Analysis: Domestic concerns drive Oman's newly assertive foreign policy

Analysis: Domestic concerns drive Oman
# 23 December 2013 22:22 (UTC +04:00)

Baku-APA. Traditionally reticent Oman has become unusually assertive in opposing a Saudi plan for Gulf Arab states to close ranks against Iran, worried that a wider regional confrontation might threaten its own stability, APA reports quoting Reuters.

Oman's willingness to incur the displeasure of Saudi Arabia, its most powerful neighbor, reflects both the proximity of Iran and vulnerabilities of its domestic political, economic and religious makeup.

The Sultanate sits on the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula through which flows 40 percent of the world's seaborne crude oil. Muscat has a history of constructive relations with Tehran, and recently agreed to buy Iranian gas for the next quarter century.

"Geography necessitates that we deal with Iran. It is a Muslim neighbor located on the other side of the Gulf and therefore we must seek stability in this region," said Anwar al-Rawas, a lecturer at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.

Oman has watched with alarm as rivalry between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran has spread across the region. Riyadh and some other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Oman is a member, believe Tehran is using sectarianism to interfere in Arab countries and build its own sphere of Middle East influence.

Riyadh has backed groups opposing Iranian proxies in unrest or outright war in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen, and has tried to marshal the GCC into what a former Omani diplomat described as "a sectarian project to confront Iran".

Muscat not only dismissed the Saudi idea last month, but also facilitated secret U.S. talks with Tehran, leading to a deal on Iran's nuclear program that Riyadh sees as dangerous.

"Omani foreign policy is basically at the service of Omani political stability, and Omani political stability needs regional stability," said Marc Valeri, an Oman expert at Britain's University of Exeter.

Factors in the new diplomatic assertiveness of a government that used to be discreet even by the standards of the tight-lipped region also include the sultanate's religious makeup, which is very different from its Arab allies', and wariness among many Omanis of Saudi influence. "They might be a bit worried about being crushed by the sheer weight of Saudi Arabia," said a Western diplomat in Muscat.

Omani concerns also stem from uncertainty over its dynastic succession and questions about how long an economic model built on dwindling oil production can last.

Protests in several Omani cities during the Arab Spring in 2011 showed that public patience with the government of Sultan Qaboos, credited with rapidly modernizing a medieval kingdom after he overthrew his father in 1970, has limits.

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