Discreet and strategically located, the small sultanate of Oman helped kick-start secret nuclear talks between Tehran and Washington in 2013.
Now many in the U.S. and the Middle East say the Persian Gulf nation, a neutral safe haven in Shiite-Sunni clashes raging across the region, may hold the key to defusing Saudi Arabia’s clash with Iran-backed rebels in Yemen before it erupts into all-out war.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say Oman, whose Ibadi Muslim leadership is beholden neither to Sunni-led Riyadh nor Shiite-dominated Tehran, is uniquely suited to play peacemaker as the two vie for influence over proxies in Yemen and elsewhere.
One U.S. official said Oman, which borders Yemen and Saudi Arabia and sits across from Iran on the Strait of Hormuz, is seen as a “Switzerland of the Middle East.”
“Obviously, this is a loose comparison, but when it comes to being a potentially neutral peacemaker on the region’s very complicated chessboard, Oman seems eager to play that role,” the official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive issues freely.
With Yemen’s conflict heating up — Saudi jets pounded Shiite rebel targets Wednesday, as Washington warned of gains by Sunni al Qaeda fighters in the nation — Oman is working overtime behind the scenes toward preventing a wider escalation.
The nation’s foreign minister signaled a desire last week to bolster U.N. efforts to mediate a political solution between the Shiite Houthi rebels and Riyadh. In a twist that drew almost no Western media attention Wednesday, Omani officials welcomed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for meetings in the nation’s capital of Muscat.
Analysts say the moves are driven in part by Omani fears that Yemen’s fighting could spread across the border, but they also fall into a pattern in which Oman is the only Arab nation that skeptical Iranian leaders trust.
“Oman practices its own brand of Islam and doesn’t fit into the Sunni-Shia divide, so it’s immune to the overarching regional sectarian division,” said retired CIA official Bruce Riedel, who specializes in security and Middle Eastern affairs at the Brookings Institution.
It helps explain how Oman has been able to avoid friction with Saudi Arabia despite flirting diplomatically with Iran and being the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council to resist joining Riyadh’s military coalition against the Houthis.
Oman also takes a discreet approach, revealed two years ago when the world’s media discovered that Muscat was hosting secret meetings between the U.S. and Iran. Top Obama administration officials managed to keep the meetings secret from other world powers as they hammered out the preliminary basis for nuclear talks that subsequently advanced through high-profile negotiations in Switzerland.
The reality, said one U.S. intelligence official who spoke with The Times, is that Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said is adamant about keeping a low profile.
Where other Persian Gulf nations have sought to project neutrality by backing global foreign news outlets such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera, the Omanis “are not publicity hounds,” said the official, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely on the matter.
“They’re focused on stability. That is first and foremost in their minds,” said the official. “Anything they’re doing diplomatically flows from that precept.”
Mr. Riedel said Oman is “an independent force” for a variety of reasons, but most notably because of its religious uniqueness.
Between Tehran and Riyadh
Some 70 percent of Omanis are Ibadi Muslims. The sect practices its own brand of Islamic, or Shariah, law, and is said to have been founded long before Islam’s Sunni and Shiite denominations.
Hard-line Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia have been known to look down on the Ibadi, but the sect is generally viewed as ethnically and religiously closer to the rest of Riyadh’s Gulf Arab brethren than to Iran.
Oman is a member of the Arab-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council, with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. But its oil output is relatively meager — at less than 1 million barrels per day — and its geographic proximity to Iran makes it an eager pursuer of energy partnerships with Tehran.
The prospects of such partnerships may explain Oman’s interest in facilitating a nuclear deal that would ease Western sanctions on Iran.
But Sultan Qaboos clearly does not see his nation’s closeness to Tehran as mutually exclusive to its Gulf Cooperation Council membership — or its relationship with Riyadh.
“Part of the reason the Omanis have not joined [either side] in the war in Yemen is because they want to keep open the possibility that they could the be a mediator,” said Mr. Riedel. “They’d be a negotiator that both sides have faith in.”
The catch is that neither the Saudis nor the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have shown much interest in talking.
The Obama administration also appears ambivalent. One of the officials who spoke with The Times said the U.S. intelligence community does not have a hard position “on what Oman should or shouldn’t be doing” at this stage of the conflict.
State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters Thursday that the U.S. has no “specific comment” on Oman’s desire to mediate but said the United Nations is leading a push for dialogue between the warring factions in Yemen and U.S. officials support it as “the way to achieve a political resolution.”
The Obama administration has been eager to assure Saudi Arabia that Washington stands behind Riyadh’s campaign against the Houthis despite the appearance of closer U.S.-Iranian ties over a proposed final nuclear deal.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who appeared in the Saudi capital this week, said U.S.-Saudi weapons deliveries are being expedited and intelligence sharing increased in support of the campaign.
‘A crossroads country’
The U.S. has long sold weapons to Oman, including F-16 fighter jets, and American leaders have a history of using Sultan Qaboos as a discreet back channel to Tehran.
A 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service noted that “successive U.S. administrations have generally refrained from criticizing the Iran-Oman relationship, perhaps in part because Oman has sometimes been useful as an intermediary between the United States and Iran.”
Less clear is the extent to which Oman will be able to play that role.
In an interview with The Times, Mr. Riedel pointed to concerns over the sultanate’s stability. Sultan Qaboos’ government easily suppressed a smattering of Arab Spring-style protests in 2011.
But declining oil prices have put pressure on Muscat, and uncertainty looms over who will rule when the 74-year-old sultan’s reign ends.
Some 85 percent of Oman’s population consists of people born after Sultan Qaboos came to power by overthrowing his father in a 1970 coup.
“There are really two questions at play with Oman,” said Mr. Riedel. “The first is: How do they prevent a Saudi-Iranian regional war from spilling into their country? The second is: How much longer does Qaboos have, and what happens when he’s gone?”
“There’s no clear successor, no son. There are a bunch of cousins, but it’s a very untested field and no one knows where they stand,” he said. “Oman is a crossroads country, coming to a moment of great significance in its history. It’s definitely a place to be watching.”