In Qatar Crisis, Oman Is Leaning Toward Iran
Walking the tightrope in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, the headline-shy nation of Oman has often played the role of moderator in the Middle East. The majority of Omanis practice the Ibadi form of Islam, a form distinct from those of their Sunni Islam and Shia Islam neighbors. This gives them a certain impartiality when crises arise.
Oman is a member of the Gulf Corporation Council (gcc), but it has historically pursued its own agenda. It has maintained simultaneous relations with Iran, which is Shia, and several Sunni states, which include Saudi Arabia. During the Arab Spring and its fallout, Oman balanced relations quietly. The same can be said during the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Then the Qatar crisis began.
All other members of the gcc (besides Kuwait) cut off relations with Qatar on June 5 in an effort to force it to abandon its relationship with Iran, cut off sponsorship of terrorism, and even shut down the Al-Jazeera news network. A number of other Middle Eastern and African nations soon joined the effort to isolate Qatar.
But Oman chose not to tow the party line. Instead, it kept the channels open. This is no surprise given Oman’s history.
The decision has drawn the ire of the Saudis, but it is clearly a risk Oman has been willing to take—and for one good reason: money.
For Oman, it is all about the economy. The little nation is in dire economic straits. The government relies on gas and oil for almost 75 percent of its revenue. But oil prices have plummeted recently, emaciating Oman’s piggy bank. Furthermore, according to the International Monetary Fund, within the next 20 years Oman’s oil wells will pump their last drop of petroleum.
Isolated Qatar, the richest nation in the world per capita, could be the lifeline that Oman needs.
But this could also be the moment Oman loses its balance.
Muscat, Oman’s port capital, has offered Qatari ships access to ports in Sohar and Salalah. This bypasses the sea blockade that other members of the gcc have placed on the Qataris. And because Oman maintained relations with Qatar, Oman Air is able to fly unrestricted while larger airlines like Emirates, Etihad and Qatari Airways are at war.
The crisis is an economic windfall for Oman in the short term. With few suitable alternatives, Oman is suddenly a close and important ally of the cut-off Qataris.
But Oman is plotting a dangerous course. Departing from its long-held impartiality, Oman risks getting mixed up in some dangerous company. After all, they aren’t the only ones interested in Qatar.
Leaning Toward Iran
Saudi Arabia cut its ties with Qatar to try and push it away from Iran. But in doing so, Riyadh may have created a common interest between Iran and Oman. Both want stronger relations with the Qataris. This, in turn, could facilitate stronger relations between Tehran and Muscat.
Of course, the two have different interests in Qatar. Iran’s goal is less economic and far more nefarious.
Already besieging the Saudis through Yemen, Syria and Iraq, Qatar lies on the front lines of the Shiite-Sunni battle for regional supremacy. If you don’t think that’s true, take a look at nearby Bahrain. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been locked in a struggle for the island nation for years. Tehran stokes old embers of the Arab Spring while Riyadh douses them—often with water cannons and tear gas. Read more about the simmering war in Bahrain here.
Regardless of the different objectives, Iran and Oman are getting chummy. On July 13, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi. Al-Jazeera reported that the two parties agreed to boost ties. Rouhani stated, “Iran and Oman have for years had fraternal relations and the best must be made of these good relations to reinforce them.” He also took a jab at Saudi Arabia, criticizing “the policies of certain countries in the region against Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.”
Do It for the Money
Some might question Oman’s apparent willingness to abandon its traditional role of balancing both sides, but beggars can’t be choosers. And this wouldn’t be the first time Oman has chosen sides in an effort to make a buck. Remember the nuclear deal?
According to the New York Times, the Obama administration first learned of Iran’s desire to discuss its nuclear program in the middle of 2009 when Omani businessman Salem ben Nasser al-Ismaily approached Dennis Ross, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special adviser on Iran at the State Department. In Ismaily’s hand was an offer from Iran to the Obama administration to negotiate its nuclear program and the lifting of sanctions, among other things.
Secretive negotiations ensued, with Oman playing the role of broker. Muscat didn’t do this out of love for Iran. Again, it did it for money.
Notice what Giorgio Cafiero from Al-Monitor wrote:
Oman offers Iran a stepping-stone to Africa, but the lifting of sanctions on Iran also enables the sultanate to deepen energy relations via Iran with gas-rich Central Asia. The passage of the interim nuclear agreement in November 2013 marked an important step toward building a Central Asian-Iranian-Omani trade nexus. In August 2014, the foreign ministers of Oman, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan met in Muscat to sign a memorandum of understanding—“Establishment of the International Transport and Transit Corridor.” …
The foreign ministers also reviewed principles for opening up the Omani ports of Sohar, Duqm and Salalah to Central Asia. Prospects for this trade corridor unquestionably prompted Omani officials to diplomatically pursue the unfreezing of Iran’s trade with the outside world and to ease tensions between Iran and its adversaries.
Oman was happy to see Iran unshackled because it meant a boost to the ailing Omani economy.
These overtures to Iran will no doubt ruffle some in Saudi Arabia. As bad as losing Qatar to Iran would be, losing Oman would be worse.
Oman shares control of the vitally important Strait of Hormuz. At Hormuz’s narrowest point, all the navigable sea-lanes lie in Omani territorial waters, not Iran’s. If Iran were to gain a footing in Oman, it could control both sides of the strait—a powerful economic weapon.
Then there is the Indian Ocean access. Notice what Trumpet Jerusalem correspondent Brent Nagtegaal wrote last year in “Will Oman Become Beholden to Iran?”:
Following the withdrawal of the British from the Persian Gulf in 1971, the shah of Iran declared that Iran’s security concerns weren’t just contained in the Gulf, but included the Indian Ocean. “Three years ago, our imagination did not go beyond the defense of the Persian Gulf,” the shah said. “But today , not only are we compellingly paying attention to the Sea of Oman, and the Iranian coasts up to Gwadar, but also, our responsibility is totally modified; because the Sea of Oman is linked to other seas and oceans and there is no border on water.” …
While the shah didn’t have the desire to lead a global Islamic empire like the current leadership in Tehran, Iran remains focused on waters outside the Strait of Hormuz, into the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean.
Iran’s imagination has once again been stirred, and it is making the most of Oman’s overtures to help fulfill its dreams.
Oman may not feature in Middle Eastern headlines often, but it is a nation full of potential. It has a large Persian population. Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is old. He has no children and no siblings. When he dies, succession will likely be messy. His successor will inherit a nation with terrible economic problems. He will take office at a time when Saudi Arabia and Iran are exerting unprecedented effort to drag smaller nations into their respective spheres of influence.
Though many would dismiss it, the Bible actually discusses these divisions. For instance, Daniel 11 tells of a time when Iran is going to band together with a number of nations in the region and “push” at other world powers.
This quickly developing, as can be seen in our news headlines! Watch as Tehran and Riyadh wrestle for control of border nations like Qatar and Oman. As the Sunnis and Shiites compete for power, there is less and less room for fence-sitters. But these alliances will not just engulf the Middle Eastern nations. Request and read our booklet The King of the South to see how conflict in the Middle East will trigger some of the Bible’s most astounding prophecies that will reshape our world.