Friday, 30th September 2011

Oman looks to cement its place as the Switzerland of the region

Switzerland, Iraq and, bizarrely, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Hollywood actor Sean Penn were among those credited with helping to secure the release of the US citizens who spent two years behind bars in Tehran on spying charges. But when Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer touched down in Muscat, Fattal said: “Our deepest gratitude goes toward his majesty Sultan Qaboos [Bin Said Al-Said] of Oman for obtaining our release.” Long known in the region as “a friend to all and the enemy of none”, the mountainous Gulf nation is not merely a neutral state but actively tries to reduce tensions and balance regional powers. In typical Omani style, this has always been quiet, behind-the-scenes mediation, with Sultan Qaboos shying away from a more public role as a regional arbitrator or conciliator. Oman has always maintained cordial relations with its larger neighbour, adopting a pragmatic approach in the knowledge that while other powers may come and go, Iran’s influence in the region will stay (GSN 878/3, 867/8, 859/1). It is one of Oman’s oldest trading partners, and Sultan Qaboos had a close relationship with the Shah before the revolution.

Iran came to Oman’s aid during the Dhofar rebellion, sending 4,000 soldiers to support the Sultan’s armed forces. During the Iran-Iraq war, Oman maintained diplomatic relations with both sides. Secret ceasefire meetings in Muscat didn’t amount to much, but they likely helped to bolster trust. After the war, Oman brokered meetings between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UK in an attempt to repair relations. In 1999, Oman acted as a conduit for messages between the Clinton administration and then president Mohammad Khatami over the suspected role of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 US servicemen. Though Switzerland officially works to administer US interests in Iran,WikiLeaks cables show that US officials were concerned that its negotiations with thecountry – specifically its ‘Swiss Plan’ to resolve the nuclear issue – were giving the “wrong message” and designed to raise the profile of Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey. With its long history of quiet mediation between Iran and the Gulf, Oman makes a more obvious representative of US interests – even if this is in an unofficial capacity. A diplomatic cable sent in December 2009 notes that de facto foreign minister Yusuf Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah offered Oman “as both an organiser and a venue for any meeting the US would want with Iran – if kept quiet”. Oman’s role as an arbitrator in the region has not been confined to relations with Iran.

When much of the Arab world froze relations with Egypt following its peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Oman did not. Again in 2009, when relations between Egypt and Iran were particularly tense, visits to Muscat by Iranian and Egyptian officials stoked local rumours that Oman was acting as an intermediary. Oman denied this, keen to maintain its reputation as a neutral nation but also to distance itself from a reputation as an active mediator. But Fattal’s evidently prepared statement seems to indicate that Oman may be looking to take a little more credit for its actions and cement its reputation as a pivotal behind-behind-the-scenes player in the region. Oman was also a key player in the release of US hiker Sarah Shourd last year – a role that the US State Department confirmed (GSN 885/1). A document showing GSN’s coverage of Iran/Oman relations between 1981 and 2009 is in the Reference Library at www.gsn-online.com

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