My post on Oman’s foreign policy about being friends with everyone, and being a natural broker between larger, confrontational powers, didn’t receive many comments, but it did spark a number of e-mail dialogues with certain readers. That dialogue has given me material for two more posts on the topic of Oman’s unique foreign policy.
Oman from independence through 1970 was an isolated country akin to North Korea today — isolated, poor and randomly hostile. Sultan Taymur relied on Britain and India to take the lead on Oman’s foreign relations, and made few other friendly overtures to other countries (with a few exceptions, such as Japan). He saw Oman as an Arab state in Asia and shunned relations with the Arab states. There were also occasional military skirmishes with Saudi Arabia and Iran. But when Sultan Qaboos took power in 1970, he sought to reestablish relations with its neighbors based on a number of non-alignment principles. Those principle, along with those
Reach out and be friendly — even when rebuffed
* Oman won overwhelming support to join the United Nations in 1971, with only Saudi Arabia and Cuba abstaining. Oman did not take Riyadh’s refusal to back it as an affront — instead, it invested more in building friendly relations, with continued goodwill gestures towards Saudi Arabia, with such success that the countries were natural allies a decade later when the GCC was established.
* 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. Oman was one of two Arab countries that maintained ties with Egypt.
* In 1985, Oman became the second Gulf state, after Kuwait, to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
* In 1994, Oman was the first country to invite Israeli government representatives to the country, followed by the first public visit by an Israeli leader to an Arab Gulf state — at a time when no GCC state had relations with Israel.
When continuously rebuffed, look for friends elsewhere
* Oman sought joint security arrangements with the other Gulf countries through the 1970s, particularly to defend the Strait of Hormuz, which the other Gulf monarchies regularly rebuffed. Oman thus turned to the United States, signing the 1980 Facilities Access Agreement, the first such agreement between an Arab state and the United States (there are now similar arrangements with Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait).
Don’t take sides
* Oman invested years in improving relations with Iran through the Shah’s government, only to see him deposed. Oman issued a cautionary statement at the time of the Islamic Revolution, condemning no one, and soon found common principles with the new Islamic Republic.
* Oman was one of few Arab countries do side with neither Iraq nor Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Oman tried for years to bring Iran and Iraq into negotiation after their war, and succeeded by 1994.
* When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Oman condemned Saddam but refused to break relations with Baghdad.
There are exceptions. Oman provided the air bases for the Americans to carry out the failed hostage rescue attempt in 1979, despite being more accepting of the Islamic Revolution than the other Gulf states. And Oman closed the Israeli mission in Muscat in 2000 to protest violence in the Palestinian territories. But it had me wondering if these rules can be applied outside Oman to the countries of the wider world, specifically:
> Is Oman uniquely positioned, as a small state with few natural conflicts, to take on this type of “friendly” foreign policy?
> Would this style of foreign policy crumble in the face of a deliberately beligerent power?