The Advantages of Oman’s “Ideology of Politeness” in the Ukraine War
In recent history, Oman has played a critical role in international conflict mediation efforts – but its “ideology of politeness” helps to explain its conspicuous absence from negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.
On February 24, 2023, the war in Ukraine will reach its first anniversary. The war holds tremendous political, economic, and humanitarian consequences for the European continent, and its impact on energy and food prices has been felt acutely around the world. What is perhaps most surprising about the conflict is the prominent role that the GCC states have played since the beginning of the war. The spotlight is not solely focused on Saudi Arabia and the UAE—both of which have pursued “nationalist” foreign policies over the past year—but also other actors like Oman, which has increasingly sought good relations with Russia in spite of its historical reputation as a Western ally. Omani culture, described elegantly by Fredrik Barth as an “ideology of politeness,” and what Jeremy Jones terms “Oman’s quiet diplomacy,” has seized the attention of international observers and deserves a thorough review.
An Unexpected Visit
On May 12, 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the Sultanate of Oman to hold a dialogue with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq. Sultan Haitham and Lavrov discussed the Ukraine war, during which the Russian foreign minister praised Oman’s ideology of politeness, stressing “Omani wisdom in dealing with various regional and international issues.” Indeed, Oman has crafted a reputation as a neutral regional mediator, notably in its hosting of secret U.S.-Iran talks in Muscat in 2013, paving the way for the JCPOA nuclear deal two years later, and later in its role as mediator during the Gulf diplomatic crisis of 2017-2021. Indeed, speculation has swirled that Oman may act as a neutral arbiter between Russia and Ukraine. While discussing with an insider why Oman has not yet pursued this course of action, they pointed to the ideology of politeness; in other words, Omani diplomats would be perceived as “arrogant” if they actively asked to mediate in the conflict, rather than waiting for the parties to come to them. On the other hand, given their good track record with mediation efforts, it is quite understandable that Oman must maintain its connection to both sides if it wishes to deliver peace.
Oman’s neutrality in many issues also assists it in maintaining working relations with Russia. Giorgio Cafiero of Gulf State Analytics has noted that Moscow and Muscat share several key geopolitical interests. Among these are Syria, as Oman is the only country among the GCC states that did not offer support to the Syrian opposition, and Moscow values Oman’s diplomatic relations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Muscat’s neutral stance on Yemen is also very similar to the Kremlin’s “strategic neutrality” in the country. Much as Oman played an important mediation role building up to the JCPOA, it has discussed a revival of the nuclear deal with Russian officials, believing that all the deal’s signatories should be involved in the process by pushing Washington and Tehran to compromise.
When Politeness Meets National Interests
In spite of the ideology of politeness, however, Oman has also taken steps to launch policies based on its national interests, similar to decisions made in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Omani view on the decision of OPEC+ to cut production was in line with its previous decisions in terms of its reliance on market data and its variables, which was important and necessary to reassure the market and support its stability. This is in line with Saudi Arabia’s response to the Western criticism, explaining that OPEC+ decision was based on economic and market needs , not political reasons. The Omani economy continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the country relies on the revival of its hydrocarbon sector, from which Muscat derives roughly two-thirds of its annual budget. For this reason, the high oil prices that resulted from the Ukraine war and OPEC+ decisions over the last year have clearly benefited Oman as well. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have estimated Oman’s economic growth at 4.3 percent for 2022.
The war in Ukraine has rendered the international environment increasingly uncertain, but it has also contributed to significant changes in foreign policy across the world. The war has reshaped GCC states’ long-term policies away from their traditional Western alignment and towards multipolarity. In a time of traditional and non-traditional threats to global security, countries including the GCC states consider their economic interests, which undergird the stability of their societies. Through its continuation of the “ideology of politeness,” however, Oman has brought some stability to the region. Muscat’s approach has been lauded as a way to bring both sides of an issue to the negotiating table, extinguishing rather than inflaming conflict.
Broadly, this elegant diplomacy falls within the constructivist school of thought in international relations, which considers the relationships between countries as socially constructed and measures them through norms, identities, and strategic cultures. This contrasts with international relations realists (or neo-realists), who view the world as anarchic and fundamentally based on states pursuing their own interests at the exclusion of others. The interplay between these two ideas—and the degree to which both are useful in explaining current events such as the Ukraine war—is a topic of continued contention, both within Europe and the Gulf.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.