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28.05.2014 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The US and Oman: Changing Geo-Politics of the Gulf Region

4353543It would not be wrong to say that the Middle East is one of the most troubled regions in the world today. It is conflict ridden and is highly volatile too. However, the conflict, as is often projected, is not merely between the Sunni world and the Shia world. Although Sunni-Shia tussle is one of the major dimensions of the conflict, the Sunni world itself is a house divided against itself; and, there are quite a few ‘houses’ within this ‘world’ that are pitted against one another. Apart from mutual rivalry between Qatar and Saudia, Oman has also appeared as a state not willing to extend unconditional support to the Saudi hegemony in the Gulf region. Its opposition remained mild, but determined, unless the US stepped in as a ‘balancer,’ and since then Oman has become particularly vocal in opposing Saudia plans to counter Iran.

Contrary to Saudi ambitions, Oman’s role in facilitating rapprochement between Iran and the US, however uncertain its future might be, has brought forth many dramatic changes in the geo-politics of the entire Middle East, with strategic realignments appearing as the most dominant after-effect. It is, as such, not just a coincidence that Oman has gained special importance in the US strategic calculations, as far as attainment of the latter’s own interests in the region is concerned. However, the turn that the alliance of the US and Oman has taken lately stands to benefit both. Not only is it a reflection of, but also a strong push to wider geo-political changes in the entire Gulf region.

In the wake of the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the US sore relations with Pakistan, Oman’s Duqm port has gained special importance for the US and its allies for transferring their troops and military equipment home. A number of US military and defence experts have visited Oman lately for evaluating the feasibility of using this port, which is otherwise a small fishing harbour but overlooks the Indian Ocean. This factor has greatly increased its strategic significance for the US, leading to a manifold increase in the military related activities around the port. For example, British Royal Navy ships have recently called at Duqm, and in 2010, HMS Enterprise conducted a hydrographic survey of approaches to the harbour. Likewise, HMS Echo carried out logistic assessments of the port for future visits by Royal Navy ships. These and many other activities of this sort are an indication of, what we should call, a possible realignment of geo-political alliances in the Gulf region.

The US’ plan to make strategic use of this port to gravitate its influence in the India Ocean was well received by the Omani leadership, which responded to it by giving its own plan of developing this small port into an industrial city, better suited to meet the US’ needs which requires it to have the capacity to harbour big naval warships.

As for the US, not only would it enable it to place more naval power in the Indian Ocean, but also give it more room to manoeuvre freely to dominate the Sea Lines of Communication and greatly influence military and economic activities of regional states. The foremost reason for the US to build this very port is that it would allow the US Navy to operate in the India Ocean without the fear of being bottled up in the Persian Gulf in the event of the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. Needless to say, Iran has, in the past, repeatedly threatened closure of the Strait in the wake of harsh economic sanctions or an attack by the US or Israel on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Secondly, as mentioned above, the US can use this port to transfer military hardware and troops from Afghanistan to anywhere else in the entire world. The logistic expediency of transporting military hardware back home has been studied and it is estimated that nearly 20,000 containers would be required to pack US$7 billion worth of military equipment, particularly the 20-tonne Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles which are priced as high as US$1 million. Since the US is not willing to transfer these equipment either to Pakistan or Afghanistan, she fears lack of support from both countries in facilitating withdrawal—hence, the urgent need for making an increased use of this port, not merely for actually transferring through it but also as a pressure tactic against Pakistan. However, the fact that the US would still have to pass through a number of Pakistani (Southern Pakistan) areas to reach the port does pose a critical question to the US’ ability to bypass Pakistan completely.

Notwithstanding this deficiency, the port does have a crucial strategic significance for the US as far as its “Asia Pivot” is concerned. For instance, a look at the location of this port in relation to the China-supported Gwadar port of Pakistan and the India-supported Chahbahar port of Iran does show what the US is planning to achieve by paving the way for an enhanced military—especially Naval—presence in the region. As a matter of fact, the US already has much presence in and around Oman. They signed the Base Access Agreement in 1980 which was renewed in 1985, 1990, 2000, and 2010. Under the agreement, the US military uses a number of Omani military, air and naval facilities; these were effectively put to use both in Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In other words, Oman does have the potential to ‘serve’ the US’ geo-strategic interests by facilitating troop deployment and management of naval warships.

