Oman’s Unique Foreign Policy

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 on the relationship between Oman and Japan.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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12 Responses to Oman’s Unique Foreign Policy

  1. Pingback: Brontides » Blog Archive » Becoming Brazil

  2. Pingback: Mutantfrog Travelogue » Blog Archive » Japan and Oman

  3. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    THIS type of analysis is why I look at CA every day! Thank you.

  4. zenpundit says:

    Nice work.

    What are Oman’s relations like these days with Britain? Any reaching out to China?

  5. Curzon says:

    Oman has naturally close relations with Britain that are cultural, educational and military. The entire Persian Gulf is an area where the British voluntarily left and “politically disengaged” from the region, so there are no hard feelings that you might expect in other places where the British historically had such a firm hold over political affairs.

    Oman and China don’t have much of a relationship. China imports relatively few manufactured goods, and Oman sells China lots of hydrocarbons.

  6. Carl says:

    Oman will have a pavilion at the upcoming World Expo here in Shanghai. It’s quite silly looking. Observe:

    As Curzon mentioned, China buys nearly half of Oman’s exported crude. China also buys Omani fish. This will continue until Oman no longer serves China’s purpose.

  7. Thomas says:

    Two things, first, what is the precise difference between a King, an Emir and a Sultan?

    Second, Oman’s foreign policy seems very astute but let’s remember that such positions are viable in large part because of Oman’s geography. It does not border any nations with ongoing armed conflicts. It does border Yemen, which is internally unstable, but not at war with an outside force. It’s physically distant from most mid-east hotspots. Oman has also been working to be less dependent on it’s oil reserves for it’s economic viability.

    Foreign policy that plays both sides while remains cautiously neutral works very well for a nation of this size, possessing said geography and obviously Oman has been particularly good at this but such polices aren’t viable for a majority of nations.

  8. Larry Dunbar says:

    “The primary question is whether or not Oman’s foreign policy will continue its curious “post-modern non-alignment” when Sultan Qaboos passes on.”

    …or if it matters.

  9. Curzon says:

    Thomas: Ranking. A king is a king, the top dog. A Sultan is one step down. An Emir is like a prince.

    Larry: Another question is whether or not this non-aligned, neutral, friendly foreign policy is what you get when your head of state is gay.

  10. von Kaufman-Turkestansky says:

    Carl – is that the Oman pavilion or the Bedrock pavilion?

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  12. “A Sultan is one step down”

    This is odd. The Ottoman Sultan did not have lesser dignity than a king.

    In Freund, Empire and Sovereignty (1903), the author notes that the Ottoman Sultan’s imperial rank had been recognized in 1718 — in other words, as superior in rank and dignity to a king, and a peer of only the Holy Roman Emperor amongst European sovereigns.

    Yet we see “sultans” in Malaya, Brunei, Oman, lots of other places historically, such as in Egypt.

    It appears (from that font of all wisdom, Wikipedia) that title itself is malleable, with the power and authority of its holder varying from place to place and time to time. And it appears that the Ottoman sultan held his imperial rather than kingly authority under the title of padishah, or pasha (again via Wikipedia) a nuance Freund did not notice.

    And, of course, the Ottoman Sultan was the last Caliph. With Ataturk’s abolition of the Caliphate, the Sunnis have been without a living focus for their communal and religious loyalties, and they have been restless and troublesome ever since. Various rogues, adventurers and would-be holy men have caused havoc trying to fill this vacuum throughout the 20th Century.