The Russia-Ukraine war will likely represent challenges as intensified geopolitical pressure may come down on Oman’s neutrality.
Oman’s moderate and inclusive foreign policy has given it a reputation as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” Since Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, Oman has never cut diplomatic relations with any government and Muscat generally avoids aligning with any one geopolitical bloc against another. Muscat tends to stay neutral in most international conflicts, pursuing a balanced approach to global affairs which enables the Sultanate to maintain positive ties with the West, Russia, China, every Arab country, Iran, India, and Pakistan.
Muscat’s Position on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
Oman has unsurprisingly chosen to continue this tradition in the face of the Russia-Ukraine war. So far, it has refused to pick a side and has not singled out Moscow as the aggressor in the conflict, despite joining most Arab states in voting in favor of the March 2 UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russian aggression.
On May 11, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Sultan Haitham bin Tarik in Muscat. He also met with his Omani counterpart, Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi. While in the Omani capital, Lavrov spoke out against sanctions imposed against his country after February 24, asserting that citizens of Western countries—not Russia—stand to lose the most from this financial warfare.
Late last month, al-Busaidi addressed Lavrov’s visit and the conflict in Ukraine in an interview with Le Figaro. Oman’s chief diplomat called for “space for diplomatic engagement” and a “European solution” to the Russia-Ukraine war. He told the French daily that adopting a “You are with us or against us” attitude regarding the conflict “will not solve the problem.” When asked if he told Russian officials that they’ve made a mistake in Ukraine, al-Busaidi replied, “No, we don’t say that, otherwise we would be stuck in a ‘blame game’ that doesn’t allow for progress towards the end of this war.” Al-Busaidi expressed his view that “both sides” were guilty of mistakes and that there was “undoubtedly a misjudgment of the situation, a disconnection from reality and a lack of understanding that led to this war.”
In concert with its five fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Oman has not levied any sanctions against Russia in response to its aggression in Ukraine. Al-Busaidi explained Oman’s reasons for this position. “We really don’t want to be dragged into this kind of process. Show me a country where sanctions have worked!” he exclaimed. “We are spending our time trying to find a solution. We do not want to make the situation still more complex.”
Improvements in Oman’s diplomatic ties with Russia since 2011, issues of mutual concern to both countries, and the Sultanate’s purchases of Russian wheat help explain why Muscat has a vested interest in maintaining close ties with Moscow. Rather than succumbing to Western urging to ostracize Russia economically and diplomatically, Oman has pragmatically engaged Moscow, even as the conflict has dragged on.
Shared Interests in the Middle East and Energy
Since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, Oman has been the only GCC state not to have ever provided support to the Syrian opposition. Moscow values Oman’s diplomatic relationship with the Assad’s government and is grateful to Muscat for publicly supporting Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League.
During Lavrov’s visit to the Sultanate last month, he said “Moscow appreciates Muscat’s objective and balanced position on the Syrian crisis, and the Sultanate can play a role in returning Syria to the Arab family.” In 2019, when Lavrov met with Oman’s then-chief diplomat Yusuf bin Alawi to promote Moscow’s vision for collective security in the Gulf, he similarly stated that Moscow and Muscat have a “common stand on Syria.” Likewise, Omani officials have previously praised Russia’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Oman’s neutrality in the conflict in Yemen and opposition to the GCC states’ military involvement aligns somewhat with Russia’s overall stance on Yemen.
As fellow OPEC+ members, energy policy is also an important factor in the Oman-Russia relationship. During Lavrov’s visit to Oman last month, al-Busaidi reiterated Muscat’s commitment to the 24-member group’s output agreements. Having suffered economically from the COVID-19 pandemic and low oil prices, Oman’s national interests call for the country to maintain high revenues from its hydrocarbon exports to relieve the fiscal pressures that built up in recent years.
Oman enthusiastically supports a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As such, Omani and Russian officials have been discussing international efforts aimed at reconstituting the 2015 accord. Muscat’s view is that all the nuclear deal’s signatories, including Russia, need to be engaged to push Washington and Tehran toward the compromises necessary to salvage the JCPOA. Put simply, Oman sees no realistic alternative to the accord, which could peacefully resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Oman’s Food Security Concerns
Like other countries in the Arab region, Oman is an important importer of Russian wheat. Russia and Ukraine together have been known as the “breadbasket” of the world, constituting 25 percent of total wheat exports worldwide prior to February 24. Around 2010, Oman grew increasingly dependent on Russian wheat imports to meet the country’s need for the commodity. According to UN data, roughly 50 percent of the Sultanate’s wheat imports came from Russia and Ukraine in 2021. Yet, authorities in Muscat have assured Oman’s citizens that the country will not suffer from wheat supply shortages as a result of the war in Ukraine. Last month, the CEO of Oman Flour Mills Company, Haitham Mohamed al-Fanna, pointed to the diverse set of countries from which Oman imports wheat, such as Australia, to reinforce the government’s position.
Yet, Oman does have valid concerns that sanctions against Russia will negatively impact the Sultanate and its citizens. Considering how Oman experienced widespread protests last year, which in no small part resulted from rising living costs, the leadership in Muscat must remain aware that soaring food prices could have negative consequences for the country.
By the same token, the economic benefits that the Omani state reaps from higher oil prices afford Muscat more financial resources to deal with increased food prices. Yet the Russia-Ukraine war will likely represent challenges as intensified geopolitical pressure may come down on Muscat’s neutrality. Oman will have to deal with growing great power competition and increased East-West bifurcation which could complicate the Sultanate’s non-alignment vis-à-vis Ukraine.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.