First Published: 2017-10-16

Omani role has helped Iran but may not do much in crisis with US
Oman is in a difficult situation, trying to act like a member of the GCC while maintaining friendly ties with Tehran.
Middle East Online

Sowing division

As pressure mounts on the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolution­ary Guard Corps because of Trump administra­tion measures, Tehran’s efforts to capitalise on the rift in the Gulf Co­operation Council (GCC) and boost its relations with Oman have inten­sified.

Recent visits by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Oman and Qatar and his subsequent statements were perceived as at­tempts to divide the GCC.

“A day after substantive meet­ings with Sultan of Oman and emir of Qatar, a successful Iran-Turkey summit in Tehran. Neighbours are our priority,” Zarif posted on Twit­ter.

He also said Iran’s views on the war in Yemen were in line with those of the Qatari and Omani gov­ernments, comments not likely to be taken well in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Qatar was part of the Arab coali­tion fighting the Iran-backed Houthi militia but was pushed out after a crisis broke out in June between Qa­tar and its Gulf Arab neighbours.

Because of security and economic considerations, Oman is in a diffi­cult situation, trying to act like a member of the GCC while maintain­ing friendly ties with Tehran. In late 2014, Gulf officials were surprised to learn that Oman had secretly brokered talks between the United States and Iran that eventually led to the nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers.

Oman not only helped broker the talks between the two traditional enemies but is party to the nuclear agreement. It hosts excess heavy water — used in reactors that could produce materials needed for nu­clear weapons — from Tehran’s nu­clear programme.

Muscat’s motivations are mostly economic. Years of low oil prices have taken a toll on Oman’s econ­omy, with the sultanate posting a deficit of $6.5 billion in the first half of 2017, an improvement from the same time last year, when its deficit was at $9.6 billion.

The Omani government is deal­ing with a significant unemploy­ment problem, with the World Bank estimating the joblessness rate at 17.5% in 2016. The Arabic hashtag “Omanis without jobs” was recently trending on Twitter, with Omanis urging the government to create jobs for unemployed young people.

Fearing a wave of public unrest like the 2011 “Arab spring”-inspired protests, the government pledged to create 25,000 public sector jobs by December, a move that could add to the budget deficit.

Apparently exploiting this eco­nomic need, Zarif announced a series of joint enterprises’ and eco­nomic incentives during his visit to Oman, despite his own country’s ailing economy.

“Omanis are going to give Iran an exclusive access to Al-Suwayq Port so that the ships with a capacity be­low 3,000 tonnes can berth there, unload their merchandise and dis­charge them from the customs.” Ira­nian Ambassador to Oman Moham­mad Reza Nuri Shahroudi said.

He said Muscat would permit Ira­nian companies to register locally and export goods to Oman or re-export to African and Indian Ocean countries.

Besides strengthening bilateral ties, Zarif sought Oman’s help with the Trump administration. With US President Donald Trump question­ing the utility of the 2005 nuclear agreement with Iran, Zarif report­edly asked Oman to intervene, hop­ing for a breakthrough like the one that brought the parties together in the first place.

The pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Aw­sat reported that Zarif asked Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Af­fairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah to mediate and convey to Wash­ington “a set of new proposals de­signed to prevent a showdown with the Trump administration.”

Considering the divide between Washington and Tehran, the chanc­es of an Omani initiative succeeding are considered minimal.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.


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