What is Unique About the Omani-Iranian Relations?

OPINION 26.08.2016

Today the Gulf countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, maintain very adverse relations with Iran. Other countries (i.e. Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain) in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) generally follow the Saudi lead when it comes to their relations with Iran and the regional policies. Their competition and tension with Iran are visible in the Syrian and Yemeni conflict and the political crisis in Bahrain. These hostile relations are also interpreted within a framework of sectarian conflict. However, Oman is the only country that maintains somewhat friendly relations with Iran, reflecting an exception. In this article I will analyze why and how Oman has a unique type of relations with Iran with regard its various aspects. Geographically Oman is a member of the Gulf region that is filled with oil reserves and sectarian differences. However, the country does not have big oil and gas reserves like others in the region. Omant tries to make use of three intersecting domains: Arab-Islamic world, Indian Ocean and International. Oman sees itself as a bridge between the Arabian Peninsula and West Asia as well as between Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. It shares with Iran the Hormuz strait as the major gateway of world oil and gas transfer. Both countries are working on a natural gas pipeline from Iran to the Omani Port Saffar. Oman wants to rip the benefits of the geostrategic location in trade and mediation among various parties. Historically Oman’s relations with Iran have been different in the regional context. Even though it is a Gulf country in terms of geography and regimes, Oman maintains unique historical and identity characteristics. The Omani Empire was dominant in its current territories, Baluchistan and East Africa during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After it gained its independence from Britain, the country continued to have strong relations with the United States along with Britain during the second half of the 20th century. This imperial legacy gives Oman a self-confidence in its foreign relations. After independence Oman faced the three challenges of Wahhabi expansion from Saudi Arabia, an armed leftist movement inside the country and Imami project of Zaidis in the South. It managed to overcome these challenges with the help of Iran and the West. Following rise of the Soltan Qaboos to power in 1970, Shah’s Iran was the third country to recognize him after the US and the UK. The Shah’s Iran helped the Omani government in suppressing the Dhofar revolution during the early 1970s, creating a strong trust between the two countries. According to the daily Waqt columnist Muhammed Hassan Qasem, Oman is the closest country to Iranian positions in the Gulf and played a constructive role in mediating many files concerning Islamic Republic of Iran. Oman’s good relations with Iran did not change after the arrival of the Islamic Republic. Unlike other Gulf countries that feared the Islamic regime and supported the Saddam regime, the Omani government was not concerned and remained neutral in the Iran-Iraq war. On the other hand, it mediated for a peace deal between the two sides afterwards to conclude the war. The two countries did not hide their good relations despite high-tensions in the region. For example, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani paid his first visit to Oman in 2103 reflecting the cordial relations between the two countries. Similarly, the sultan Qaboos was the first Arab leader that visited Iran after the election of Rouhani in 2014.

Oman is the closest country to Iranian positions in the Gulf and played a constructive role in mediating many files concerning Islamic Republic of Iran.

Oman’s foreign policy is characterized by non-intervention in others’ affairs and neutrality. In this regard, its pragmatic approach avoids involving in regional and international conflicts and tries to employ dialogue-based and peaceful solutions. Unlike most Arab countries, Oman did not boycott the Camp David Treaty in 1979. As stated above, Oman has mediated in many regional controversies concerning Iran such as the agreement to end the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, between British and Iran in 2007 and between Egypt and Iran in 1991. Oman especially played a starter role in the nuclear talks between Iran and the US, as admitted by the US foreign minister John Kerry.

As a sign of its uniqueness, Oman declared that it would not be part of the Gulf Union project, but it would not hinder the efforts for the unification of other Gulf countries. Oman’s reluctance comes from its sectarian difference, its worries to lose sovereignty as well as foreign policy tradition. Another reason would be that Oman does not want to offend Iran as the GCC is established against the threats of Iran’s revolutionary expansion. Instead of antagonism, Oman chooses to maintain good relationship with the other Gulf countries and Iran. Oman’s relations with Iran increased more complex after the Arab Spring. In the Yemeni crises it refused to join the coalition against the Houthi coup in Yemen. This was probably because of its good relations with Iran. Moreover, Oman avoids such conflicts because it has geographical proximity and tribal ties with Yemen, fearing the spillover of conflicts and instability to its territories. At the same time, it continues to try to mediate between the warring sides in Yemen. Unlike other Gulf countries, Oman did not withdraw its ambassador from Iran to protest the attacks on Saudi embassy in Tehran in January 2016 while condemning the attack on embassies as a violation of international agreements.

