 75. While the nation only had two hospitals when Qaboos seized power, there were 58 by 2008.

During this span of time the number of schools increased from 3 to nearly 1,300. Today, the sultanate also has a vibrant tourism industry and a first world infrastructure system.

What about the protests against the corruption generated by the oil wealth that forced Qaboos to sack a few ministers? And what about his persistent refusal to delegate powers, designating for instance a Prime Minister? Why does he portrays himself as peaceful and lovely “father” but is ruthlessly oppressing those who demand reforms – not regime change?

In early 2011, Oman shared history with other states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by experiencing an Arab Spring. Yet, the western media paid little attention to street demonstrations held in Muscat and Sohar.

This was largely due to Oman’s Arab Spring producing minimal bloodshed compared with other MENA states (six Omani demonstrators lost their lives in clashes with security forces), and the monarchy’s ability to quickly restore stability.

Among the protestors’ demands was democratic reform. Specifically, the demonstrators called on the monarchy to grant the elected legislature, the Majlis al-Shura, greater legislative authority.

The Majlis al-Shura, which has 84 seats, cannot pass legislation and is authorized only to suggest laws. The other legislative body in Oman’s bicameral parliament is the Majlis al-Dawla, which has 59 members all of whom are appointed by Sultan Qaboos.

Qaboos himself serves not only as Sultan, but also, in name, as prime minister, defense minister, foreign affairs minister, finance minister, and governor of Oman’s central bank. Despite promises of democratic reforms, the Majlis al-Shura remains an essentially powerless institution and the concentration of power remains staunchly in the ailing ruler’s hands.

In Salalah, Sohar and Muscat there has been significant protests, demanding political reform and even regime change. © muscatmutterings.com

In Salalah, Sohar and Muscat there has been significant protests, demanding political reform and even regime change
© muscatmutterings.com

So far, the democratic aspirations of Oman’s citizenry have been effectively placated. As oil prices during the three years after the 2011 protests were relatively high, the state was quick to increase spending on social programs that addressed many of the grievances of the youth who had joined the anti-government demonstrations.

The sultan ordered the state to create 50,000 jobs and to provide all registered job seekers with USD 386 each month.

Oman continues to serve as a classic rentier state as the monarchy maintains its unwritten contract with the Oman’s citizens. Put simply, the state affords its citizens a high quality of life through highly funded government programs and the citizens keep a lid on their demands for a greater say in government.

At this juncture, the Omani leadership must be cautious about the challenges of maintaining this unwritten contract in the event that fiscal pressures force the government to cut back on spending, which could complicate the prospects for sustained political stability.

On January 1, 2015, the Finance Ministry announced Oman’s 2015 budget. Despite expectations that revenues will decrease by 1% in 2015, expenditures are set to increase by 4.5%. Consequently, Muscat will run a projected deficit of USD 6.49 billion, which is roughly 8% of the Gulf Arab nation’s gross domestic product.

The 2015 budget aims to minimize the risk of renewed anti-government protests, which would be more difficult for the monarchy to address during a potential succession crisis. Given that oil prices are expected to remain low for at least the near to medium term, however, the government at some point may need to cut spending under greater fiscal pressure.

It will be interesting to see, in that case, if a renewed call for democratic reform issues from the streets and to what extent, if at all, the next ruler grants the Majlis al-Shura with greater power in Oman’s political system.

If the public agrees that Qaboos’ successor cannot fill his shoes, analysts warn of an internal power struggle in the country, in which different actors (possibly from the military, security apparatus, economic elite, or certain tribes) openly challenge the next sultan’s legitimacy. © All Rights Reserved

If the public agrees that Qaboos’ successor cannot fill his shoes, analysts warn of an internal power struggle in the country, in which different actors (possibly from the military, security apparatus, economic elite, or certain tribes) openly challenge the next sultan’s legitimacy. (Photo: Fish market in the Omani city of Sur)
© All Rights Reserved

Qaboos is seriously ill and has no designated heir. There are fears that the country will face chaos and that this might be contagious to other countries, especially if the choice of a successor will not be consensual in the royal family. What is your assessment?

