Chandler Kuiper

The Sultanate of Oman is a politically stable nation, especially when compared to many of its neighbors. Since the conclusion of the Dhofar Rebellion in 1978, after all, it has not experienced widespread internal strife and has generally refrained from involving itself it armed conflicts abroad. The Dhofar conflict solidified Oman’s relations with a diverse menagerie of foreign powers, such as the United Kingdom (UK) and Iran. This cooperative spirit is similarly seen in Oman’s natural cultural and linguistic affinities with other Gulf Arab states. Also, Oman’s status as the world’s only Ibadi Muslim government removes it from the Sunni-Shia split that defines sectarian conflict in the region. Oman is likewise blessed with an eminently strategic geographic position, sharing with Iran the Strait of Hormuz’s critical maritime chokepoint. These factors of relative geopolitical and religious neutrality as well as geographic prominence have converged to grant Oman an impressive degree of strategic flexibility in executing its foreign policy goals, in turn emphasizing its significance on the world’s stage as a regional arbitrator.

The Dhofar conflict saw the Omani government fight communist insurgents in the southern Omani province of Dhofar. Decisively ending the conflict required military support from a variety of nations, including the UK and Imperial Iran (Almajdoub 2016). This assistance placed these countries squarely in the good graces of the Omani government, a position they continue to enjoy to this day. High ranking Omani military officers train at prominent UK military academies, and the two militaries maintain a high degree of interoperability (RAF Museum 2021). As for Iran, Oman continued to maintain positive relations with the Persian nation even after it experienced the Islamic revolution of 1979 (Almajdoub 2016). This is despite the increasingly tense situation between Iran and the Gulf Arab coalition of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two nations Oman has close cultural and linguistic ties with (Atalayar 2023). As deep as these sympathies with the other Gulf Arab states may run though, Oman nevertheless refuses to participate in their ongoing armed interventions in Yemen (Abdulkareem 2017). This endears them to the warring factions of Yemen, who generally view Oman as a neutral faction not beholden to the strategic designs of one power bloc or the other (Schanzer and Rubin 2022).
Ibadi Islam is a comparably minor sect of the larger Muslim faith, one that today remains largely aloof from the internecine conflict of the larger Sunni and Shia traditions (Hoffman 2012). This tension is one of the factors driving the simmering cold war between the Sunni Gulf Arab states and the Shia theocracy of Iran, a rivalry that exploded into a devastating proxy war in Yemen. Like Saudi Arabia, Oman directly borders Yemen and naturally fears the conflict spilling over into its territory (Abdulkareem 2017). Unlike the Saudis however, Oman has not officially backed one side or the other. It prefers to see the situation resolved diplomatically and tacitly calculates that the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen has only worsened and prolonged the strife there (Abdulkareem 2017). As the war in Yemen is exacerbated by the larger Shia-Sunni split, Oman’s Ibadi identity gives it a degree of perceived neutrality among the combatants (Iran International 2022). This, alongside their refusal to directly intervene in the conflict, allows Oman to build trust with both the Saudi-backed, mostly Sunni Yemeni government and their predominantly Shia Houthi opponents (Schanzer and Rubin 2022).

The geography of Oman is also very favorable, given its prominent position on the Strait of Hormuz. South of the Hormuz lies the Omani portion of the Musandam Peninsula, which juts prominently into the strait itself. At the strait’s narrowest, only around 39 kilometers separates the Musandam Peninsula from Iran to the north (Talmadge 2008). Iran is certainly aware of this geographic fact; Tehran has threatened to unilaterally close the Hormuz in response to Western and Gulf Arab “aggression” multiple times over the last decades and has positioned a large portion of its naval forces to attempt exactly that if ordered to do so (UPI 2022). Given the Strait of Hormuz’s role as a critical pipeline of petroleum and natural gas, such a blockade would have severe and far-ranging consequences for the global economy (IranWire 2023). The Musandam Peninsula is therefore critical in deterring such a campaign, as Gulf Arab and Western military forces could theoretically be rapidly staged there in the event of an Iranian blockade of the Hormuz. Iranian closure of the Hormuz would almost certainly elicit intense pressure from the West and Gulf Arab world to form a coalition to reopen the strait. Oman would likely join such an endeavor, given that its own prosperity would very likely be under direct threat. There is precedent for this; as mentioned before, Oman generally refuses to directly involve itself in foreign conflicts, but they did join the international military effort to protect Saudi Arabia and remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1990-1991 (Yenigun 2016).

Oman’s foreign policy has skillfully used these advantages to solidify its reputation as a trusted regional mediator. For example, Oman served as the go between in various discussions between the USA and Iran, from hostage negotiations to the ongoing dialog over Iran’s nuclear program (Kasinof 2023). As both nations trust Oman more than they do the other, it continues to serve as a valuable point of contact and potential deconfliction line in a tense political and military rivalry (Motamedi 2022). This essentially universal respect neatly parallels Oman’s role in the continuing Yemeni civil war, where it will continue to serve as a conduit for diplomatic engagement that horrific dispute (U.S. Department of State 2023). As an example, Oman has hosted representatives from both of the major factions in Yemen and could theoretically host an eventual peace conference. Ultimately, while “peace in the Middle East” remains elusive, Oman’s position as a regional powerbroker is solidified by its unique historical circumstances and geopolitical preferences (Iran International 2022).


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Posted February 28, 2023