By James Denselow.
In a Middle East increasingly defined by the fires of war it takes a lot of work to keep out of the headlines. The Sultanate of Oman doesn't have the record breaking tall buildings of its Gulf neighbours and has ensured that the worsening violence in Yemen has not spilled over across its borders. Instead, away from the international focus that tends to follow events in Syria, Israel-Palestine and Iraq, Oman is working the levers of quiet diplomacy behind the scenes.
The country is conscious that whilst its oil and political stability has given it the opportunity to significantly develop over the past forty years, it is not immune to the chaos that is gradually creeping across the entire region. Of particular concern considering the Sultanate's geography is the spectre of Iranian-Saudi relations deteriorating further. Oman has the political and economic motivations to push for a wider peace agenda across the region and is worthy of a closer look.
The country is undergoing a transition. The collapse in oil prices has had a significant impact on the Omani economy forcing the government to reduce public spending and remove subsidies around fuel in particular. The price of unleaded petrol went up earlier this year by a one third after a 17 year freeze moving Oman from the 9th to 13th cheapest place in the world to fill up your car. This could have a silver lining if the country is able to genuinely diversify its economy. One sector that has vast potential is that of tourism. Long, unspoilt beaches (some of which have Turtle nesting zones) coastline views of Dhows fishing out to sea and the spectacular Green Mountains are arguably more sustainable assets than oil and gas. Yet for this sector to flourish the 'brand' of the region has to be less ISIS and more 'peaceful oases'.
As an Arab League and GCC player Oman's diplomacy is based around the primacy of avoiding conflict. Last year's decision by Saudi Arabia to start military operations in Yemen placed huge pressure on the Omani 'peace first' strategy, but the Sultanate managed to avoid getting dragged in and preserved its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Oman's relationship with Tehran and Riyadh allowed it to play a key role as host to the Iranian nuclear talks, a potential game changer for the region. The country is perhaps unique in having had joint military training with both Iran and the US and with the Straits of Hormuz on its doorstep, where a 5th of the world's oil passes through, is very much in the centre of a potential global flashpoint.
Speaking to senior Omani diplomats you get a clear sense of the role that they see the country playing. One spoke of how "globalisation for Oman started a thousand years ago when our sea faring history saw us engage and build friendships across the world. We do good things in the region for security and peace yet we don't get any recognition in the West - because we're too modest". Such modesty could be a valuable asset and I was struck when visiting the country that there is huge potential for the Sultanate to be the home of conflict resolution efforts for the region.
Indeed as the set piece peace efforts around Syria's conflict have failed to date under the glare of the publicity of the Geneva, Vienna and Munich conferences, Muscat sits well placed as the site for more 'modest' track two efforts. Essentially could Muscat be to Geneva what Oslo was for Madrid?
Oman's problem solving potential has also seen it take in Guantanamo Bay prisoners, reliving pressure from President Obama who may still make his pledge to close the camp before he leaves office. This January ten Yemeni men were sent to Oman bringing the detainee population below 100 for the first time. In Muscat a new National Museum is preparing to open in April that within the modern era section focuses on Oman's values of tolerance and moderation. One Omani journalist I met described the country's foreign policy as 'keep everyone as a friend'. Their diplomats regular cite the importance of inclusiveness and dialogue as a priority and despite the obvious challenges to such well meaning thoughts the country appears to be effectively walking the fine line keeping onside with all.
The track record and potential of Oman as a diplomatic pivot is of particular interest for the United Kingdom who's historical, cultural and economic connections place it at the top of the league table of allies. If the UK can further support the bridge into economic diversification that Oman is attempting then it could find relations even closer. There is an obvious UK interest in supporting Oman's efforts to become the region's indispensable peace maker, although I would argue that maintaining its 'quiet' approach is essential for continued effectiveness.