The Sultanate of Oman has long held a strategy of maintaining diplomatic relations with Middle Eastern countries amid their periods of relative isolation. Since Sultan Qaboos’ ascendance to the throne in 1970, Muscat has never severed diplomatic relations with any country in the world. This is part of an Omani ethos and national character that emphasize the need to maintain healthy dialogue and diplomatic relations with all governments. Such a foreign policy is reflective of the Omanis’ neutrality and pragmatism on the international stage, and an understanding that the Sultanate can best advance its own security interests without infringing on the sovereignty of other nations. Muscat’s continuous relationship with Syria is a salient example.
Since the Syrian crisis broke out nearly a decade ago, Oman has been the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member to take virtually no diplomatic action against Damascus. Muscat’s refusal to join other countries in regime change efforts targeting Damascus was unsurprising given Oman’s foreign policy traditions. Rather than working to topple the Syrian government, Oman leveraged its neutrality to push the various sides toward a diplomatic settlement in an attempt to bring an end to the bloodshed. Now that the Bashar al-Assad regime has essentially won the civil war, Oman, alongside Russia and the United Arab Emirates, seeks a greater role in helping Syria reintegrate into the wider Arab diplomatic fold and rebuild its shattered infrastructure. Yet doing so as the United States imposes sweeping sanctions on Syria means that Muscat will need to carefully balance its efforts to gain influence in Damascus with its strong ties to Washington.
From the outset of the Syrian conflict, Muscat made it clear that it sought only humanitarian and diplomatic roles in Syria, rather than to funnel arms and material support to anti-government factions as did Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Doha and Riyadh framed their positions against the Assad regime on moral grounds while strongly condemning the Syrian government’s crimes, whereas Omani foreign policy post-1970 has aimed to avoid actions or rhetoric that can be construed as interference in another country’s internal affairs. According to Omani diplomats in Washington, “the Sultanate’s vision in solving the Syrian crisis stems from the need to put a stop to the bloodshed and the armed conflict, and it spares no effort to contribute in this regard in all forums in order to achieve peace in Syria and put an end to the suffering of the Syrian people.”i As more Arab states—including Bahrain and the UAE—resume relations with Syria, Oman sees this trend toward accepting the Syrian government’s legitimacy as a vindication of maintaining relations with Damascus.
Since assuming power in January 2020, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said has sought to maintain Muscat’s approach to Syria and even expand relations with the country. In early October 2020, Walid Muallem, Syria’s late foreign minister, received the credentials of Muscat’s ambassador to Syria, Turki Mahmoud Al Busaidi, making the Sultanate the first GCC member to return its ambassador to Syria since 2011. In Muscat’s view, this move helps boost Oman’s ability to play a greater role as a diplomatic bridge and humanitarian actor in the war-ravaged country. Given that the regime is emerging victorious in Syria’s civil war, the Omanis are pragmatically pursuing their interests in Syria based on an acceptance of the fact that dealing with the regime in Damascus is necessary to engage with the country.
As Omani officials explain, the Sultanate’s aim is to “achieve peace and stability in Syria and make room for fruitful and beneficial contacts to the parties directly, and ultimately to the region as a whole, given that peace benefits the region in the end.”ii The Omani leadership believes that restoring stability in Syria requires maintaining a productive relationship with Damascus—even if that position does not sit well with Washington. “The reconstruction of Syria cannot be achieved effectively without a peaceful solution to the crisis…there is no doubt that the Sultanate will have a role in the reconstruction of Syria with the international community when peace and stability are restored in Syria,” Omani officials agreed.iii
Meanwhile, Damascus sees benefits in leveraging Oman as a potential diplomatic partner and bridge to other GCC states. Muallem visited Oman back in August 2015—his first trip to a Gulf Arab state since 2011—in an apparent effort to leverage Omani diplomacy to end the conflict. Although Russia’s military intervention beginning in September 2015 would end up greatly strengthening the regime’s position, Muallem’s visit underscored Damascus’s view of Oman as a reliable backchannel between the regime and its enemies. Syria may also see Oman as a potential guarantor of a backchannel to GCC states. While key allies Russia and Iran currently lack the financial means to help Syria with its reconstruction phase, Damascus sees wealthy Gulf states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia as possessing resources to invest in Syria’s reconstruction.
Oman becoming more active in Syria indicates not only the Sultanate’s own interests there, which include investment opportunities and chances to assert Oman’s soft-power influence as a diplomatic bridge in a polarized region, but its wider set of partnerships in the Middle East and beyond. Muscat’s important relationships with Russia, Iran, and the UAE — all of whom welcome an Omani role in Syria—are relevant to the Arabian country’s position vis-à-vis Syria. As the GCC state which is most sensitive to Iran’s security and geopolitical interests, Oman’s growing support for Damascus must be at least partly understood within the context of Muscat’s special relationship with Tehran, which helps position Oman as a balancing force in the Middle East. For many reasons—including the military support that the Shah’s Iran provided Oman amid the Dhofar rebellion during the 1970s and Muscat’s neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s—Oman has always maintained an independent foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran that has often broken from Saudi Arabia and other GCC states’ more anti-Iranian stances.
Oman’s diplomatic moves in Syria, however, could raise red flags in Washington. The United States’ Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act could pose a challenge to Oman as it seeks to aid in the reconstruction and redevelopment of Syria. Sections of the Caesar Act mandate sanctions on entities profiting from the Syrian conflict by engaging in reconstruction activities in the country. These sanctions punish all parties that do business with the Syrian government or any sector of the country’s economy in which the government has significant influence. In this sense, Oman, much like the UAE and other countries re-establishing diplomatic relations with Damascus, will likely tread carefully in Syria to avoid violating the Caesar Act sanctions.
Looking ahead, while most Western governments are not ready to directly engage the Syrian regime diplomatically (or through Moscow or Tehran), Oman could continue to establish itself as a go-between actor for engagement between Syria and the West. As a country that carries minimal baggage in its foreign relations, Oman’s growing influence in Syria could make the Sultanate an increasingly important diplomatic actor in the process of reintegrating Damascus into the Arab world and international community.
Brett Sudetic is an advisor to Gulf State Analytics, a Washington DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Follow his work on Twitter via @GulfStateAnalyt.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Follow him on Twitter @GiorgioCafiero.
i Omani diplomats in Washington, DC, Interview with authors, October 22, 2020.