• Home
  • Oman’s Diplomacy Navigates Multipolarity in the Gulf
Oman's Sultan Haitham bin Tarik and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seen during the ceremonial reception at the forecourt of the Presidential Place (Rashtrapati Bhawan) in New Delhi. Oman's Sultan Haithm bin Tarik is on a three-day state visit to India. (Photo by Naveen Sharma / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Oman’s Diplomacy Navigates Multipolarity in the Gulf

Amid Hamas’ October 7, 2023, attacks on southern Israel and the latter’s aggressive retaliation against Gaza, the government of Oman has repeatedly called for the withdrawal of Israel’s military forces from the enclave and strongly denounced the Israel Defense Forces’ “brutal aggression against Palestinian civilians. Oman’s official stance on the conflict highlights its proposed solutions for a long-term peace: an immediate ceasefire, followed by a transition to dialogue initiatives that center on the crucial goal of recognizing Palestinian statehood.

Talking to Anyone

On its face, Oman’s position on the war in Gaza bears striking similarity to those adopted by most of the Gulf states, including countries as varied as Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Omani and Iranian foreign ministers have expressed their country’s mutual support to the Palestinian people, as have the Omani and Saudi foreign ministers in a demonstration of GCC unity. However, while there is broad agreement among the Gulf states on the disproportionate nature of Israel’s military campaign and the need for an immediate ceasefire, they differ in their positions towards Hamas. The militant group has been largely condemned, even within the Arab world, for its repressive rule in Gaza, its use of funds to construct underground tunnels for itself but not protection for Palestinian civilians, and its commitment to carry out further atrocities against Israeli civilians. Since October 7, Oman has carefully positioned itself among the nations that have actively advocated to include the group in official dialogue efforts.

Oman’s Foreign Minister, Badr bin Hamad Albusaidi, illustrated this vision in a lecture delivered at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on February 16. Titled “Talking to Anyone for the Good of Everyone,” Albusaidi called for an emergency international conference on Palestinian statehood. He argued that while Hamas’ actions on October 7 were unconscionable, the group “cannot be eradicated. If there is ever to be peace,” he continued, “the peacemakers will have to find a way to talk to [Hamas], and listen.”

Hardliners in Israel and the West chafe at the idea of directly negotiating with Hamas, which both the United States and the European Union have designated a terrorist organization. But doing so would be remarkably inconsistent with Oman’s long-held approach to its foreign relations, which has long prized diplomatic relations—even with the most controversial parties. In Yemen, Oman has emphasized the necessity of engaging a wide array of actors, particularly the Houthis, in direct negotiations. This has made Muscat the venue of choice for tough talks, and Oman has emerged as the foremost diplomatic partner of all sides in the conflict.

The sultanate’s actions in the current crisis mirror long-standing practice. In recent decades, Oman has played an intermediary role in support of intra-regional dialogue. In 2013, discussions between the United States and Iran in Muscat eventually paved the way for the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or “nuclear deal,” two years later. Though the United States withdrew from the deal in 2018, Oman-mediated discussions between the two sides quietly continued. The release of several American citizens from Iran in September 2023 was widely perceived as an attempt to reestablish the conditions for JCPOA negotiations. Crucially, in these endeavors, Oman only acted in moments when all sides had expressed willingness to proceed towards dialogue, and the Omani official positions did not openly contradict those of the other parties.

Today, as the Houthis began launching attacks against allegedly Israeli-linked vessels in the Red Sea and the United States and United Kingdom have sought to counter them, the Omani government has worked diligently to reduce tensions from both sides. Indeed, Oman’s central role drew British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who paid a visit to Oman on January 30.

A Flexible Go-Between

The Omani official position vis-à-vis the Gaza conflict explicitly embraces the linkage between the violence there and the ongoing crisis in the Red Sea. As underlined by Abdullah Al Maani, a PhD candidate in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, “Oman is actively engaged in efforts to de-escalate the Red Sea crisis by addressing its underlying cause: the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.” As such, the Omani government has been very careful in showcasing its facilitation efforts and prioritizing intra-regional dialogue over a U.S.-led approach that would leave the status quo largely unchanged.

Moreover, despite Oman’s implicit rejection of the U.S. policy toward the Israel-Gaza war, the Omani government has not renounced negotiations with the Biden administration. In November 2023, the Omani Foreign Ministry openly aired the differences between the two country’s positions. Officials also spoke about the need for regional cooperation to prevent further escalation. Washington’s recent actions suggest a different tack. That the U.S. Department of State re-designated the Houthis a “Specially Designated Terrorist Group” (though not a “Foreign Terrorist Organization,” which is a slightly harsher classification) in January 2024 drives a wedge between Washington and Muscat, precluding the latter from getting all the major actors in one room.

Divergence from the United States’ position does not necessarily reduce Oman’s potential as a regional go-between. Currently, the most logical path forward for Oman would be to further strengthen the channels of communication between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which were re-opened in March 2023 (also thanks to Omani efforts). The Sultanate’s facilitation has proven effective in fostering dialogue between the Saudis, the Houthis, and the Iranians, and Oman has been recognized as playing a major role in securing Saudi and Houthi commitments to a ceasefire. At the moment, neither Riyadh nor the Houthis appear willing to relinquish opportunities for future dialogue, especially because they find themselves on (roughly) the same side of the Gaza conflict.

Though Omani diplomatic engagements suggest a longer-term effort to connect the Red Sea crisis to the Palestinian issue, Oman also needs to address concerns over  the impact of the Houthi attacks. Although Oman’s exports are primarily directed eastward towards Asian markets, the crisis will eventually come to indirectly affect the Sultanate as global supply chains are threatened.

