The Switzerland of the Middle East
On the last day of April in Washington, the Middle East Institute think tank hosted a conversation on peace in the Middle East. The topic wasn’t surprising, but the players were. The key guest? Secretary-General Sayyid Badr bin Hamad al-Busaidi, a diplomat of the tiny Sultanate of Oman — as opposed to an emissary of Israel or Palestine, or even Egypt or Lebanon, as you’d historically expect. “We are in the 21st century, and we need to really approach these difficulties and challenges with an eye to the future, not the past,” Sayyid Badr told moderator Gerry Feierstein, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. Ozy reports in its article OMAN THE BEST HOPE FOR PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST? that the 3.1-million-strong Gulf nation has emerged as a vital mediator in recent years, and is further burnishing those credentials at a time when the Middle East — burning in Gaza, Yemen, Iraq and Syria — desperately needs peacemakers.
“The Switzerland of the Middle East” is how Feierstein refers to Oman. With Lebanon — which formally holds that tag — mired in the Syrian war, and with Hezbollah’s rising influence there, Oman is filling the gap.
Its neutrality allows it to speak as an Iran whisperer, communicating the ayatollah’s messages to the world — Muscat, Oman’s capital, was the venue for key talks between Tehran and Washington ahead of the nuclear deal, which President Donald Trump has since quashed. The U.N. has declared Oman “pivotal” to efforts to end the three-year conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. And this country perched at the mouth of the Persian Gulf is where American, Afghan, Pakistani and Chinese diplomats meet to find common ground on Afghanistan’s future. Oman also was one of only two Gulf nations to not cut ties with Qatar when Saudi Arabia sought Doha’s expulsion from the Gulf Cooperation Council last year over alleged terrorist ties, seeking active diplomacy instead.
But Oman is more than just a neutral conference room for rival states to use. The country has built influence with countries and militias across the region, turning it into a go-to hostage negotiator for nations whose citizens are abducted by hostile governments or terror outfits. Just from Yemen, Oman has secured the release of a French woman in 2015, two American hostages in 2016 and an Australian man and an Indian Catholic priest in 2017. It convinced Iran to release three American hikers who accidentally crossed over from Iraq in 2009.
“You’ve got these tensions in the region, and you’ve got Oman trying to play a role in resolving or reducing all of them,” Feierstein says.
There’s nothing selfless here. To make enemies as a small nation — its population is under 5 million — is to invite disaster. This role also helps the country maintain strategic autonomy. After a rare economic setback in 2016 amid dropping oil prices, experts worried Oman could become more vulnerable to economic and political influence from its larger neighbors, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. “They are investing in Oman — not only to help Oman stay stable but also to garner influence through that investment,” says Ted Karasik, an adviser to UAE-based companies for the Washington firm International Market Analysis.
But Oman also has unique advantages as a peacemaker. In a region where the fundamental fault line is between Sunni- and Shiite-led regimes and militias, Oman is dominated by the tiny, independent Ibadi sect, with no religious reason to follow either Shiite Iran or Sunni Saudi Arabia. In fact, it has gone further. It was one of only three Arab League states not to break relations with Egypt after its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and was a supporter of the Camp David Accords. It helps that none of the region’s major powers — Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia — view little Oman as a threat.
“The Omanis are much farther away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Feierstein says. “Therefore they take a more philosophical view.”
That approach could prove useful, given Trump’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which has inflamed regional tensions. “The bottom line is that Omani foreign policy is extremely dynamic and nimble,” Karasik says. Still, you won’t hear them trumpet their peace work, particularly with Israel. “They like to stay a little quiet,” Karasik says, a sentiment Israel acknowledges. “We don’t put this [relationship] on the table, because it puts the Omanis … in jeopardy,” says a senior foreign policy strategist for Israel’s ruling Likud Party, requesting anonymity.
Trump, though, doesn’t seem to care about what Oman can bring to the table. He has ignored the country, traditionally a willing U.S. partner. At the Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh in 2017, Trump met representatives of every Gulf nation other than Oman. Trump’s State Department cut its budget for military education and training to Oman from $2 million to just $500,000 in the most recent budget deal. Trump may well be punishing Oman for helping bring together the Iran deal under his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Still, Oman’s negotiating spirit has paid off in other ways. In 1994, it hosted the plenary meeting of the Water Working Group, today the only surviving part of the Oslo Accords. The Oman-based Middle East Desalination Research Center was an outcome of that meeting. That decision proved prescient: In the next decade, the region is expected to face mass water-shortage concerns, positioning Muscat as a major player in creating the technology that could save the Middle East. In that arena and others, Oman is proving that even in the cynical, violent politics of the Middle East, peace can be pursued. And that it can bring influence and respect.