Sunday, April 9, 2017

Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy

The Sultanate of Oman has been a strategic ally of the United States since 1980, when it became the first of the Persian Gulf monarchies to formally allow the U.S. military to use bases there. The facilities access accord represented a long-term Omani shift from reliance on Britain for its security, although Oman continues to maintain close military ties to Britain. Oman has hosted U.S. forces during every U.S. military operation in and around the Gulf since then, and it is a partner in U.S. efforts to counter the transit of terrorists through regional waterways. Oman has consistently supported U.S. Middle East peacemaking efforts by publicly endorsing peace agreements reached and meeting with Israeli leaders, even when doing so ran counter to the policies of Oman’s Gulf state allies. Oman’s ties to the United States are unlikely to loosen if its ailing leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id Al Said, leaves the scene in the near term. He returned to Oman in March 2015 after nearly a year of treatment in Germany, but has rarely appeared in public since, causing rampant speculation about his health and succession issues.

Within the region, Oman has tended to avoid joining its Gulf allies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman) in direct intervention in regional conflicts. Oman also has historically asserted that engaging Iran is the optimal strategy to reduce the potential threat from that country, and the country maintains close relations with Iran. Oman was the only GCC state not to downgrade its relations with Iran in connection with the Saudi-Iran dispute over the Saudi execution of a Shiite cleric in January 2016. Oman has publicly joined the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State organization but it is apparently not participating militarily in those efforts and did not join a Saudi-led broad counterterrorism coalition announced in December 2015. On the other hand, some reports indicate that Iran might be taking advantage of its relationship with Oman to smuggle weapons across Oman’s borders to the Houthi rebels in Yemen that Iran is supporting.

Oman’s ties to Iran has enabled it to broker agreements between the United States and Iran, including the release of U.S. citizens held by Iran. Oman’s diplomacy paved the way for U.S.-Iran direct talks that ultimately produced the July 14, 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the international community (“Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA)).

Prior to the wave of Middle East unrest that began in 2011, the United States consistently praised Sultan Qaboos for gradually opening the political process even in the absence of evident public pressure to do so. The liberalization allowed Omanis a measure of representation, but did not significantly limit Qaboos’s role as paramount decision maker. Modest reform—as well as the country’s economic performance—apparently did not satisfy some Omanis, because unprecedented protests took place in several Omani cities for much of 2011. The apparent domestic popularity of Qaboos, coupled with additional economic and political reforms as well as repression of protest actions, caused the unrest to subside in 2012. However, since then, Oman has mimicked the policies of the other GCC states in increasing press censorship and arresting critics who use social media.

As are the other GCC states, Oman is attempting to cope with the dramatic fall in the price of crude oil since mid-2014, which has accelerated GCC efforts to try to diversify their economies. Oman’s economy and workforce has always been somewhat more diversified than some of the other GCC states, but Oman has only a modest financial cushion to invest in projects that can further diversify its revenue sources. The U.S.-Oman free trade agreement (FTA) was intended to facilitate Oman’s access to the large U.S. economy and accelerate Oman’s efforts to diversify.

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