Foreign Relations

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

Oman's foreign policy since the 1970s has been influenced by Qabus ibn Said's determination to reverse the isolationism of Sultan Said ibn Taimur's rule and guardedly to integrate Oman both regionally and internationally. The geostrategic position of the country on the southern shore of the Strait of Hormuz, the imperatives of an oil-dependent economy, and the threats posed by stronger, neighboring regimes, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, have also shaped the sultan's foreign policy. Oman's foreign policy, as a result of the sultan's goals and the regime's ties to Britain and the United States, has been nonconfrontational and conciliatory to Western interests in the region.

Nonetheless, the regime has displayed an uncommon independence of action in comparison with other Arab gulf states. On several occasions, Oman has acted as a broker in regional disputes. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the two belligerents conducted cease-fire talks secretly in Muscat. Although no formal agreement resulted, the talks reduced mistrust between the parties. Similarly, after 1988 Oman acted as mediator in the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Britain and Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Regional Relations

Since 1970, when Qabus ibn Said assumed power, Oman's role in regional political dynamics has increased. Although remaining outside the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), it has been a member of the GCC since its formation in May 1981. Relations between Oman and other gulf countries have improved since 1970 as long-standing territorial disputes have been resolved. Oman and the UAE resolved a border dispute in 1981; Oman and the PDRY normalized relations in 1982; and Oman and Saudi Arabia signed a treaty in 1991 ending a long-standing territorial dispute concerning the Al Buraymi Oasis.

The resolution of the Al Buraymi Oasis territorial dispute, concerning a cluster of nine villages claimed by Saudi Arabia and administered by Abu Dhabi and Oman, improved regional relations. With the discovery of oil reserves in the gulf, the revenue potential for the Al Buraymi Oasis prompted Saudi Arabia to press its claim on the disputed territory. Riyadh dispatched troops, which occupied the area in 1952. After failing to win their claim in international arbitration, the British, using the sultan's army and the Trucial Oman Scouts, reoccupied the oasis in 1955. Although the United States protested the British action, the United States was not prepared to extend military assistance to Saudi Arabia to reverse the situation. From the early 1950s onward, Saudi Arabia provided a base from which the Ibadi imam of the interior continued to challenge the authority of the Al Said dynasty.

After the 1970 coup d'état, Qabus ibn Said sought to improve and normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. Formal relations were established following a state visit by the sultan to the kingdom in December 1971. An agreement on July 29, 1974, among Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE settled the Al Buraymi dispute. It stipulated that Oman would receive three villages in the region and Abu Dhabi six and that the two countries would share the oil field at Shaybah. The agreement provided Saudi Arabia with an outlet to the gulf through UAE territory.

In the course of the Dhofar rebellion, Oman received substantial financial support from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, countries that feared the growth of left-wing, antimonarchist movements in their own territories. In March 1990, Saudi Arabia and Oman formalized a border pact legitimating the existing declared line separating the two countries.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the fear of militant Islam among Arab gulf leaders, combined with the Iran-Iraq War and the potential interruption of tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, catalyzed the formation of the GCC (which also includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar). The GCC is theoretically a means to ensure collective security of the member states. In practice, as Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait showed, it proved ineffectual in deterring and responding to aggression by neighboring states.

After the Persian Gulf War, Sultan Qabus ibn Said suggested the creation of a multilateral 100,000-strong collective defense force. However, Saudi Arabia scuttled the proposal, which was unpopular in Oman and in other gulf states. Objections ranged from the matter of costs and manpower needs of such a force, given the small populations of GCC member states, to the question of who would command such a force. The smaller gulf states feared a dominant Riyadh dictating terms and foreign policy.

International Relations

Reciprocity has characterized Oman's relationship with foreign powers. Historically, Oman has relied on foreign powers to ensure political stability, domestically and regionally. In turn, Oman's geostrategic location at the entry point of the Strait of Hormuz and its long coastline have guided the interests of foreign powers.

Relations with the British date back to 1798 when the first treaty of friendship was concluded between the sultan of Muscat and the British government of India. British interests in Oman were predicated on Whitehall's concern with the defense of India and the imperative of maintaining secure trade routes and containing the expansion of other European powers in the Indian Ocean. Following the discovery of the potential for using oil as fuel, and later the conversion of the British naval fleet from coal-fired ships to oil-fired ships in 1911, the security of tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz gained increasing importance. Britain's Royal Air Force had staging and diplomatic telecommunications facilities on the island of Masirah from 1932 to 1977.

The British largely facilitated the extensive military buildup and modernization of Oman's armed forces during the course of the Dhofar rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s. Without British military assistance in suppressing the rebellion, the sultanate probably could not have contained the threat, even with troops from Iran and advisers from Jordan. This close military relationship continued after the suppression of the insurrection. The chief of the general staff and the commanders of the air force and navy were British officers through the mid-1980s.

United States influence in Oman has been felt more strongly since the 1970s. Britain's disengagement east of Suez in 1971 opened up the region to greater competition for influence, primarily from the United States. When Sultan Qabus ibn Said assumed power, there was no United States diplomatic presence in Oman. A United States consular officer made at least an annual visit, with contacts managed by the British, who had full control of Oman's foreign relations and defense matters. A United States missionary medical doctor was prominent in the health program. In addition, a United States archaeologist, explorer, and oilman briefly extended his exploration from the PDRY into Dhofar in the 1970s.

United States interests in regional security and in maintaining local allies, particularly after the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979, called for the reinforcement of close security links to the sultanate. Since the 1970s, Sultan Qabus ibn Said has quietly asserted his independence and engaged United States petroleum professionals to advise the government. The selection of United States citizens to manage the development programs in the Musandam Peninsula and the Al Buraymi Oasis and to develop water resources in the sultanate was a dramatic departure from the sultanate's exclusive reliance on British advisers. Relations between Oman and the United States strengthened as Qabus supported United States peace initiatives in the Middle East, as manifest in Muscat's support of the Camp David Accords signed in 1979 by Egypt and Israel and mediated by the United States.

United States influence in Oman widened with the signing of a facilities access agreement in June 1980 (renewed in 1990) providing United States military access to Omani bases under specified conditions. This was part of a larger regional strategy that also included facilities in Somalia and Kenya. The air bases at As Sib and Thamarit and on Masirah (the latter abandoned by the British in 1977) were upgraded with United States assistance.

The Joint United States-Oman Commission was established in 1980 with the mandate to fund and administer economic assistance programs in the country. Activities funded through the commission reflect sectoral priorities and include a school construction project, a scholarship and training project, a fisheries development project, a management project, and a water resources project.

The activities funded reflect United States Agency for International Development (AID) priorities. In the 1990s, AID development assistance focused on the agency's interest in privatization and institution building. The annual Omani budget proposal for fiscal year 1993 allocated US$5 million (or 33 percent of the total program) to private-sector development, US$9.5 million (or 63 percent) to institution building, and US$8.8 million (or 58 percent) to develop education facilities.

Despite these programs promoting economic development and education, Oman faced significant problems in the early 1990s. A wealthier, better educated population will demand greater participation in the political process. As of early 1993, the sultan was unwilling to relinquish real power, and he carefully preserved his political autonomy. A new Consultative Council was established in late 1990 but was essentially an advisory body without legislative power. To serve as a mechanism for true political reform, the council must be empowered with a legislative role; as of early 1993, this had not occurred.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress