Oman has maintained its neutrality in the Saudi-Lebanon row, but will that position endanger its relationships in the future?
On October 25, the Lebanese Information Minister George Kurdahi’s interview with Al Jazeera TV aired. He described the war in Yemen as “absurd” and “futile”. Kurdahi, who was speaking in August before he became Information Minister, also stated that the Houthi rebels are “a resistance movement, defending themselves and not attacking anyone.”
Predictably, such words angered officials in most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states. Because of all the money which Gulf monarchies have put into the Mediterranean country since its civil war ended in 1990, many in the GCC simply believe that it is unacceptable for a Lebanese official to use such language to describe the conflict in Yemen.
Consequently, by the end of last month, in an act of Gulf Arab solidarity, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) acted against Lebanon by recalling/expelling diplomats and issuing strong statements about how fed up they are with Lebanon.
To be sure, this diplomatic row is about much more than Kurdahi’s description of Yemen’s war. Other factors such as Hezbollah’s position, the drug trade, crimes against Saudi nationals in Lebanon, and so on are in the equation too. This episode follows years of Gulf officials bitterly concluding that Lebanon has simply fallen into Iranian hands. That said, there is no GCC consensus towards Beirut.
The Switzerland of the Middle East
True to form, the Sultanate of Oman is embracing a “neutral” stance on the latest diplomatic row between Arab states, refusing to align with one geopolitical bloc against another. After the Bahrainis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, and Saudis announced measures against Lebanon, Oman called for “restraint”. Muscat urged the parties to “work to avoid escalation and address differences through dialogue and understanding in a manner that preserves the supreme interests of countries and their people and security, stability and cooperation based on mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs.”
Qatar too has not taken diplomatic action against Lebanon. But Doha officially condemned Kurdahi’s remarks about the Yemen War – which the Omanis did not.
Analysts can read Oman’s reaction as further reason to reject assumptions that Sultan Haitham was likely to make fundamental foreign policy changes or abandon key principles that defined the country on the international stage from 1970 to 2020.
While Sultan Haitham’s early foreign policy accomplishments have included improving Muscat’s ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, this has not been at the expense of healthy relations with Iran. Oman’s response to the Gulf-Lebanon diplomatic row has been further indication that the tenets of Muscat’s approach to regional affairs from the Sultan Qaboos era carry on in Omani foreign policy.
“Oman just gave us one more example of its overall approach to regional politics,” Dr Nabeel Khoury, a former US diplomat and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told TRT World.
“They’re being consistent with themselves. I don’t think they’re trying to curry favor with any particular party. But their position has always been that mediation is the best way to pursue the safe policy and at the same time perform a service for the region. To some extent, Qatar does the same thing although Qatar is a little more forward-leaning perhaps and sometimes does take sides here and there whereas Oman is more consistently neutral.”
Perhaps the 64,000-dollar question is, how will other GCC members respond to Oman’s neutral stance amid this diplomatic row and in general? Some analysts believe that Saudi Arabia and/or the UAE will put pressure on Oman to align more closely with their agendas vis-a-vis Lebanon and beyond.
Muscat’s set of neutral stances may “lead to costs that the Omanis will have to bear down the line,” according to Dr Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. “It becomes increasingly difficult to not take a position and just stay neutral because staying neutral will be seen by all parties as not being committed at all to a friendship.”
Dr Khoury sees things differently. The former US diplomat told this author that “whether [the Omanis] come under pressure or not, I don’t think it matters that much [because] they’ve been under pressure from Saudi and the UAE ever since the Yemen War started and it hasn’t caused them to waiver from their position.”
Regardless of other GCC states’ positioning vis-a-vis Lebanon, and irrespective of how or when these Gulf monarchies choose to re-engage Beirut, it seems safe to assume that Oman will remain interested in not taking sides.
Muscat will want to see tensions defuse and it would be unsurprising if the Omanis leverage their positive relations with both Lebanese officials as well as their Gulf neighbours to try to help the parties pursue greater dialogue.
“Saudi Arabia is heavily invested in taking sides in Lebanon and I think Oman and others see this as a dangerous game,” explained Dr Khoury. “They would rather—if they can, if their mediation is helpful—try to help ameliorate the situation."
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