Oman: Reform, Security and U.S. Policy

The Sultanate of Oman has been a strategic ally of the United States since 1980, when it became the first Persian Gulf state to sign a formal accord permitting the U.S. military to use its facilities. Oman has hosted U.S. forces during every U.S. military operation in the region since then, and it is a partner in U.S. efforts to counter regional terrorism and related threats. Oman’s ties to the United States are unlikely to loosen even after its ailing leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id Al Said, leaves the scene. Qaboos underwent cancer treatment abroad for nearly a year during 2014-2015, and appears in public rarely, fueling speculation about succession. Although appearing frail, he hosted the surprise visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 25, 2018, the first such visit by Israeli leadership to Oman in more than 20 years. Within the region, Oman has tended to avoid joining its Gulf allies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman) in regional interventions, instead attempting to mediate regional conflicts. Oman joined the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State organization, but it did not send forces to that effort, nor did it support groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Al Asad’s regime. It refrained from joining a Saudi-led regional counterterrorism alliance until a year after that group was formed in December 2015, and Oman opposed the June 2017 Saudi/UAE isolation of Qatar. Oman also has historically asserted that engaging Iran is the optimal strategy to reduce the potential threat from that country. It was the only GCC state not to downgrade its relations with Iran in connection with a January 2016 Saudi-Iran dispute. Oman’s ties to Iran have enabled it to broker agreements between the United States and Iran, including the release of U.S. citizens held by Iran as well as U.S.-Iran direct talks that later produced the July 14, 2015, nuclear agreement between Iran and the international community (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA). Yet, U.S. officials credit Oman with enforcing reimposed U.S. sanctions as of 2018 and with taking steps to block Iran’s efforts to ship weapons across Oman’s borders to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Prior to the 2011 wave of Middle East unrest, the United States consistently praised Sultan Qaboos for gradually opening the political process even in the absence of evident public pressure to do so. The liberalization allows Omanis a measure of representation, but does not significantly limit Qaboos’s role as paramount decisionmaker. The apparent public thirst for additional political reform—as well as the inadequate employment opportunities—produced protests in several Omani cities for much of 2011, and for two weeks in January 2018, but the popularity of Qaboos and government commitments to create jobs helped prevent more sustained unrest. Oman has followed policies similar to the other GCC states since 2011 by increasing press censorship and arresting critics of the government who use social media. The periodic economy-driven unrest demonstrates that Oman is having difficulty coping with the decline in the price of crude oil since mid-2014. Oman’s economy and workforce has always been somewhat more diversified than some of the other GCC states, but Oman has only a modest financial cushion to invest in projects that can further diversify its revenue sources. The U.S.-Oman free trade agreement (FTA) was intended to facilitate Oman’s access to the large U.S. economy and accelerate Oman’s efforts to diversify. Oman receives minimal amounts of U.S. security assistance, and no economic aid.