As Tension Between Iran and the West Escalates, Keep Oman in Mind

With the recent revelation that the Iran has captured a U.S. drone which invaded its airspace (prompting, among other things, an angry letter to the UN Secretary-General), discussion has once again turned to engagement with the Islamic Republic. Clearly, if arguments that the entire Arab Awakening is, in part, a Sunni-Shiite battle, as writers at Foreign Policy have suggested, then engagement with Iran is about to become of even more paramount importance than it already is. And while board games may be trumpeting that a military battle with the Islamic Republic is imminent, diplomacy seems preferable to a full-scale air war.

Unfortunately, there seems to be an increasingly small number of Western-oriented nations able to work with the Iranian authorities. It looks like the United Kingdom’s ambassador isn’t coming back anytime soon. The U.S. attempt to create a “virtual embassy” online has been met with an Iranian firewall. Even Turkey’s relationship with Iran seems to be cooling.

Curious then, that no one in the press seems to be talking about Oman.


Oman, a sultanate located just across the Gulf from Iran and straddling the other side of the Strait of Hormuz, is positioned to be the perfect go-between for the West when it comes to engagement with Iran. Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who overthrew his isolationist father in 1970, has been far friendlier with Western rulers than some of the other players in the region and remains on good terms with the Iranians as well.

Indeed, Sultan Qaboos seems to have been playing pragmatic peacemaker in the region for a while now, enough so that one writer has described the Sultanate as the “Denzel Washington of Middle East hostage situations.” Remember those hikers Iran arrested as spies when they (allegedly) crossed over from the Iraqi border? Oman spent about $1 million (and, presumably a great deal of political capital) getting them out on bail. When three French aid workers were recently kidnapped in Yemen, it was Oman who got them out, to the “warm thanks” of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Classified cables released by Wikileaks note that Oman was responsible for the release of British sailors taken captive by Iran back in 2007.

Sultan Qaboos isn’t perfect, not by any means. He remains an absolute monarch, who only recently (after protests began to crop up) finally gave his advisory council legislative authority, and even then in a vaguely-defined “limited” manner. His jobs plan is about as economically unsound as you can get; of the 50,000 new jobs he declared he would create for the Oman’s citizens, 35,000 were accomplished by simply creating new, unnecessary public-sector positions out of thin air.

But, as rhetoric against Iran increases, it’s worth keeping Sultan Qaboos in mind. Because, if he were to fall, the West would lose yet another important Middle East interlocutor, one with a decent human rights record and the “arguably best informed leader in the Arab World.” And, to be honest, there don’t seem to be many interlocutors left.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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William F. Zeman

Graduate of the history department of American University in Washington, DC. Currently based in Istanbul, Turkey, doing various editing and writing work.

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