By Jack Detsch December 12, 2017
A longtime US ally and trusted mediator among the region’s rival factions, the Gulf Sultanate of Oman is cautiously learning how to adjust to the unpredictable new occupant in the White House.
Those jitters appeared to be on display in July, when Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi kept a low profile on his first official visit to Washington. At his only public appearance, a press spray with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ahead of their July 21 meeting, Alawi kept tight-lipped to avoid publicly wading into the ongoing dispute between Qatar and several of its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors.
Now, President Donald Trump's efforts to rewrite his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran are also weighing on the bilateral relationship. Oman played a crucial role as a discreet intermediary to get the negotiations started and obtain the release of US hostages, and is now stuck in limbo waiting for the Trump administration to commit to a new course of action in the region.
“It’s very difficult to see any meaningful movement,” said Sigurd Neubauer, an expert on Oman at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Everybody is really in a state of shock over the dysfunction of US foreign policymaking at the moment.”
In power since 1970, the ailing Sultan Qaboos has long positioned his country as a neutral power broker. He has refused to follow GCC allies in their war in Yemen, while keeping open lines of communication with the Houthi rebels and their patron, Iran.
In April, Oman was the only one of the six GCC members that declined to endorse Trump’s decision to launch missiles against Bashar al-Assad’s air forces in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun. Alone among the Gulf states, Oman has retained diplomatic relations with Damascus throughout the past 6½ years of war, sending the Assad regime a message of condolence following suicide bombings earlier this year that left scores dead and wounded in the capital.
That independent streak has caused visible friction with the new US administration.
Speaking at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh in May, Trump notably thanked every GCC member save Oman, which did not attend, for their cooperation on counterterrorism. The following month, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and deputy national security adviser Ricky Waddell secretly flew to Muscat to urge Qaboos to crack down on smuggling routes that Iran is allegedly using to resupply its Houthi allies in Yemen.
As the Qatari crisis has lingered, however, the Trump administration has once again been calling on Oman’s mediating skills. Qaboos spoke with Trump for the first time on July 18 about deepening bilateral ties and countering Iran’s influence in the Middle East, just one week after Alawi visited Tehran to discuss Qatar. Three days later, Tillerson hosted Alawi at the State Department.
The United States and Oman also enjoy formative ties when it comes to defense cooperation. Oman has hosted US troops for almost four decades, even though Washington takes a backseat to London as the nation’s primary military supplier.
“Oman’s foreign policy in context is really about protecting its independence and economic gains that have been achieved over the last 47 years,” said Neubauer. “All of its military capabilities are to build diplomatic relationships or to keep a strong ability to defend the homeland.”
In 2010, US contractors sold 18 F-16 aircraft to Oman, and last year, the Obama administration approved the sale of a $1.28 billion surface-to-air missile system designed by Raytheon. Oman has also ordered 12 Eurofighter Typhoon jets, and could build a hub for US submarine operations at Duqm.
Since leaving the firm of Baker Donelson a decade ago, Oman doesn’t have active lobbying contracts within the United States. But it has staked out prime real estate in Washington, pitching its tent at the $16.5 million Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, just blocks from the White House.
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