When American hiker Sarah Shourd was released last week after 14 months in an Iranian jail, a private jet was waiting for her. It belonged to Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the ruler of Oman, who had been instrumental in negotiating Shourd’s release.
Oman was the surprise linchpin in a long and difficult negotiation. It is indicative of the Sultan’s subtle character, reflected in a foreign policy that balances friendship with Washington and proximity to Iran. The reservoir of trust between Oman and the Islamic Republic has deepened with a series of gestures: the Sultan’s state visit to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the 2009 election crisis, shared use of Iran’s Kish gas field, and Omani support for Iran’s nuclear energy programme. By grace of geography, Oman and Iran share control of the Strait of Hormuz, which sees passage of 40 per cent of the world’s shipped oil. From the Omani port of Khasab, dhows stacked with electronics and consumer goods are ferried across the narrow waterway to Iran, bolstering the formal and informal trade ties between the two states. And unlike other Gulf Arab states, Oman does not openly host major US military installations, with guns pointed north at Tehran.
“If there is a country in the region that is able to convince Iran it is Oman,” said Khalid Al Haribi, managing director of Omani think-tank Tawasul. “It is one of very, very few parties that is fully trusted. Oman is a kind of a dark horse that can cause a breakthrough between the international community and Iran.”
Al Haribi was referring to the Sultan’s low-profile activism and the hope that, building on the momentum of Shourd’s release, Oman can help defuse the broader crisis between Iran and the West. Analysts describe Oman’s strategy as a calculated engagement, assessing the chance of success before endeavouring to resolve a conflict. When both sides are willing to make concessions, trusting in the impartial mediator, Oman won’t hesitate to jump in. The strategy applies to Oman’s other foreign policy engagements, including Arab-Israeli reconciliation – Oman and Israel had formal diplomatic ties until 2000, now sustained through joint projects such as the Middle East Desalination Research Center in Oman.
The benefit of Oman’s active neutrality is clear: securing strong relations with major powers and reducing the risk of a regional crisis that could dampen Oman’s own fortunes.
With Shourd’s arrival, the presence of a celebrity prisoner has focused attention on a country that has long been one of America’s quiet channels to the Islamic Republic. The balmy capital of Muscat, a sprawl of palm trees and boxy beige homes, has attracted reporters and cameramen from practically every major news outlet. Al Haribi notes with pride how the number of journalists in town has tripled; if the press coverage is positive, he says, it will encourage Oman to peek out a little further from its shell and take its proactive negotiating tactics to a higher level.