Oman does not want to offend Iran as the GCC is established against the threats of Iran’s revolutionary expansion. Instead of antagonism, Oman chooses to maintain good relationship with the other Gulf countries and Iran. Oman’s relations with Iran increased more complex after the Arab Spring.

Oman and Iran maintain good military relations and security cooperation as they frequently conduct joint military exercises, the last of which was conducted in 2015. The two countries also signed an agreement to prevent smuggling in the Gulf of Oman. Unlike others, Oman did not oppose Iran’s nuclear program and mediated the US-Iran talks, instead. Oman was not against the Nuclear deal with Iran while the others fear the deal will provide Iran with more leverage in instigating troubles in the Middle East. Fearing the conflicts might spread to its territories, the Omani government tries to stay away from the Yemen conflict and refused to join the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis. Culturally Oman maintains a great number of the followers of the rare Ibadi sect, i.e. nearly the half of the population. The Ibadi sect is generally considered a remnant of the Kharijite school of Islam but they deny this view and position themselves close to the Sunni school. The King Qaboos is also from the Ibadi sect and the country maintains good ties with other Ibadi communities in Zanzibar, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The Omani regime is also worried about the spread of the Wahhabi-Salafi interpretation of Islam in its territories. It did not seem to be concerned about the spreading of Shia faith in its territories. Its cultural difference in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood is considered a conducive factor to its rapprochement with Iran. In the economic arena, about a half of the gross national income (45 percent) comes from oil and gas while they constitute the 86 percent of state revenues, as of 2013. Declining oil prices began to weaken the Omani economy, causing unemployment and hindering development. Unemployment is a major challenge as the more than half of the population is under the age of 25. Like many rentier states, Oman suffers from corruption. After the breakup of the Arab Spring, the Gulf countries provided Oman with a financial aid that worth 10 billion dollars, a sign of its economic vulnerability. Iran and Oman maintain good economic relations as they established a naval shipping line between Iranian port Bandar Abbas and its Omani counterpart Sahhar Port. Their trade is expected to increase as it is currently worth about one billion dollars. Omani companies target the Iranian market for export while Iran sees Oman as a gateway to the Asian and East African markets. The Iranian-Omani trade chamber founded in Iran consists of 250 companies along with a joint company for joint investments. In 2007 Oman declared that it will not be a part of the GCC currency union, probably not to offend its neighbor on the other bank of the sea Iran. Energy is the main engine of their economic relations as Iran and Oman signed an agreement to sell Iranian natural gas worth of 10 billion cubic meters annually. That is because Oman have large oil and gas reserves. Iran considers Oman as station to deliver its gas to the outside world, especially to Asia. For this purpose, the two countries will build a pipeline 260 kilometer from the Iranian province Hormozjan to the Omani port Sahhar. It is reported that Oman will export the gas to the international markets, but it will be able to use it in its domestic market as well. On the other hand, Oman invests in the Iranian oil market with the worth of 1.5 to 2 billion dollars. In brief, Oman is the only Gulf country that has special relations Iran as it does not follow the Saudi lead in opposing Iran. Out of its geographic location and national identity Oman adopts a pragmatic, non-interventionist and multi-faceted relations with its neighbors including Iran and the West. Oman’s cordial relations go back to the 1970s when the Shah regime supported the new sultan Qaboos against the leftist rebels in Dhofar. Iran also sees Oman as an opening to the international markets. Oman did not support Iran’s regional adversaries as in the Iran-Iraq war and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Instead, it chose to mediate between Iran and its rivals in many occasions, the latest of which was the Nuclear agreement in 2015. While being part of the GCC, Oman refuses to transform it into the Gulf Union, it maintains a relatively strong economic and military relations with Iran. In the aftermath of the nuclear deal the relations will be even stronger between Iran and Oman.

Oman is the closest country to Iranian positions in the Gulf and played a constructive role in mediating many files concerning Islamic Republic of Iran.

Oman’s foreign policy is characterized by non-intervention in others’ affairs and neutrality. In this regard, its pragmatic approach avoids involving in regional and international conflicts and tries to employ dialogue-based and peaceful solutions.[1] Unlike most Arab countries, Oman did not boycott the Camp David Treaty in 1979. As stated above, Oman has mediated in many regional controversies concerning Iran such as the agreement to end the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, between British and Iran in 2007 and between Egypt and Iran in 1991. Oman especially played a starter role in the nuclear talks between Iran and the US, as admitted by the US foreign minister John Kerry[2].