Unlike other GCC states, Oman has no designated heir to the throne. Qaboos’ brief marriage [with Kamila, née Sayyidah Nawwal bint Tariq, daughter of his uncle Sayyid Tariq ibn Taymur; the union ended in divorce after two years, in 1977] produced no children.

The monarch has no siblings, thus much uncertainty surrounds Oman’s succession question. According to experts, the successor will likely be Sayyid Haithem bin Tariq (Minister of Heritage and Culture), Thuwaini ibn Shihab Al Said, or Sayyid Taimur bin Asad bin Tariq Al Said.

In Oman the sensitive succession issue is not openly discussed and the public knows little about these three men, who are all cousins of Qaboos. Nonetheless, many in Oman (and outside the country) are nervous about the political transition that must follow Qaboos’ inevitable death. While there is an official process for succession, analysts question whether this could, in practice, happen without major problems.

Oman’s Basic Law stipulates that the ruling family is responsible for selecting a successor within three days of the throne being vacant. If the Al Said family fails to reach a consensus within three days, a council of Omani officials (from the military, security, judicial, and legislative bodies of government) is to open a letter, penned by Qaboos, which names a successor. Yet, Qaboos stated that he has penned numerous letters (possibly containing numerous names), thus it is questionable whether Omani officials would reach an agreement.

Even if the royal family and/or authorities in Muscat agree on the chosen successor, he will certainly lack Qaboos’ legitimacy. The majority of Omanis have only known life under Qaboos and most power has been concentrated in the sultan’s hands.

Other members of the ruling family lack significant experience in government (in contrast to other ruling Gulf Arab monarchies where the heads-of-state received substantial experience serving leadership roles while they were the designated heirs, such as Saudi Arabia’s King SalmanBahrain’s King Hamad, and Kuwait’s Emir Al Sabah).

If the public agrees that Qaboos’ successor cannot fill his shoes, analysts warn of an internal power struggle in the country, in which different actors (possibly from the military, security apparatus, economic elite, or certain tribes) openly challenge the next sultan’s legitimacy.

Omanis are concerned that tribal rivalries may re-emerge in the post-Qaboos era. Before Qaboos came to power, Oman’s various tribes were often engaged in conflict. If any power vacuum fuels instability, a growing number of Omanis may turn to their tribal identities and experts warn that certain tribes might pursue a restoration of the Ibadi Imamate.

(From the 1850s to the 1950s, the Ibadi Imamate governed Oman’s interior territories and the Sultanate ruled the coastal areas. At various junctures, the Ibadi Imamate threated the British-backed Sultanate until Qaboos father overthrew the Ibadi Imamate following the discovery of oil in the interior).

Many outside of Oman have high stakes in the nation’s succession process. Situated along one of the world’s busiest water passages, instability in Oman could have an impact on international energy markets.

While other states that border Saudi Arabia are destabilized (Iraq, Yemen, and the Egyptian Sinai), violent unrest in Oman would further expose Saudi Arabia to regional instability. However, despite the high stakes of foreign powers there is no indication that any other state has any power to influence Oman’s succession process.

Tehran and Muscat signed a $1 billion deal to construct an underwater natural gas pipeline connecting the two Persian Gulf nations. According to Omani officials, the gas is to begin flowing into the sultanate by 2017. This pipeline would serve not only to secure Oman’s greater access to the energy resource from Iran but also gas-rich Central Asia. © http://en.trend.az

Tehran and Muscat signed a $1 billion deal to construct an underwater natural gas pipeline connecting the two Persian Gulf nations. According to Omani officials, the gas is to begin flowing into the sultanate by 2017. This pipeline would serve not only to secure Oman’s greater access to the energy resource from Iran but also gas-rich Central Asia
© http://en.trend.az

Oman, surrounded by ambitious neighbours, has been commended as a “model of stability” in a tempestuous region. How would you define this country?

