The recent change of leadership in Muscat is crucial for regional balance of power as much as for Oman’s domestic politics. Following Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s 50-year long reign, the country has had a new ruler, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, since last January. In his inauguration speech, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq expressed his will to follow his predecessor’s path of ‘not interfering in the internal affairs of others, respecting nations’ sovereignty and international cooperation.’ However, as the full extent of continuities and divergences are not clear yet, the policy choices of the new leadership are closely followed by different regional and global actors. Although Oman is not a country with strong influence in the major crises of the region, its strategic location, which is a next door to the Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Iran, increases the country’s importance for the regional and global rivalries.
Oman is a country which has maintained friendly relations with actors that have different ideological and geopolitical orientations, while keeping itself out of political constellations and polarizations. Although it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Oman has cultivated cordial relations with Iran, not cut off its diplomatic relations with the regime in Damascus, not participated to the Saudi-Emirati military alliance in Yemen and pursued a policy of neutrality during the 2017 Qatar crisis.
On top of its policy of refrainment from the tensions of the Middle East, Omani leadership has promoted the country as the diplomatic facilitator. In the way to 2015 JCPOA agreement between P5+1 and Iran, Oman played an important role as a backchannel between Washington and Tehran – a role which was not welcomed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Although Sultan Haitham bin Tariq has already declared his commitment to Oman’s traditional foreign policy, it is quite early to understand what will change and endure as the country is witnessing a new leader after a long period of time. The interpretations of the concepts like non-interference, independence and cooperation in international relations may vary in a wide spectrum. So indeed, Sultan Haitham’s some bold steps to reform state institutions and economy indicate that his rule might differ from his predecessor’s style in many ways, including external relations – even though the range of transformation might be much narrower in foreign affairs. With the last week’s cabinet reshuffle, Sultan Haitham changed the Minister of Foreign Affairs Yusef bin Alawi, chief executor of Oman’s traditional foreign policy, with Badr bin Hamad bin Hamoud Al Busaidi.
The timing of the leadership change renders Oman’s position quite delicate in the current regional balance of power. The Middle East is in the middle of fierce regional rivalries. Alongside Shi’i-Sunni sectarian conflict, there is a rising tension between Turkey and Qatar on the one side and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the other. Those two groups of countries carry out proxy wars, or at least conflicting policies, in Libya, Syria, Eastern Mediterranean, Somalia, and the Gulf. Kuwait and Oman have been two actors that have tried hard to maintain their neutrality in this rivalry thus far.
In Ankara, the government is trying to understand whether or not new Oman can be second foothold in the peninsula after Qatar. The Turkish official news agency duly noted Oman’s Grand Mufti Ahmed bin Hamad al-Khalili’s tweet that praised Erdogan for the Hagia Sophia decision. ‘We congratulate ourselves, the entire Muslim nation, and particularly the Turkish nation headed by its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for converting Hagia Sophia back to a house of worship where Allah authorized his name to be raised and mentioned,’ wrote the Grand Mufti. Considering overall negative reaction of Arab countries to the issue, Oman’s support for the Turkish government was indeed remarkable. More interestingly, the pro-AKP media claimed that Ankara and Muscat signed a deal for the establishment of a Turkish naval base in Oman and thereby Turkey will be able to lay siege to the UAE. Such reports have not been confirmed by the Omani authorities but not denied either. This gives an impression that Muscat wants to use this issue as a leverage in its relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. According to an article published in Anadolu Agency, there is a growing discord in Omani-Emirati relations, and therefore Muscat sees Ankara as a potential ally to balance UAE’s influence. The article highlights the phone calls between Erdogan and Haitham bin Tariq on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as well as, the Turkish defense company, Havelsan’s partnership with Omani Masirah International in March.
On the other hand, from the Emirati perspective, the economic constraints may catalyze better Omani-Emirati relations in the near future. With nearly 17 percent unemployment rate and high budget deficit, the economy is the primary issue that Haitham bin Tariq has to deal with. Fluctuations in oil prices and COVID-19’s direct and indirect effects put extra pressure on the Omani economy. Muscat has recently arranged $2 billion bridge loan through the partnership between First Abu Dhabi Bank and Bank Muscat.
Besides, Oman’s quick declaration of support to the UAE-Israel normalization is interpreted as a sign of Muscat’s intention of pursuing Abu Dhabi’s footsteps in terms of relations with Tel Aviv and flourishing relations between two GCC neighbors.
Apparently, Turkey, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iran would like to draw new Omani leadership to their own sides. In response, Sultan Haitham seems to improve his ties with all these different actors and thereby maintain his neutrality. In this respect, it is reasonable to expect Ankara to further develop its relations with Muscat in the coming period. Yet, it may never be as close or advanced as Ankara-Doha relations. Unlike Qatar, Oman is a country which has a strong bureaucratic and diplomatic tradition.
Nevertheless, the pressure of increasing tension in the region and Oman’s economic constraints may complicate Sultan Haitham’s intention to pursue his predecessor’s way. As the polarization in the region continues to get worse, the neutral regional actors, like Oman, will feel more pressure to choose a side.