Oman has no complexes with its relationship with Israel. The Sultanate was quick to welcome the Bahraini-Israeli agreement in a statement that, from how it was distributed and broadcast, clearly showed that Muscat wants to pave the way for itself to be the next Gulf country in line to normalise with Israel. When will the Omani move come? It is still highly speculative, but most likely it will be soon. With the background of already established contacts with Israel under the reign of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the new Omani leadership is open to the idea.
Oman’s problem, therefore, lies elsewhere. It lies in its relationship with Iran.
How will the new Omani government deal with Iran? Sultan Haitham bin Tariq has been taking clear steps towards more openness. The recent changes in ministerial portfolios gave an initial, but strong, indication of his endeavour to put his touch on all files early on. Perhaps the most striking change introduced by the sultan was in the ministry of foreign affairs with the dismissal of veteran minister Yusuf bin Alawi. Bin Alawi was the embodiment of Oman’s quiet diplomacy, but he was also one of the symbols of the political complexes there.
In a meeting I had years ago with the former minister of foreign affairs in Muscat, during a visit by invitation of the Omani ministry of information, I asked bin Alawi about the secret of Oman’s strong relationship with Iran. His answer was surprising. I had expected a rather standard diplomatic response from a man who had decades of diplomatic and political experience behind him, but the minister gave me a simple, matter-of-fact response.“We owe Iran a great debt from the 1970s, as it helped us counter the rebellion against the government and the attempt to secede,” he said.
There are two complex problems in bin Alawi’s response. I do not know by which yardstick the Omani minister was measuring his country’s relationship with Iran, because Iran of the 1970s was the Iran of the shah and there is no way to match that era with the eras of Khomeini and Khamenei. We are not talking here about a western country like Britain, where stability in international relations is not affected much by a change in the ruling party. Post-1979 Iran has nothing to do with the shah’s Iran. Perhaps the only common denominator of the two eras is Iranian ambitions. The shah had imperial ambitions of being the policeman of the Gulf, while under the Islamic Republic, these ambitions acquired the label of “exporting the revolution” and became a regional expansionist project that slowly invaded the region in stages after threatening its stability since day one.
The second problem is related to the minister’s character. Bin Alawi criticised the rebellion against the government and praised Iran’s role in confronting it. But we know that the minister himself was among the rebels calling for the secession of Dhofar, and we do not know whether his tribute to Iran’s role was part of a self-re-examination or a desire to be in line with the official version of history of that difficult stage in Oman’s modern history. It is true that the former minister was one of the first to abandon the separatist rebellion movement, after Sultan Qaboos assumed power in the wake of his 1970 coup against his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, but this does not mean his separatist history should simply be written off and forgotten. Political pragmatism is one thing, and personal convictions are another.
We do not wish to enter into the intricacies of the interpretation of the first complex, as its regional dimensions are linked to traditional Omani sensitivities towards Saudi pressures on governance and stability at one stage. The Imamist rebellion, the Green Mountain revolution, the Buraimi Oasis issue and the recent case of Yemen’s Mahra governorate are all considerations that weigh on the Omani political mind, as it thinks of a regional power that could counterbalance Saudi pressure. This is a problem that dates back over half a century, and a lot has changed during this period. But this Omani complex has continued to be present and shape Omani policy, perhaps even to this day. Is it not high time for Oman to come to terms with this complex?
The second problem is personal, and we leave it to whom it concerns to work it out.
Sultan Haitham seems intent on opening a new page. Iran, for example, is acting to advance its own political and strategic motives, and one should not for a moment believe that its leadership takes into account the opinions of friends. Saudi Arabia today is not the Saudi Arabia of the recent past, and it seems more concerned with its own project for internal reform.
Regional crises have drained the region, and the collapse of oil prices combined with the coronavirus pandemic came as two dangerous warning signs of upcoming difficulties. Young Omanis are focused more on their country than they are on what is happening around them in the region.
Furthermore, we can see an important sign of stability and continuity in the assignment of a high and prominent position to the son of the sultan, Sayyid Dhi Yazan bin Haitham. Both of the sultan’s sons are close to their father, and we will see them grow more involved in the process of internal reform that their father is leading very seriously. In Oman today, there are sure signs of a determination to break off from the former state of stalemate and routine that characterised the country’s administration and society during the period of Sultan Qaboos’s illness and before.
There is no room for old complexes in today’s era of enormous challenges, be they complexes towards Israel, Iran or the region in general. Sultan Haitham has an opportunity to introduce new adjustments and changes in Oman’s visions and policies, and it is part of his full right to put his own stamp on things, in addition to undertake urgently needed reforms to adapt to new realities.