However, this new development is not simply one-sided. Notwithstanding the potential advantages the US aims to take out of it, it has much to do with wider geo-politics of the entire Gulf region, and specifically an important indication of the widening ‘gulf’ between the US and Saudi Arabi, and of the former’s strategy of building up a network of alliance in the Gulf that is ‘independent’ of the Saudi influence. That the US has resorted to Oman is also indicative of gradual rapprochement taking place between the US and Iran, and the specific role Oman itself has been playing as a mediator. It has infuriated not only Saudi Arabia but also Israel, leading to the formation of a covert alliance between the two to collectively check Iran’s nuclear program. Apart from this aspect of current geo-politics, Oman’s own position in the Gulf against other Gulf States underwent some dramatic changes during last one year. It may be said here that the US factor has only added fresh ‘fuel to the fire,’ provoking Oman to more openly defy power of the Saudis. That Oman is trying to challenge Saudi hegemony in the Gulf region becomes quite evident when one looks at some of the major policy steps that it has taken recently.

For example, Oman’s plan to build a $1 billion natural-gas pipeline from Iran is the latest sign that Saudi Arabia is failing to bind its smaller Gulf neighbors into a tighter bloc united in hostility to Iran. The accord was signed during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s latest visit to Oman, and marks the first such deal between Iran and a Gulf Cooperation Council state in more than a decade. Apart from co-operating on economic front, both states have also greatly expanded co-operation on military front as well. For instance, they recently held a joint rescue and relief naval drill in the Sea of Oman. The two countries have also held several joint naval manoeuvres with the aim of enhancing their preparedness for relief and rescue operations and for increasing regional naval cooperation. Furthermore, the establishment of a joint military committee, joint naval drills, the exchange of military cadets, and the exchange of visits by military officials show the relatively strong military relationship between the two countries.  Similarly, Oman’s decision to buy $2.1 billion air-defense systems from Raytheon Inc., announced during a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry , is also indicative of the divergence taking place in the Gulf and the ‘independent’ path the smaller states are talking because of the un-compromising policy of the Saudi government with regard to Oman’s special relations with Iran.

The reason for this divergence is that unlike the Saudis, the Omanis don’t see Iran as a threat, which is one reason why Oman has shied away from Saudi Arabia’s plans for a Gulf Union, and is planning to work for the creation of a regional bloc much larger than the Gulf. The extent of rivalry between Oman and Saudia, on the Iranian issue alone, can be judged from the following example. It was reported that When Nizar Bin Obeid Madani, Saudi Arabia’s state minister for foreign affairs, told a regional conference in December 2013 about the importance of Gulf union, Oman’s Foreign Minister, Yusuf Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah, denied the possibility of Oman’s inclusion in this union. The underlying reason for this is, obviously, exclusion of Iran because the immediate reason for proposing the establishment of this union was and still is to counter Iran. Gulf observers were not surprised by Oman’s refusal to join the GCC Union, but they were shocked by the decisiveness of the position because Oman went so far as to threaten withdrawal from the GCC itself during its foreign minister’s speech to the Gulf Security Forum in December 2013.

Similarly, both Oman and Saudia have been following markedly different strategies vis-à-vis Iran at the International level. For example, if Saudia government’s desire is to see Washington “cut off the head of the snake” by launching a preemptive military strike on Iranian nuclear sites, by contrast, Oman’s foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi, stated Oman’s far more relaxed stance—that a nuclear armed Iran would not constitute a destabilizing force for the region. Clearly, Riyadh and Muscat’s alternative foreign policies vis-à-vis Iran are driven by different aspirations – Saudi leaders seek to assert the Kingdom as the region’s dominant power, while the Omanis seek to strike a balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The two scenarios briefly sketched here are indicative of the geo-political pattern taking place in the Gulf and the Middle East. It is very difficult to deny that crucial differences have emerged between the US and Saudi Arabia over Iranian issue, and that the former is making full use of the rivalries that exist within the ‘Sunni’ world by supporting one state to pressurize the other. Divide and Rule is the classic stratagem that has still not escaped the mind of the West; for, it cannot just be a coincidence that the US-Iran rapprochement was followed by a hostile exchange of views between Saudia and Oman over the creation of a Gulf Union, the explicit purpose of which in to counter Iran. Again, it cannot just be a coincidence that the US then decides to sell an advanced air defence system to Oman—a system that is not to be used against Iran, since Oman is not facing any threat from Iran; rather, they have cordial relations, as mentioned above. If this is so, which can possibly be the state Oman feels threatened from? It may be that there is no ‘enemy’ of Oman; however, the US’ decision to assist Oman in modernizing defence system does have the potential to ‘create’ enemies within the very “Sunni” world; and, that is what the US aims to achieve to maintain its own hegemony.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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