Embracing Multipolarity

To effectively neutralize the threat posed to the region by the Houthis while keeping a symbolic distance from the U.S.-led maritime security operation, Oman has strengthened its cooperation with outside powers that hold power projection capabilities, including India. In December 2023, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Albusaidi visited New Delhi and paved the way for the increased involvement of the Indian Navy in the waters off the Arabian Peninsula. As part of the deal, Oman allocated a zone in the port of Duqm as a logistic base for Indian naval operations.

The designation of a dedicated zone in Duqm enhances India’s logistical capabilities at a crucial time; the Indian Navy recently began its largest deployment of naval assets to the Gulf of Aden and western Arabian Sea. The operation’s objective is simple and limited: to prevent pirates from exploiting the ongoing maritime crisis, while extending assistance to commercial vessels impacted by the Houthi attacks. The Indian navy remains cautious not to venture into the Red Sea, which would associate it with the U.S.-led coalition and potentially provoke the Houthis.

The maritime dimension is a prominent example of the rise of multipolarity within the Gulf, but this trend extends beyond security. Oman’s Foreign Minister recently insisted on the need for reform at the UN Security Council, which perpetuates a Cold War-style, zero-sum logic among the world’s great powers. Oman has also increasingly joined India’s calls for a Global South dialogue, which would unite voices sidelined by traditional international institutions. In September 2023, Sultan Haitham was invited as a special guest to the G20 summit in New Delhi, and Oman took part in the second virtual “Voice of the Global South Summit” organized by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in November 2023. There, the Sultanate acknowledged India’s important role in “facilitating a platform for global cooperation and discussions on critical international issues.”

The diversification of security and political partners has distant roots in Oman and the wider Gulf, but it seems to have been accelerated by the Israel-Gaza conflict and Washington’s subsequent maritime activities in the Red Sea, which have been perceived within the Arab world as intended to support Israel rather than to protect freedom of navigation. Thus far, Washington has struggled to convince the Gulf monarchies to decouple the Red Sea crisis from the Gaza crisis. Washington’s failure has caused not only its rivals, but also its regional allies to grow skeptical of the United States’ security role in the region and seek greater independence in their international affairs. This fluid situation may prove novel for some external observers—and even the United States. But for the Gulf monarchies, and Oman more than others, flexibility, and receptiveness has long been the name of the game. What seems to have changed is Oman’s greater willingness to express thought-provoking positions that openly challenge the U.S., embracing multipolarity not only in silent deeds but also in words.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics, U.S. – Gulf Policy
Country: Oman

What Iran Stands to Lose from Iraq’s Development Road Megaproject

July 18, 2024

The Iraq-Turkey-Europe “Development Road Project”, a strategic economic corridor that would connect southern Iraqi ports with European markets, is viewed by Iran as a threat…

Neither East nor West: Pezeshkian’s Challenge to Redefine Iran’s Global Stance

July 11, 2024

On July 5, reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian defeated his hardliner rival Saeed Jalili and was elected as the ninth president of the Islamic Republic of…

The Saudi-Sino Military Partnership: Ambitious or Overhyped?

July 9, 2024

On June 18, Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, paid an official visit to China to meet his Chinese…

Oman

Oman’s Diplomacy Navigates Multipolarity in the Gulf

Commentary

Amid Hamas’ October 7, 2023, attacks on southern Israel and the latter’s aggressive retaliation against...

Oman

Geopolitics Grants Omani LNG a Lifeline

Commentary

The global energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine one year ago has underlined...

Oman

The Advantages of Oman’s “Ideology of Politeness” in the Ukraine War

Commentary

On February 24, 2023, the war in Ukraine will reach its first anniversary. The war...

Oman

A Fully Digitized Omani Election Makes History

Commentary

Twelve years ago, revolutionary fervor shook the Middle East and North Africa. The wealthy Gulf...

Oman

Understanding Oman’s Stance on the Ukraine War

Commentary

Oman’s moderate and inclusive foreign policy has given it a reputation as the “Switzerland of...

KSA

Saudi-Omani Partnership: Economic and Security Ties Deepen

Policy Focus

On Sunday, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq of Oman departed on his first international visit to...

Dr. Giulia Daga holds a Ph.D. in International Studies from the University of Trento (Italy), with a focus on Oman’s foreign policy discourse. During her Ph.D., she spent visiting periods at the LSE Middle East Centre (UK) and at the Sultan Qaboos University (Oman). She currently works for the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa Programme at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and was the senior assistant coordinator of the project NAMEPES (North Africa Middle East Politics and EU Security), co-financed by the EU and the University of Trento. Her research interests include the history and politics of the Persian Gulf, diplomatic history, identity and discourse studies, and theories of (non)alignment.


Oman

Oman’s Diplomacy Navigates Multipolarity in the Gulf

Commentary

Amid Hamas’ October 7, 2023, attacks on southern Israel and the latter’s aggressive retaliation against...

Oman

Geopolitics Grants Omani LNG a Lifeline

Commentary

The global energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine one year ago has underlined...

Oman

The Advantages of Oman’s “Ideology of Politeness” in the Ukraine War

Commentary

On February 24, 2023, the war in Ukraine will reach its first anniversary. The war...

Oman

A Fully Digitized Omani Election Makes History

Commentary

Twelve years ago, revolutionary fervor shook the Middle East and North Africa. The wealthy Gulf...

Oman

Understanding Oman’s Stance on the Ukraine War

Commentary

Oman’s moderate and inclusive foreign policy has given it a reputation as the “Switzerland of...

KSA

Saudi-Omani Partnership: Economic and Security Ties Deepen

Policy Focus

On Sunday, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq of Oman departed on his first international visit to...

Subscribe to Receive Latest Updates from GIF.