Lessons in the Exercise of Soft Power: Oman’s Role in the Middle East

Photo Credit: International Business Times

By: Morgan Byrne-Diakun, Editor-in-Chief

Given the relative size of the Sultanate of Oman’s economy, population, and military, few typically consider the country’s role in international and regional affairs as more than an afterthought to those of its larger, more powerful neighbors. However, as the Middle East has descended into turmoil over the last several years, Oman has consistently demonstrated its ability and willingness to adroitly exert its role as a key mediator in diplomatic and economic negotiations with regional and international power players. If the United States seeks to extricate itself from prolonged conflict in the region while maintaining some measure of influence, Oman’s soft power policies may provide useful lessons for how to successfully achieve national objectives in a region rife with war.

Broadly defined by Joseph Nye as “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion,” the term ‘soft power’ has been a cornerstone of foreign policy discussions since the late 1980s.[i] Yet, despite a heavy academic focus on non-coercive means of persuasion, few states have successfully exercised soft power in the Middle East in the last fifteen years; instead, economic sanctions, military intervention, and wars have been the favored tools of statecraft by regional players.

However, Oman has taken a distinctly different tact and, in doing so, forged a reputation for itself as a neutral yet engaged partner for states on both sides of almost every Middle Eastern conflict du jour. To name but a few examples: Oman played a “crucial” role in helping start negotiations between the United States and Iran in 2009 that eventually led to the JCPOA; Oman led calls to host peace talks between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen; Oman accepted almost half of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners released since the start of 2015; and Oman helped free American hostages held in Yemen.[ii]

Despite the country’s limited ability to project so-called ‘hard power’, Oman’s adept use of diplomatic negotiation and mediation as its primary value-add to the international system continues to justify analysts’ claims of Oman’s critical role in protecting and maintaining US interests in the Middle East. And while the United States almost certainly cannot—and should not—attempt to simply adopt or co-opt Oman’s role in the Middle East, American policymakers should pay closer attention to how Oman has successfully navigated a middle path between antagonistic neighbors and ambivalent superpowers.

Lesson #1: Don’t Play Into a Sectarian Narrative, Maintain Religious Neutrality

Analysts often cite Omanis’ practice of Ibadism as a distinguishing feature of the country’s social fabric that values “nonviolence and dialogue”[iii], yet this distinction has also influenced Oman’s use of soft power. Oman’s lack of strong religious ties to either Sunni or Shi’a orthodoxies allows the country’s leadership to walk a fine, neutral line between the two when interacting on an international stage. For countries without strong social ties to a particular sect of Islam, Oman’s example of avoiding the appearance of sectarian favoritism could serve as a useful guideline for exercising soft power in the Middle East.

Lesson #2: Don’t Play Into a Power Narrative, Maintain Economic and Political Neutrality

Oman’s strategic position directly opposite Iran on the Strait of Hormuz places the country near one of the world’s most sensitive and potentially volatile energy bottlenecks. However, Omani neutrality in almost every major regional conflict since 1980 and the Sultanate’s ability to balance the interests and ire of Iran and Saudi Arabia—and the GCC writ large—have allowed Oman to benefit economically from trade deals across the aisle, or across the Gulf, if you will.[iv] This neutrality has not isolated Oman, but instead has integrated the nation as a respected partner who focuses on business first, politics second. While the United States is unlikely to be a neutral party in every conflict in the Middle East, a foreign policy that focuses on stability and the establishment of beneficial economic arrangements could prove fruitful.

Lesson #3: Don’t Play Into Someone Else’s Narrative, Know Your Own Foreign Policy

Analysts often laud Oman’s unique geopolitical independence from the other Gulf Arab monarchies as part of the reason why the country has been able to avoid major conflicts and develop economically as a neutral and stable nation state. However, one of the key reasons for Oman’s successful transition to a developed economy has been not independence, but a coherent, lasting foreign policy that consistently recognizes that “economic considerations play an increasingly important role” in the pursuit of bilateral and multilateral relations “on the basis of free market principles.”[v] While it may seem axiomatic to suggest that a country should “know its interests” before taking sides in a given conflict, some deeper reflection on long-term strategic objectives may suit the United States as the country looks towards the next decade in the Middle East. The implementation of a coherent long-term foreign policy may be inherently incompatible with American domestic politics, but even an internal reaffirmation of basic principles of support for free market economics, democratic processes, and peaceful diplomacy could serve to align the United States towards a more prosperous future in the region.

[i] G. John Ikenberry, “Capsule Review of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics,” Foreign Affairs, June 2004, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/2004-05-01/soft-power-means-success-world-politics.

[ii] Kevin A. Lees, “Nobody Knows Who’ll Be in Charge after Oman’s ‘Founding Father’,” The National Interest, July 31, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/nobody-knows-wholl-be-charge-after-omans-founding-father-17195; Daniel Wagner and Giorgio Cafiero, “Oman’s Diplomatic Bridge in Yemen,” Atlantic Council, June 17, 2015, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/oman-s-diplomatic-bridge-in-yemen; Giorgio Cafiero, “How Oman is helping Obama shut down Guantanamo Bay,” Al-Monitor, February 17, 2016, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/02/oman-obama-guantanamo-bay-prisoners-yemen-gitmo.html; “American held in Yemen freed, evacuated to Oman: official,” Middle East Eye, November 7, 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/american-held-yemen-freed-evacuated-oman-official-2059184305.

[iii] Giorgio Cafiero and Theodore Karasik, “Can Oman’s Stability Outlive Sultan Qaboos?” Middle East Institute, April 27, 2016, http://www.mei.edu/content/can-oman’s-stability-outlive-sultan-qaboos.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Foreign Policy,” Sultanate of Oman Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 22, 2013, https://www.mofa.gov.om/?p=796&lang=en.

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