As a sign of its uniqueness, Oman declared that it would not be part of the Gulf Union project but it would not hinder the efforts for the unification of other Gulf countries. Oman’s reluctance comes from its sectarian difference, its worries to lose sovereignty as well as foreign policy tradition. Another reason would be that Oman does not want to offend Iran as the GCC is established against the threats of Iran’s revolutionary expansion. Instead of antagonism, Oman chooses to maintain good relation with the other Gulf countries and Iran. Oman’s relations with Iran increased more complex after the Arab Spring.[3] In the Yemeni crises it refused to join the coalition against the Houthi coup in Yemen. This was probably because of its good relations with Iran. Moreover, Oman avoids such conflicts because it has geographical proximity and tribal ties with Yemen, fearing the spillover of conflicts and instability to its territories. At the same time, it continues to try to mediate between the warring sides in Yemen. Unlike other Gulf countries, Oman did not withdraw its ambassador from Iran to protest the attacks on Saudi embassy in Tehran in January 2016 while condemning the attack on embassies as a violation of international agreements.

Oman does not want to offend Iran as the GCC is established against the threats of Iran’s revolutionary expansion. Instead of antagonism, Oman chooses to maintain good relation with the other Gulf countries and Iran. Oman’s relations with Iran increased more complex after the Arab Spring.

Oman and Iran maintain good military relations and security cooperation as they frequently conduct joint military exercises, the last of which was conducted in 2015. The two countries also signed an agreement to prevent smuggling in the Gulf of Oman.[4] Unlike others, Oman did not oppose Iran’s nuclear program and mediated the US-Iran talks, instead. Oman was not against the Nuclear deal with Iran while the others fear the deal will provide Iran with more leverage in instigating troubles in the Middle East. Fearing the conflicts might spread to its territories, the Omani government tries to stay away from the Yemen conflict and refused to join the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis. Culturally Oman maintains a great number of the followers of the rare Ibadi sect, i.e. nearly the half of the population. The Ibadi sect is generally considered a remnant of the Kharijite school of Islam but they deny this view and position themselves close to the Sunni school. The King Qaboos is also from the Ibadi sect and the country maintains good ties with other Ibadi communities in Zanzibar, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The Omani regime is also worried about the spread of the Wahhabi-Salafi interpretation of Islam in its territories. It did not seem to be concerned about the spreading of Shia faith in its territories. Its cultural difference in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood is considered a conducive factor to its rapprochement with Iran. In the economic arena, about a half of the gross national income (45 percent) comes from oil and gas while they constitute the 86 percent of state revenues, as of 2013. Declining oil prices began to weaken the Omani economy, causing unemployment and hindering development. Unemployment is a major challenge as the more than half of the population is under the age of 25. Like many rentier states, Oman suffers from corruption. After the breakup of the Arab Spring, the Gulf countries provided Oman with a financial aid that worth 10 billion dollars, a sign of its economic vulnerability. Iran and Oman maintain good economic relations as they established a naval shipping line between Iranian port Bandar Abbas and its Omani counterpart Sahhar Port. Their trade is expected to increase as it is currently worth about one billion dollars. Omani companies target the Iranian market for export while Iran sees Oman as a gateway to the Asian and East African markets. The Iranian-Omani trade chamber founded in Iran consists of 250 companies along with a joint company for joint investments. In 2007 Oman declared that it will not be a part of the GCC currency union, probably not to offend its neighbor on the other bank of the sea Iran. Energy is the main engine of their economic relations as Iran and Oman signed an agreement to sell Iranian natural gas worth of 10 billion cubic meters annually. That is because Oman have large oil and gas reserves. Iran considers Oman as station to deliver its gas to the outside world, especially to Asia. For this purpose, the two countries will build a pipeline 260 kilometers from the Iranian province Hormozjan to the Omani port Sahhar. It is reported that Oman will export the gas to the international markets but it will be able to use it in its domestic market as well. On the other hand, Oman invests in the Iranian oil market with the worth of 1.5 to 2 billion dollars. In brief, Oman is the only Gulf country that has special relations Iran as it does not follow the Saudi lead in opposing Iran. Out of its geographic location and national identity Oman adopts a pragmatic, non-interventionist and multi-faceted relations with its neighbors including Iran and the West. Oman’s cordial relations go back to the 1970s when the Shah regime supported the new sultan Qaboos against the leftist rebels in Dhofar. Iran also sees Oman as an opening to the international markets. Oman did not support Iran’s regional adversaries as in the Iran-Iraq war and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Instead, it chose to mediate between Iran and its rivals in many occasions, the latest of which was the Nuclear agreement in 2015. While being part of the GCC, Oman refuses to transform it into the Gulf Union, it maintains a relatively strong economic and military relations with Iran. In the aftermath of the nuclear deal the relations will be even stronger between Iran and Oman.