Oman has brokered the release of Sarah Shourd, the US female hiker arrested and detained in Iran last year. She flew from Iran into Muscat yesterday, where she is undergoing medical tests. Omani officials have kept quiet about the details of the negotiations that led to her release, with the official explanation being a brief statement from the Foreign Ministry thanking Iran and expressing hope for improved future relations between the US and Iran.
Oman does not often find itself in the spotlight, and senior US policymakers appeared surprised that the Omanis were able to successfully negotiate Shourd’s release. Oman is a country few know anything about — I was amused that The Atlantic just released a hastily-written “Five Things to Know” about the country. As one Dubai-based analyst said:
“The Americans discovered the Omanis can be a good go-between, especially when there’s a human dimension… Tehran always opens its door to the Omanis.”
I found Oman on my radar about a year ago when I relocated to Dubai. It is a very easy country to visit, and I have driven over the border a dozen times during UAE road trips in the northern Emirates, and driven across the northern part of the country, seeing border castles, inland forts, and the capital of Muscat. Oman is a safe country with countless forts and castles, but what I’ve found most interesting in learning about its history is the country’s modern history and its truly unique foreign policy, which can be characterized in wonkish terms as a post-Cold War non-alignment strategy. In layman’s terms, that can be summed up as: “Let’s be friends with everyone!”
“Nope, no contradiction here.”
Consider Oman’s relationship with Iran:
* Oman was effectively neutral during the Iran-Iraq War and brokered the peace negotiations between the two countries that finally took place in 1994.
* Oman’s Sultan Qaboos was the first foreign leader to visit Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after last year’s disputed election.
Then consider Oman’s relationship with the US:
* Oman’s Masirah Island Air Base was the staging base for the failed U.S. attempt to rescue American hostages seized in 1979 in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
* Masirah was also an important airbase for hosting U.S. bombers, transports and gunships for the military push into Afghanistan after September 11.
* In 2008, when Cheney visited the Sultanate for talks, he went fishing in the Gulf of Oman, borrowing the sultan’s 60-foot royal yacht.
Four decades ago when Sultan Qaboos took power, Oman was an erratic hermit kingdom. Today it is the quiet friend of everyone. This subtle (and even humble) foreign policy stands in stark contrast to that of its other Arab neighbors, which tends to be characterized by thin skins and easily wounded pride that makes chest-thumping declarations of confrontation a common spectacle.
In the 1970s, Pakistan played a key role in brokering meetings between the US and China to allow for the reestablishment of US-China relations. Oman just could be the country to play the same role in US-Iran relations in the coming years.