Muscat, Oman – Amid an unprecedented diplomatic crisis in the Gulf, where a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has reached the six-month mark, the state of Oman has singularly avoided the fray.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, along with Egypt, issued a synchronised series of announcements in June to cut ties with Qatar, followed by a land, sea and air blockade.
The dispute, which is being mediated by Kuwait, has put this month’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in jeopardy. The GCC is a political and economic alliance of six countries, including Qatar, Saudi, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman and Kuwait.
Oman, a country of 4.4 million people, has publicly stayed silent on the crisis and fallen back on its traditional role of political neutrality. But behind the scenes, Muscat has aided Doha in getting around the blockade, while benefitting financially from strengthened business ties between the two countries.
Oman’s decision not to join the siege of Qatar was in itself a show of support, Omani journalist Turki al-Balushi noted.
“They are saying let’s start a dialogue, let’s solve this problem by sitting together; this is the official statement. But on the other side, of course, Oman will not accept to be the next [state] affected by the Saudi power in the region,” Balushi told Al Jazeera, citing the simultaneous economic benefits to Muscat as other Gulf states have frozen out Doha.
“The exchange of products [between Oman and Qatar] has risen two times or three times through exports. This is one of the things that Oman, of course, cares about … Oman wants to be independent [and they act] to keep that independence.”
A mediating force
The blockading countries have accused Qatar of supporting “terrorism” and maintaining cordial relations with Iran, Saudi’s regional rival. Doha has dismissed the allegations as an attempt to interfere with its sovereignty, rejecting a controversial list of demands that included the closure of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network. The opposing sides remain deadlocked.
In Oman, many residents are reluctant to publicly discuss the diplomatic dispute. For decades, the country has carefully cultivated its reputation as a mediating force in a volatile region, and the threat of losing this status – especially considering Oman’s strategic position along the Strait of Hormuz – looms large.
“Oman is trying to play this role of being in the middle, helping to maintain the status quo. It doesn’t welcome any sudden change, because it has hoped to maintain the geopolitics of the region as it is, without any turbulence … They are worried about the ramifications of instability, and the role of mediator is securing them in a way,” Mahjoob Zweiri, an associate professor at Qatar University with expertise in Gulf politics, told Al Jazeera.
“[Oman] has the experience of being a state for years before the emergence of modern Gulf states,” he added. “This gives it a sort of political maturity and experience on how to deal with crises.”
During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Oman hosted talks aimed at negotiating an end to the conflict, and the sultanate was a key back channel leading to the historic 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In war-torn Yemen, Muscat has also led active mediation efforts, including hostage-release negotiations.
Oman’s desire to keep the regional peace is reflected in its residents. At coffee shops and markets throughout Oman, many either declined to comment on the Qatar-Gulf crisis, or spoke in neutral terms, wishing for the GCC to “become a union again” and to mend the current fractures.
Others broadly lauded the foreign policy of Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who enjoys immense popularity throughout the country.
“We respect all Arab countries and they are all good, but Oman is the best. We respect his majesty … because the way he is running the country is unique,” frankincense shop owner Mantalh Massoud told Al Jazeera, as she kissed a rial bearing the sultan’s image.
At the same time, Oman has been reaping the benefits of increased exports to besieged Qatar. Transactions between the two countries reportedly soared by 2,000 percent over a period of three months, reflecting hundreds of millions of dollars in trade.
“Indicators show that a number of new Omani products are appearing on the Qatari market in the food and consumer goods sectors, as well as construction materials,” Salim Suleym Saleh al-Junaiby, chairman of the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry at al-Wusta Governorate, told Al Jazeera.
“This increase is supported by the establishment of two new direct shipping lanes between [Qatar’s] Hamad port and the ports of Sohar and Salalah in the sultanate of Oman,” he noted.
Flights between the two countries have also been on the rise. This summer, citing increased passenger demand, Qatar Airways launched a new route to Sohar, bringing the total number of weekly flights between Doha and Oman to 59.
Despite the economic boon, Omanis who spoke to Al Jazeera were united in expressing hope that the crisis would soon end. “We hope [the GCC summit] will lead to progress,” said Salalah shopkeeper Salamah Shabin. “We are praying that they clear their hearts against each other.”
With Oman surrounded by regional crises, residents are understandably concerned about potential escalation and spillover, analysts say.
The difficulty in predicting what comes next makes this a delicate political dance for Muscat, Zweiri noted.
“Oman is … balanced in their position, and they are worried about the Saudis and Emiratis,” he said. “[They are] trying to maintain that balance of relationships without any harm.”
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