As a diplomatic bridge between the Islamic Republic of Iran on one side and the Gulf Arab monarchies (and their Western allies) on the other, Oman serves a unique role in the Middle East’s geopolitical order. Throughout 2012 and 2013, Oman mediated secret talks between officials from Washington and Tehran, which culminated in the nuclear agreement reached by world powers and Iran in July 14.

However, this was not the first time that Sultan Qaboos has pursued efforts to ease tension between Iran and its Arab/Western adversaries. When Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab leaders backed Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Oman maintained neutrality and brokered ceasefires between Tehran and Baghdad on various occasions.

In 1999, Qaboos pursued an initiative to improve relations between the United States and Iran when President Bill Clinton and President Mohammad Khatami were in office. In 2011, Oman successfully brokered the release of American hikers who had been detained in Iran on charges of espionage since 2009.

Oman, which has always been the GCC member on best terms with Iran, maintains a unique relationship with Tehran for a diverse host of reasons. Energy is an important factor. With less resource wealth than other GCC and reserves that are expected to deplete relatively soon, Oman looks to Iran as a natural gas supplier.

In March 2014, Hassan Rouhani toured the GCC, for the first time as Iran’s president, and Oman was his first destination. During Rouhani’s visit to the sultanate, officials from Tehran and Muscat signed a $1 billion deal to construct an underwater natural gas pipeline connecting the two Persian Gulf nations. According to Omani officials, the gas is to begin flowing into the sultanate by 2017.

This pipeline would serve not only to secure Oman’s greater access to the energy resource from Iran but also gas-rich Central Asia.

Oman, situated as close as 21 nautical miles to Iran, is the only GCC state that shares ownership of the Strait of Hormuz (a strategically important water passage that one-fifth of the world’s crude oil transits) with Iran.

Given that Tehran would likely shut down the Strait of Hormuz if the U.S. and/or Israel would ever bomb its nuclear facilities, Oman has much to lose from any military confrontation involving Iran. Thus Muscat has a strong incentive to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program that could ease tensions in the Persian Gulf.

As underscored by Oman’s staunch opposition to Saudi Arabia’s proposal to transform the GCC from a council into an EU-like union, Muscat views independence from Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical orbit of influence as a national interest © Fayez Nureldine | AFP | Getty Images

As underscored by Oman’s staunch opposition to Saudi Arabia’s proposal to transform the GCC from a council into an EU-like union, Muscat views independence from Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical orbit of influence as a national interest
© Fayez Nureldine | AFP | Getty

Not lost in the equation are sectarian issues. Oman is the only Muslim country that is Ibadi-majority [this statement, in the absence of an official census since the 1990’s, is now disputed, with some analysts, one of them French historian Marc Valeri, estimating that “more than 50%” of the population are Ibadi – those with roots in the first sect of Islam, the Kharijites – and “almost 50%” are Sunni, plus a small Shia minority].

Given that Saudi Arabia’s reactionary ultraconservative Wahhabi religious establishment harbours intolerant views of Ibadis (similar to their views of Shi’ite Muslims), most in Oman are deeply unsettled by the idea of Riyadh acquiring greater control over the smaller Gulf Arab kingdoms.

As underscored by Oman’s staunch opposition to Saudi Arabia’s proposal to transform the GCC from a council into an EU-like union, Muscat views independence from Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical orbit of influence as a national interest. Establishing deeper ties with Iran as a means to countering Saudi Arabian influence over Oman factors has been a pillar of Qaboos’ foreign policy.

Ultimately, Oman’s rulers see the perceived “Iranian threat” differently than Saudi Arabia and Israel. While Muscat would not favor Iran developing a nuclear weapon, Omani officials have stated that a nuclear armed-Iran would not necessarily constitute such a grave menace from their perspective.

Oman’s cordial ties with Iran are rooted in history. Sultan Qaboos defeated the Dhofar insurgency in the 1970s with support from the Shah of Iran [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] and many Omanis remain grateful to their Persian neighbour for this help, which was delivered at a critical time in the sultanate’s history. Unlike other Gulf Arab monarchies, Oman maintained a good relationship with Iran after the 1979 revolution.

