Oman is an outlier in the Persian Gulf and in the Arab World. The people are mainly Ibadhi Muslims, a unique sect that is neither Sunni nor Shia. It is the only Arab state with a Sultan (as opposed to a King or Emir), and the current Sultan Qaboos divorced his wife decades ago and it is rumored that he is homosexual. Also unique to Oman is its foreign policy. Whereas many Gulf and Arab states have been quick to break diplomatic relations and adopt confrontational stances and grandstand to provoke other actors, Oman from 1970 has explicitly taken the policy to adapt to changing circumstances, remain non-aligned, never harbor hostile intentions, and avoid confrontation.
Since taking power in 1970 in a palace coup, Sultan Qaboos of Oman spent the 70s first consolidating rule at home. Oman had for years been unstable and in a civil war and he was effectively ruler of nothing more than the capital and the coastal regions. Rule was consolidated not through scorched earth assaults on rebels, but through amnesty grants and dialogue, which succeeded in quickly making Oman a relatively peaceful place, which has lasted to this day.
Sultan Qaboos’ next task was to reestablish relations with its neighbors. It joined the United Nations in 1971, with only two countries — Saudi Arabia and Cuba — abstaining on granting it admission. Saudi Arabia was suspicious of the non-Sunni Sultan, who had an utterly different background than the other monarchs of the Persian Gulf. Yet the Sultan was patient in building goodwill with Saudi Arabia, and as relations between Muscat and Riyadh improved, the other emirates of the Persian Gulf took note and relations improved such that Oman was a leader and natural participant in the establishment of the GCC in the early 1980s.
Oman also set to work improving relations with Iran. This was successful, and after the Iranian Revolution, Oman found middle ground by issuing a cautionary statement when the revolution took place but found common principles to speak about with the new Islamic Republic. And in 1979, most countries in the Arab world broke diplomatic relations with Egypt in retaliation for its peace agreement with Israel, brokered by US President Jimmy Carter, while only two distant Arab monarchies kept ties with Egypt — Morocco and Oman.
During the Iran-Iraq War, Arab countries overwhelmingly sided with Iraq, with a few isolated exceptions such as Syria and Libya (and the Emir of Dubai). Oman, perhaps because of its proximity to Iran, refused to join the staunch pro-Iraq positions of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, both occasionally condemning Baghdad all while nominally agreeing to the milder condemnations of Iran as part of the GCC. In 1985, Oman became the second Gulf state, after Kuwait, to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Oman condemned Saddam but refused to break relations with Baghdad.
In the 1990s, Oman continued to push for friendly relations with all countries, and this continues to be its guiding policy today, as it slowly tries to develop its poor economy based on production of hydrocarbons.
Only one comprehensive study has been made of Oman’s foreign policy, which was completed a decade ago by renowned Lebanese-Armenian scholar Joseph Kechichian, a professor at Pepperdine, who wrote in 1995 Oman and the world: the emergence of an independent foreign policy. You can read a summary of it here. The primary question is whether or not Oman’s foreign policy will continue its curious “post-modern non-alignment” when Sultan Qaboos passes on.
See a sister post to this blog entry over at Mutantfrog.com on the relationship between Oman and Japan.