Oman’s Sultan visited Saudi Arabia on Sunday on his first official overseas trip since assuming power last year, with talks expected to focus on the Yemen war and economic and investment cooperation as Muscat looks to shore up its finances.
Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, whose country has joined United Nations-led efforts to secure a peace initiative in Yemen, arrived in the Red Sea city of Neom for a two-day visit.
He was greeted by Saudi King Salman – in what Saudi-owned media said was the 85-year-old monarch’s first face-to-face meeting since the coronavirus pandemic began – and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The sultan recently faced his biggest challenge with demonstrations against unemployment in the debt-burdened country, which is pursuing wide-ranging reforms and austerity measures.
The Saudi cabinet authorised officials to prepare and sign draft agreements with Oman in fields including commerce, culture, investment promotion and post and transport, reported Bloomberg.
Saudi Arabia and Oman will establish a joint council to oversee several agreements, Oman’s Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi told the Saudi-owned Asharq Alawsat newspaper on Saturday.
He said the opening of a delayed new road linking the two Gulf states would facilitate logistics and other infrastructure projects.
“There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes to try to build the foundation of something much more significant between the Saudis and Omanis,” Ayham Kamel, head of the Middle East and North Africa team at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told Bloomberg. “Sultan Haitham is viewed in Riyadh as leaning toward Saudi in terms of Gulf affairs.”
Oman reaches out
Since the oil price crash in 2014, Oman’s debt to gross domestic product ratio has leapt from about 15 percent in 2015 to 80 percent last year, while Oman’s plans to diversify revenue away from oil and to reduce spending on its bloated public sector have made slow progress.
Oman is among the weakest financially among the Gulf oil producers but has long played the role of facilitator in efforts to resolve regional conflicts because of its neutral foreign policy.
— د. عبدالله بن علي الفارسي (@abdalif2) July 11, 2021
Translation: Smiles for a bright future. Wishing all the best to both nations and the wider region. Stability, development and prosperity. We are optimistic.
Relations between Oman and Saudi Arabia had long been cool despite their shared border. Saudi officials were wary of Oman’s cordial ties with Iran, which Riyadh considers a regional threat.
Omani officials have cultivated a careful neutrality in the region – which has seen rivalry being played out between Riyadh and Tehran. Muscat has also been wary of undue influence from its larger neighbour.
But the death last year of Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who ruled for fifty years, opened an opportunity for change.
The sultanate, which shares borders with Yemen, has intensified diplomatic efforts aimed at securing a ceasefire between Yemen’s Iran-linked Houthi movement and the Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the group for more than six years.
Talks between the coalition and the Houthis are focused on steps to lift a blockade on Houthi-held ports and Sanaa airport in return for a promise from the Iran-aligned group for truce talks.
The coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthis removed the internationally recognised government from the capital, Sanaa and swathes of territory in the country’s north. The war has killed tens of thousands of Yemenis and pushed the country to the brink of famine.