Thinking Aloud: Oman, America’s Unheralded Ally

Aug. 16, 2015 by Darius 

Who are the top US allies in the Middle East?  Most people would respond with some combination of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.  But are these allies always beneficial to the US?  Israel goes directly to its friends in the US Congress to thwart major US foreign policy efforts it doesn’t like, even when these initiatives support broader US policy.  The largest and most recent such behavior is Israel’s nonstop lobbying against the Iran nuclear agreement.  Saudi Arabia’s ruling class supports a brand of Islam that leads directly to the terrorism and violent radicalism convulsing the region.  And Jordan effectively serves as a money sponge into which the US pours billions of dollars while the Jordanian government barely manages to stay afloat.  Fortunately, though, there is another Middle Eastern country that, while you won’t see it on lists of top US allies, has been consistently helpful and not detrimental to US interests and goals in the region:  Oman.

Oman has served as a go-between for the US in its dealings with distasteful Middle Eastern governments for years.  Oman’s diplomatic utility is possible because it is the only Middle Eastern country that has managed to maintain good relations with its Arab neighbors, Israel, and Iran, all at the same time.  Oman is fundamentally non-threatening: it is sparsely populated and poorer in oil than most of the rest of the Gulf, and most Omanis adhere to the Ibadi branch of Islam, which is neither Sunni nor Shia.  As a result, the government, headed since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, has successfully sought to make sectarianism a nonissue in Oman, both in foreign and domestic policy.

In 2013, Oman served as a secret back channel for the US and Iran to jumpstart nuclear talks.  More recently, the Syrian foreign minister flew to Oman to meet with his Omani counterpart to discuss a possible end to the Syrian civil war—the first visit by a top Syrian government official to a Gulf Arab state since the war began in 2011.  If a diplomatic solution does emerge in the Syrian conflict, Oman will probably have played a role.

Oman is the kind of ally the US needs in the Middle East.  Oman doesn’t cost the US a lot of money.  Oman doesn’t entangle the US in its own regional games.  And Oman gives the US access it wouldn’t otherwise have, providing a way to cut through political posturing to accomplish real diplomatic objectives.  Out of the headlines and behind the scenes, Oman is perhaps America’s best, and most low-drama, friend in the region.

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