Rather than viewing Iran as an Islamic Republic, Omanis see their Shi’ite neighbour across the Gulf as a neighbour that will always exist. Instead of joining the Saudi Arabian bandwagon and pursuing an aggressive foreign policy aimed at countering Tehran’s influence and position in the world, Muscat believes that all issues with Iran are best resolved through diplomatic efforts. Oman views Tehran as a valuable partner that shares many of Muscat’s interests.

Regarding the Middle East’s conflicts, Oman tends to pursue a relatively neutral position. In Yemen, Oman was the only GCC member (and the only Arab monarchy) that make a military contribution to Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthis. In Syria, Oman (unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) refrained from sponsoring anti-Assad rebels. When the 2011 anti-government protests erupted in Bahrain, Oman (unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE) did not deploy security forces to suppress the Shi’ite demonstrators. (In this Thursday, March 26, 2015 file photo, a Houthi Shiite fighter stands guard as people search for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sanaa Airport). © Chani Mohammed

Regarding the Middle East’s conflicts, Oman tends to pursue a relatively neutral position. In Yemen, Oman was the only GCC member (and the only Arab monarchy) that did not make a military contribution to Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthis.  (In this Thursday, March 26, 2015 file photo, a Houthi Shiite fighter stands guard as people search for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sanaa Airport)
© Chani Mohammed

Oman’s Qaboos has always tried to maintain solid relations with the UK, US and Iran, but there is a new trend, as you said in one of your articles (LobLog)The number of Middle Eastern states turning to Russia for weapons and nuclear energy at a time when many of Washington’s traditional Middle Eastern allies have grown disillusioned with U.S. foreign policy. You’ve mentioned Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and “other Arab States which have been traditional U.S. allies” and now “seek options beyond Washington’s sphere of influence”. What will be the route that Oman will follow after Qaboos disappearance?

As a relatively small nation without a powerful military capable of exerting much power beyond its territory, Muscat has historically depended on a military alliance with the world’s dominant naval power (once the United Kingdom, now the United States) to ensure its defense.

Yet, while Sultan Qaboos has positioned Oman as one of Washington’s vital strategic partners in the Middle East, Muscat is sometimes critical of US foreign policy in the Muslim world (ex. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine).

The Omani leadership’s criticism of the US is often understood as a means of preventing the sultanate from gaining a reputation as being a “client state” or “puppet” of the US, as well as maintaining trust from the Islamic Republic (one of Muscat’s increasingly important partners).

Muscat’s strategy of remaining relatively uninvolved in these conflicts is largely understood within the context of Oman’s sectarian/religious composition. As a mainly Ibadi Muslim country, and one which is known for religious tolerance, the vast majority of Omanis would staunchly disapprove of their leadership bringing the sultanate into these sectarian conflicts in foreign countries.

Oman’s rulers instead focus on effort to ease tensions between the Sunni and Shi’ite states/non-state actors that fuel sectarian conflicts across the Arab world.

Viewing the standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a dangerous situation that threatens to ignite war in the Persian Gulf, Muscat has a vested interest in improving relations between the Islamic Republic and Oman’s fellow GCC members.

As Oman is the only GCC state that shares control of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz with Iran, officials in Muscat see any potential conflict that could lead to this water passage’s closure as a major threat to the sultanate’s security.

While Oman’s cordial relationship with Iran has been an irritant for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab monarchies, Muscat has maintained positive relations with its fellow GCC members. However, it will be interesting to observe whether Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama attempt to pressure Oman’s next sultan (whoever that will be) to distance Muscat from Tehran and align more closely with the Persian Gulf’s Arab monarchies.

Yet, given that Oman’s strategic interests are advanced by maintaining a neutral position on the Middle East’s sectarian conflicts while pursuing close ties with Riyadh and Tehran (to balance the two off each other), it appears unlikely that Qaboos’ successor will abandon the key pillars of Oman’s unique foreign policy.

Giorgio Cafiero © All Rights Reserved

Giorgio Cafiero, co-founder of Gulf State Analytics
© All Rights Reserved

Parts of this interview were included in an article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on July 25, 2015

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