In 2020, diplomacy in the Gulf may be easier to achieve

Despite the US-Iran escalation, there seem to be more opportunities for engagement in the Gulf than a year ago.

Oman's Sultan Haitham receives Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after his arrival to attend an official mourning ceremony for the late Sultan Qaboos, in Muscat, Oman on January 12 [AP]

The death of Oman‘s ruler of nearly 50 years, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, on January 10, came days after soaring tensions in the Gulf nearly triggered another conflict in a region that has seen three major wars and countless other flare-ups in the last 40 years.

The fact that messages passed through Swiss diplomats in Tehran played a part in pulling the United States and Iran back from the brink of war highlighted once more the importance of backchannels and trusted intermediaries in de-escalating regional flashpoints.

Oman under Sultan Qaboos carved a niche as a facilitator able to convey messages and host discreet meetings between adversaries reluctant or unable to communicate directly or publicly with one another. As Oman transitions to the leadership of Sultan Haitham, observers of Gulf geopolitics will watch closely to see if or how the “Omani approach” to regional affairs may evolve.

Oman is often, but wrongly, described as a “mediator”, especially in international media accounts of the efforts Omani officials have made to encourage dialogue between regional adversaries. In fact, Oman does not engage in mediation (as, for example, Kuwait and Qatar have done) that involves direct participation in negotiations between disputant parties.

Instead, the Omanis acted as a facilitator of connections and did not play a role in any negotiations that their facilitation made possible. A concise description of this process at work was given by veteran US diplomat William Burns, in his 2019 memoir, The Back Channel.

As deputy secretary of state between 2011 and 2014, Burns was involved in the secret US-Iran talks in Oman preceding the subsequent P5+1 negotiation which culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. He recalled that “the Omanis, clustered around the head of the table, offered a few brief words of welcome and then departed.”

The JCPOA was, at the time, the most successful outcome of a diplomatic initiative the Omanis had facilitated, although it has since been all but destroyed by a Trump White House, bent on rolling back the signature foreign policy achievement of its predecessor Obama administration.

Since 2015, Omani officials have engaged also in attempts to create a channel of communication between Houthi and Saudi representatives. The latest talks, which began in September 2019, have focused on issues such as ending Houthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, reopening Yemen’s main international airport in Sanaa, and creating a buffer zone along areas of the Yemen-Saudi border under Houthi control.

They were not intended to bypass the UN-brokered December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which sought to lay the groundwork for an eventual peace agreement between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, but rather tackle issues specific to two of the warring protagonists.

Much of the painstaking work involved in facilitating such connections was performed by Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman’s minister-responsible-for-foreign-affairs since 1997, and his team at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Muscat.

A member of the Dhofar Liberation Front in the 1960s, bin Alawi was recruited for the foreign ministry by Sultan Qaboos through an initiative for rehabilitation of dissidents that was part of his successful nation-building programme.

Assuming the 74-year-old bin Alawi remains in his post under Sultan Haitham – who also served 16 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including eight as its secretary-general between 1994 and 2002 – it may be expected that the Omani approach to regional affairs remains largely unchanged both in personnel and in experience.

In his opening remarks as sultan, Haitham bin Tariq affirmed that Omani foreign policy would continue to be based on the principles of peaceful coexistence and “good neighbourly behaviour” with all states.

The Omani succession coincides with the aftermath of the spike in US-Iran tension that so nearly generated renewed conflict in the final days of Sultan Qaboos’ life. Dialogue and diplomacy are more urgently needed than ever to de-escalate tensions in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf.

High-level contacts have already intensified as Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani travelled to Tehran on January 12 to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani while Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was among the first foreign dignitaries to meet with Sultan Haitham in Muscat on January 12.

Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs bin Alawi had earlier participated in the Tehran Dialogue Forum on January 7, just as Zarif had done at the Doha Forum in Qatar on December 15, 2019. Such meetings provide opportunities to keep open the indirect channels of communication between Iran and the US to prevent or at least minimise the risk of a misunderstanding or a miscalculation that could inadvertently act as a trigger for conflict.

What is missing, at this stage, is any indication that the flurry of high-level meetings may move beyond a short-term focus on de-escalation to consider longer-term measures that could fundamentally improve political and security arrangements in the region.

Diplomacy with Iran that may have been harder to achieve in 2017 or 2018 may be less so in 2020 given the greater readiness of leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to engage in dialogue following the spate of security incidents in 2019.

Mediation could take the form of attempts to reach confidence-building measures that can strengthen frayed ties of trust in the Gulf over such issues as the timely exchange of information, ship-to-ship communication, or cooperation on “non-political” aspects of security such as environmental or water quality safeguards.

There may now be a window of opportunity to reassess aspects of the zero-sum nature of Gulf geopolitics that contributed to the military quagmire in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, and the US “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran.

The lack of a forceful US response to the September 14 attack on Saudi oil infrastructure at Abqaiq and Khurais shocked Arab Gulf governments into reconsidering US security guarantees they had previously taken largely for granted and punctured the assertive self-belief of the ruling circles in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

The expectations for a US withdrawal from the Middle East, even if not matched by the Trump administration’s actions, which recently boosted the American military presence on the ground, has opened a space for other external powers, such as Russia, China, and India, none of whom will so consistently take sides in Gulf geopolitics as the US has done since 1979.

Oman’s new sultan may, therefore, have come to power at a propitious moment when regional and external actors are more ready to engage in dialogue than at any point in the recent past.

Lessons from the “Omani approach”, such as the pragmatic focus on specific and manageable issues rather than on a grand bargain, should be applied more broadly across the region. Regular high-level contacts between principals could eventually be complemented and strengthened by the convening of working groups and diplomatic meetings to identify mutually acceptable solutions to sensitive issues.

The prospect of greater balance as a result of the steady internationalisation of the Gulf may incentivise regional actors to move away from destructive zero-sum approaches to regional affairs.

Above all, the apparent willingness of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi to partially reach out to adversaries may give Sultan Haitham and other advocates of diplomacy a space to operate in that they would not have enjoyed a year ago.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.