This article was originally published by FPRI on 19 May 2014.
Oman has recently opened the doors of a new school in downtown Muscat to teach Persian language classes to its residents, both national and expatriate. It is being run by the Omani Ministry of Education, but students who complete the 12-week courses will receive a certificate from the Ferdowsi University of Mashhad in Iran. The Iranian Ambassador to Oman, Ali Akbar Sibeveih, hopes that Oman will open an equivalent Arabic language institute in Tehran in the near future. Undoubtedly, some of the first to register will be some of the 100-person delegation of Omani businessmen who have made plans to visit Iran in the upcoming months to develop cross-country business ties. Or perhaps those interested in furthering plans for a proposed natural gas pipeline that will run between Oman, Iran, and India.
Since the final vestiges of Persian rule were finally cleared out of Oman in the 18th century, Oman and Iran have maintained fairly consistent friendly ties, even when such ties appeared to be inconsistent with Oman’s joining the GCC with its Saudi-led antipathy toward Iran. While it shares a direct border with Saudi Arabia, Oman’s proximity to Iran across the strategically important Strait of Hormuz and its gratefulness for Iranian help during the Dhofar War (1965-1975, when Iran had over 3000 troops stationed in Oman) has made Iran an equally important neighbor. Narratives of Iranians who “died fighting for Oman on Omani soil,” are still strong among the Omani people today. Even with the ouster of the Shah, Oman continued to maintain ties with Iran and remained largely unaligned during the Iran-Iraq war. In more recent years, Oman has kept those relations going, and helped serve as the middleman between Iran and the United States, helping to facilitate the release of American hostages in 2011 and then the US-Iranian détente in 2013. The newly elected President Rouhani then made Iran’s first visit to a GCC state in more than a decade to Oman to discuss the possibility of opening a natural gas pipeline between the two countries. 
What is perhaps more unlikely is Oman’s strength of relations with Saudi Arabia, which funded civil unrest in Oman in the uprising of the 1950s and then again in the Dhofar War. Shared geopolitical concerns as an oil producing state (if not nearly as much as many of its GCC neighbors) as well as Arab Spring and Salafist incursion concerns has kept Oman rooted in the Gulf, though not to the point of submissiveness to Saudi aims, as the Sultan demonstrated when he stated unequivocally that Oman would not enter into a formal GCC union in 2013. However, ties remain strong between the two and Oman supports much of the GCC economic agenda.
Oman’s foreign policy, then, is a carefully crafted balancing act that plays on its location and on the fact that Oman is too small for the major players to consider it a threat. Sultan Qaboos has, since he deposed his father in 1970, managed this balance and relies heavily on the theory that a primary way to deal with enemies and threats to national security is through openness and dialogue. In other words, pragmatism. He combines this approach with a staunch policy of nonintervention in other countries, aside from allowing partners the use of Omani soil as a military base launching location. Omanis are largely proud of their country’s middle role, with the only complaints coming from young military service members who feel they only get to train, not actually practice combat.
When you ask Omanis, then, what it is that drives the philosophy behind the foreign policy they are so proud of, their first reaction is often to explain it through religion. Among Oman’s two million or so citizens, almost all of them are Muslim, but most practice a rare version of Islam known as Ibadhism. It is so uncommon that it is found almost exclusively in Oman, with a few patches of practitioners in North Africa, and many educated Muslims themselves have never even heard of it. What makes it unique—and gives Oman a degree of credibility when it comes to sitting on the fence between Iran and Saudi Arabia’s wrangling—is that it is neither Sunni or Shi’a, meaning that Oman does not neatly or obviously fall into the camp of the two major regional powers.
Ibadhism, like other schools of Islam, has a long legal tradition, but in the way it is discussed and practiced today, it has several main points that make it unique. First is that it preaches righteousness. Only those who live righteously will ascend to heaven. Second, and most important for foreign policy discussions in Omani eyes, is acceptance of non-righteousness. Unlike some forms of Islam, Ibadhism preaches a great deal of acceptance for people of all religions who are not yet able to live up to the standards of righteousness. There is an element of humility in the way this concept is practiced, with many Ibadhis refusing to judge other people as wrong or to attempt to limit their practices. A common example is the tolerance for alcohol consumption, which is prohibited in Islam. Rather than heavily restricting its access, as is the case in several Gulf countries, it is fairly easy to both find alcohol in Oman, as well as Omanis drinking it without the intense stigma they might receive elsewhere. It is their sin to commit and Ibadhis do not see it as their religious responsibility to impose their will on anyone.
“Friend to all, enemy to none,” is, if such analysis is taken at face value, the result of Ibadhi’s acceptance of all. By that logic, however, it would also have been the basis for the previous sultan’s isolationism and even the creation and expansion of the Omani Empire, which stretched from Pakistan to Zanzibar in the 1800s. The answer more realistically lies with the political acumen of Sultan Qaboos, who has defined himself and Oman as the perfect wasta.
Wasta is the Arabic concept for intercession, clout, middleman, connections, and patronage all rolled into one. One can have wasta, but one can also be a wasta for someone else. The word comes from the root wasat or to be in the middle, and wasta is at the center of how Arabic culture and politics function. Have a dispute with your neighbor? Need a job? Need some help with a homework assignment? Want to buy or refurbish a home? Want to get out of a speeding ticket? Need to get a form filed with a government office? Unless you are willing to wait a long time, you had better have some wasta. Your wasta may be members of your family or tribe (where there are expectations of caring for each other), but they are just as likely to be acquaintances. Wasta builds prestige—when you use your pull to help someone else, you increase your honor. It also encourages reciprocity, for if someone does a favor for you, you must now maintain the relationship and return the favor at some point. This debt is not viewed negatively, put as a positive aspect of relationship-building and equality (not unlike exchanging birthday presents). In some cases, such as helping someone get a job, there is a strong patronage element, where there is clearly someone in a higher position of power, but more often, wasta is a matter of people helping out social equals.
This wasta role, then, is what Oman is aiming to achieve. It aspires to be the trusted middle man for Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. What Sultan Qaboos lacks in power independently, he has made up in his role as the go-between, the wasta that can and will negotiate with everyone in turn, ultimately to ensure its own peace, stability, and long-term wellbeing as the great nations of the world remember and find ways to repay their small partner. And as every good wasta deal should end, all parties feel like they have gained something from it, a win-win situation that might appear to transgress all sorts foreign policy realities, but is in fact a clever play to balance everyone and gain some prestige in the process. And to ensure that relations between Oman and the big players are more than just skin deep, Oman—whose citizens already speak the language of Saudi Arabia and have ample free education that includes English—is now paving the way for its people to learn Persian as well, so that Omanis can truly talk to everyone.
Kathleen Reedy, Ph.D., works for Cubic Inc., as the Middle East Region and Culture Expert at the USAF Air Advisor Academy. The views and opinions reflected here are her own and do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States Air Force or the U.S. Government.
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