Oman Navigates Between Iran and Arab Nations
By Michael Slackman, NYTimes, May 16, 2009
MUSCAT, Oman — As Iran finds itself locked in an escalating cold war-style conflict with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations, the quietly influential Sultanate of Oman has accelerated its cooperation with Tehran, nurturing an alliance that helps empower Iran while highlighting the deep divisions among Arab capitals.
Oman, a strategically vital, insistently pragmatic country, has refused overtures of its larger neighbors to pull away from Iran. Instead, it defied Egypt and Saudi Arabia by declining to join them in boycotting a summit meeting in Qatar in January that was held to support Hamas, the Iranian-backed militant group. The Iranian news agency Fars said that Oman and Iran were close to completing a security pact.
The close ties between Iran and Oman, and the reasons behind them, help explain the West’s failure to cripple Iran with trade sanctions, as well as the inability of Iran’s Arab opponents to build a unified opposition to its growing regional influence.
“For us, this is the expression of being realistic,” said Salim al-Mahruqi, a former Omani diplomat who had served in Washington. He now works for the Culture Ministry here in Muscat, the capital city.
“Iran is a big neighbor, and it is there to stay,” he said.
Oman, like Syria and Qatar, sees in Iran an important political and economic ally that is too powerful and too potentially dangerous to ignore, let alone antagonize. Even the United Arab Emirates, which is battling with Iranian leaders over the title to three Persian Gulf islands, has done little to stop billions of dollars in annual trade with Iran.
Rarely in the news, Oman has long been a pivotal behind-the-scenes player in the region. It is an absolute monarchy, led since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has fostered a diplomatic approach that gives his nation the unique status of having close ties to both Iran and the United States.
Oman has at times served as a go-between for the two nations, and it has left open the possibility that the United States could use Omani military bases for staging operations in the region.
Unlike Syria and Qatar, which want larger regional roles, Oman is strictly focused on bolstering its domestic stability. Omanis continue the relationship with Iran because of historic ties, because they know it could easily overrun their nation, if it so chose, and because it has for generations been an important commercial partner.
One visible sign of that cooperation lies far from Muscat, at the tip of an unforgiving peninsula of jagged, rocky mountains in the governate of Musandam. Here, Oman has for years helped Iranian smugglers circumvent international trade sanctions.
Fleets of small, open-topped speedboats cross the Strait of Hormuz daily, making the trip in under an hour. Docked in Oman, they load up with a wide variety of goods, including food, clothing, electronics, pharmaceuticals, air-conditioners, even motorcycles.
“No one has ever tried to stop this smuggling,” said Omran Abdel Kader Abdullah, 18, a local resident who said he joined the family business supplying goods to smugglers when he finished high school. “It’s our living. Every family is involved.”
In fact, the local government coordinates the delivery of goods to the smugglers’ speedboats, distributing pickup and delivery orders each morning to anyone with a small truck. The trade is considered illegal in Iran, because the smugglers avoid paying Iranian duty and taxes. But Oman collects taxes on all the goods.
Pragmatic considerations like those have done little to calm the anxiety of Arab governments that see in Iran a threat to their own regional standing and national interests. As a result, Oman is experiencing strained relations with its Arab neighbors.
While the West is concerned that Iran will develop nuclear weapons in the future, officials in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain complain about what Iran is doing today. Morocco took the most extreme step, severing diplomatic relations with Iran in March.
Egyptian officials recently accused Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy force in Lebanon, of sending an agent to Egypt to set up a terrorist cell. Hezbollah acknowledged sending the agent but said it had been trying only to help smuggle weapons into Gaza to aid Hamas in its war with Israel. It denied planning terrorist attacks on Egypt. Egyptians have also charged that Iran has undermined reconciliation between Palestinian factions; tried to instigate an uprising against the Egyptian government; become involved in domestic politics and conflicts in Sudan, Chad and other countries; and tried to spread Shiite Islamic beliefs in Sunni-majority countries. Iran has denied meddling in Arab affairs.
But while Oman is eager to maintain good relations with Cairo, it also sees Egypt as a withered Arab center struggling to reclaim its former glory.
“Unfortunately, what is going on is Egypt is creating an enemy from nothing and undermining the Egyptian role,” said Saif al-Maskery, a former official in Oman’s Foreign Ministry.
Omanis said they did not fear Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But they are concerned about Iran’s exporting its Islamic revolutionary ideology. And most of all, Iran has a far stronger conventional military force. Oman’s foreign policy reflects religious differences with Saudi Arabia. Many people in Muscat said that they saw the ultraconservative Saudi Arabian approach to Islam as more of a danger to Omani interests, and stability, than Iranian activities in the region.
Oman is a Muslim state, but 75 percent of the population is affiliated with a conservative sect called Ibadism. Over the years Saudi religious figures have tried to spread their more fundamentalist views in Oman. “We don’t allow Saudis to work in our community,” said Said al-Hashmi, manager of research for the State Council, a government advisory body.
There is also the matter of economics. Oman faces a budget deficit this year, in part because of a drop in oil revenues. It has far less oil than many of its Persian Gulf neighbors and wants to diversify its economy.
Exports to Iran provide important revenue. Allowing the smugglers to operate is another example of how Oman’s self-interest is often aligned with Iran’s.
The weathered speedboats line up along three small piers in Musandam every morning, right next to large police boats that patrol the strait. The trip is short, but many captains said it can be perilous because they have to dodge massive oil tankers and avoid Iranian coast guard patrols. “It’s all business,” said Rashed Said, 27, as he delivered 140 boxes loaded with clothing to the pier. “It’s all money.”
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Oman.