Remarks on Oman by Ambassador (Ret.) Dr. Richard Schmierer delivered at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ 31st Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference on November 3, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
I am pleased to have been invited by the National Council to contribute to this session on the Sultanate of Oman and am honored to follow two such impressive and accomplished Omani speakers. I had the privilege of serving as the U.S. ambassador to the Sultanate from 2009 through 2012, a period during which Oman played a pivotal role in support of key U.S. policy pursuits.
Oman is, in many respects, a unique country, and has been particularly fortunate in the leadership it has enjoyed over the past several decades. The almost 50-year rule of the late Sultan Qaboos must be seen as one of the most remarkable periods of governance in the modern era. During his reign Sultan Qaboos transformed a closed, almost entirely undeveloped society – little education, little medical care, little infrastructure – into a modern, stable, and prosperous nation. During my time as ambassador in Oman, in 2010, the UN Development Programme published a list of the countries of the world that had made the most development progress in the preceding 40 years. Oman was listed first; China was second.
Oman’s unique aspects are, in many cases, its strengths. It is the most ethnically diverse Arab country, deriving from its history as an Indian Ocean maritime empire, with outposts and trading partners from present day Iran, to Pakistan, to the East African coast. This gives Oman and its leaders an appreciation of the value of openness and diversity.
The Sultanate of Oman is the only country that has a population whose dominant sect of Islam is Ibadism, a sect that is neither Sunni nor Shia. That has allowed Oman to play a unique and helpful role, in particular in engaging Iran, including in the successful effort to conclude the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Ibadism is known for being a moderate, tolerant branch of Islam, which has stood the Sultanate in good stead with its neighbors, whether fellow Arab states, Persian Iran, the countries of South Asia, or the countries of East Africa.
The wisdom of the late Sultan Qaboos was revealed in the early years of his reign in many ways. He succeeded in putting down a rebellion in the southern Dhofar region through a combination of recruiting allies – the United Kingdom, Iran and Jordan – and reaching out to those who had been alienated by the highly-conservative policies of his father, bringing into his government former opponents who went on to become life-long contributors to the development and success of Oman. One of his early policies was to resolve the many border disputes that Oman faced when he came to power, and – through judicious diplomacy – he succeeded. As he himself said, if you have friendly and amicable borders with your neighbors, then in effect you have no borders at all. His approach to regional and international affairs led to what became a light-hearted, but actually quite accurate, phrase to describe Omani foreign policy: “Friend to all; enemy to none.”
Oman operates under its own principles, and in its own interests. While Oman has exported oil for several decades now, it never joined OPEC. Unlike other Arab states, Oman did not break relations with Egypt when Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel. Oman did not join the other Arab states in supporting Iraq in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Oman wisely pursued a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and such an agreement entered into force shortly before I arrived as ambassador.
The Obama administration worked closely with the late Sultan Qaboos in dealing with Iran. As part of that effort, President Barack Obama conveyed that he was distancing his administration from the policies of the previous administration of George W. Bush, that called for regime change in Iran and that characterized Iran as part of an “axis of evil.” As I saw during my tenure as the US ambassador in Oman in dealing with the Oman-Iran dynamic in the lead-up to the Iran nuclear deal, Iran grants a level of trust to Oman that it does not to any other Arab state. Iran and Oman share the territorial waters of the Strait of Hormuz – although all of the navigable sea lanes in the Strait lie in Omani territory – and Oman has been a good steward of this vital international waterway.
Oman has long been proactive in providing assistance to its neighbor Yemen. The goodwill that this has created, and Oman’s non-antagonistic approach to Iran, has allowed Oman to play a helpful role in seeking an end to the current conflict in Yemen, in particular in engaging the Houthis.
Today Oman continues to thrive under the leadership of Sultan Qaboos’s successor, Sultan Haitham. Sultan Haitham himself benefited from serving in several key positions prior to his accession to Sultan. He has brought with him great experience and expertise, particularly in economic matters, and has kept the country on a path of steady development and progress even while dealing with several economic challenges. While Oman’s energy wealth is much more limited than some of its neighbors, this wealth has always been used wisely to ensure development in all areas of the country. Even in the early years of Sultan Qaboos’s reign, he saw to it that every town and village had electricity, water resources, a school, a medical clinic, and a mosque. In recent years Oman has smartly invested in infrastructure — in ports, airports, roads and railways — turning its strategic location outside of the Strait of Hormuz into a major trade and commercial asset.
As these remarks suggest, the U.S. appreciates the positive and important geostrategic role that Oman plays in the region and beyond, and greatly values the friendship we have enjoyed with Oman for some two centuries. Thank you.