Oman’s Unique Approach to Mediation: A Solution for Sunni-Shia Conflicts?

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Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.

The Sultanate of Oman is a peaceful country on the southeastern shores of the Arabian Peninsula. The 2016 Global Terrorism Index gives the country a score of “0”, which means there is “no impact of terrorism” within its borders. It’s noteworthy that Oman is the only country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) with such a score, which makes it one of the safest countries in the world.

There are several factors that explain Oman’s internal security. It is a relatively wealthy nation, its ruler – Sultan Qaboos – believes in progressive governance, and Omanis share a meticulous approach to mediation, which is shaped in part by Ibadi Islamic law. (Ibadism is the form of Islam practiced by the majority of the population in Oman. It’s an ancient and ascetic branch of Islam that dates to the first century A.H. and is respected by both Sunni and Shia jurists for its rigorous and scholastic approach to jurisprudence, among other features.) Given these helpful influences and the stature of Ibadism, it is justifiable to argue that Oman’s unique method of mediation may provide one of the keys to resolving conflicts that have both intra-extra-Islamic dimensions.

In the case of intra-Islamic strife, I’ve heard the current war in Syria referred to as a religious war, or an “intractable” conflict between Sunnis and Shias. Well, that’s a myth. Sunnis and Shias have not been at war continuously with each other since the first civil war (fitna) within Islam. The truth is that both communities have enjoyed long stretches of peaceful coexistence throughout history. The recent conflicts in the MENA region have economic and political origins, and they have their roots in a quest for resources and security. As a result, the conflicts in the region, which have been defined in religious terms in order to attract and motivate recruits and justify military engagements, have become more difficult to resolve. Again, it would be simplistic to define these conflicts purely in religious terms, given the various contributing and interlinked factors that are responsible for the violence. Yes, the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have a strong Sunni-Shia dimension to them, but other factors such as the interests of proxy powers play an important role. Even so, the role of religion in these and many other conflicts is not insignificant, which from a conflict resolution perspective begs the following questions. Are there context-specific methods of mediating conflicts in the Middle East that have taken on a Sunni-Shia dimension, methods which draw upon Islamic sources? Is there a more effective indigenous approach than conflict resolution models that use coercion, threats of war, ultimatums and zero-sum solutions? Again, Oman’s approach may offer a partial solution to these questions.

Oman’s Ibadi-based method of mediation has long been applied to internal disputes between tribes, to domestic grievances, and even to external diplomacy. Each wilayat (province) of the country has trained mediators and reconcilers whose job is to help resolve family and regional conflicts. Indeed, court cases must first be heard by a mediator before they can go to litigation. The same methods that guide the process of mediation on the family or tribal level are also applied to Oman’s international diplomacy, a method that has succeeded in resolving other conflicts in the region.

In the case of diplomacy, a mediator in any conflict must be non-threatening, impartial and trusted by both parties in a dispute. Oman’s approach to mediation has enjoyed the trust of both Sunni-majority and Shia-majority nations, as illustrated by Oman’s efforts during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which certainly had religious dimensions to it.

We can see elements of Oman’s approach in another example: the Iran-UAE conflict over the Islands of Great Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa. In 1971, Great Britain began to withdraw its naval presence from the Arabian Gulf, which created the need for a new security balance. Soon after the British withdrawal, Iran’s naval forces occupied these three islands near the Strait of Hormuz. Arab states responded by calling Iran’s occupation of the Islands a “blatant aggression against all Arab people everywhere” and then worked to secure a formal condemnation of the Iranian occupation by the UN Security Council. Tensions rose even higher when Iraq broke diplomatic relations with Iran in response to the occupation. In an effort to resolve the crisis, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos visited the Shah, thereby risking Arab solidarity and his country’s fledgling relations with the newly formed UAE. In his meeting with the Shah, Sultan Qaboos communicated displeasure but not condemnation over the occupation of the islands. The Sultan held in suspension both his obligation to support the legitimate claims of the UAE and his interest in preserving bilateral relations with Iran. Although he was not able to convince the Shah to vacate the islands, he was able to craft an economic and security arrangement between the UAE, Oman and Iran, thereby enabling the three countries to share fishing rights in the area and jointly patrol the Strait of Hormuz. As a result of successfully resolving this crisis, Oman became a prized mediator to Iran and the League of Arab States.

While the Iranian vs. League of Arab States conflict over the Tunb Islands was not a religious dispute per se, religion did inform Oman’s response.  In helping to resolve these disputes, Oman’s approach works in part because it is discrete, non-coercive, sound and tested, and because it is defined according to principles of Islamic jurisprudence which are accepted by Sunni and Shia jurists alike.

Based on Oman’s mediation of the Tunb Islands crisis, Jeremy Jones and Nicholas Ridout (Oman, Culture and Diplomacy, 2013) identified the key principles of Oman’s approach to diplomacy, which include the following.

  1. The development and maintenance of good relations with its neighbors.
  2. The cultivation of mutual economic and security interests with them.
  3. An internationalist outlook, which coincides with Oman’s geographic location and longstanding maritime traditions. (Jeremy Jones calls this Oman’s Indian Ocean cosmopolitanism).
  4. A pragmatic approach to bilateral relations that emphasizes long-term geostrategic realities rather than temporary or ideological positions.
  5. The search for security and stability through cooperation and peace, rather than conflict.
  6. Non-coercive diplomacy. This approach refuses to break off relations, or to threaten war or to walk away from failed diplomacy.
  7. Consensus building (Al-Ijmaā) between sides, rather than taking sides.

Based on the examples I’ve cited, I’m ultimately convinced of two things. First, nearly every element of Oman’s approach to mediation is rooted in Ibadi law. Precepts from the Quran and the accepted hadith are indeed observable in Oman’s mediation method. (For example, a central part of the method is to carefully consult [shūrā] with all the stakeholders in a conflict. There are several Quranic verses which inform the process of consultation, including “He who takes counsel shall not lack wisdom, and he who abandons counsel shall not lack darkness.” [Al-Manār, section 10, no. 23.]) Second, I believe there is a great deal that mediators and diplomats can learn from Oman’s approach to resolving conflicts, regardless of its initial intra-Islamic dimensions. The principles described above are indeed signposts for a general way ahead.

Douglas Leonard was the executive director of a center for the study of global Muslim-Christian relations based in the Sultanate of Oman from 2009-2016.  

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3 replies on “Oman’s Unique Approach to Mediation: A Solution for Sunni-Shia Conflicts?”

Good article. I may visit Oman.
I am a retired radiologist with Ohio lcense.May do a locum there.
Do you know whom to contact for that.

Thank you for this great and motivating plus result-oriented approach to solving intra extral conflicts in the MENA. I think Nigeria can learn from this approach for implementation as my organization embarks on its Rehabilitation, Reconciliation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders, Terrorists and Victims of Insurgency in Nigeria. And, to launch its Proactive Peace Approach PPA project to enhance our Early Warning and Early Response Mechanism to Conflicts in Nigeria. Hence, I would like to embark on a Fact Finding Tour of the Al-Amanah Centre in Oman.
I need someone to link me up with the management of the Centre, please.

I will be traveling to Oman for 5 days in December.
I would be intereeted in meeting/breakinbg bread with Omani’s involved in mediation.
Also, just interested in knowing more about Oman’s current uses of mediation.
Jerry Clay

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