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Oman - Foreign Relations

When Sultan Qaboos assumed power in 1970, Oman had limited contacts with the outside world, including neighboring Arab states. Only two countries, the United Kingdom and India, maintained a diplomatic presence in the country. A special treaty relationship permitted the United Kingdom close involvement in Oman's civil and military affairs. Ties with the United Kingdom have remained very close under Sultan Qaboos. Bilateral ties with China have also increased considerably since 2007, as trade between the two nations has expanded rapidly.

Since 1970, Oman has pursued a moderate foreign policy and expanded its diplomatic relations dramatically. It supported the 1979 Camp David accords and was one of three Arab League states, along with Somalia and Sudan, which did not break relations with Egypt after the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Oman maintained diplomatic relations with both sides while strongly backing UN Security Council resolutions calling for an end to the war. Oman has developed close ties to its neighbors; it joined the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council when it was established in 1981.

During the Cold War period, Oman avoided relations with communist countries because of communist support for the insurgency in Dhofar. In recent years, Oman has undertaken diplomatic initiatives in the Central Asian republics, particularly in Kazakhstan, where it is involved in a joint oil pipeline project. In addition, Oman maintains good relations with Iran, and the two countries regularly exchange delegations. Oman is an active member in international and regional organizations, notably the Arab League and the GCC.

Oman has traditionally supported Middle East peace initiatives, as it did those in 1983. In April 1994, Oman hosted the plenary meeting of the Water Working Group of the peace process, the first Gulf state to do so. From 1996-2000, Oman and Israel exchanged trade offices. Oman closed the Israeli Trade Office in October 2000 in the wake of public demonstrations against Israel at the start of the second intifada.

In an effort to end the Dhofar insurgency, Sultan Qaboos expanded and re-equipped the armed forces and granted amnesty to all surrendered rebels while vigorously prosecuting the war in Dhofar. He obtained direct military support from the U.K., Iran, and Jordan. By early 1975, the guerrillas were confined to a 50-square kilometer (20-sq. mi.) area near the Yemen border and shortly thereafter were defeated. As the war drew to a close, civil action programs were given priority throughout Dhofar and helped win the allegiance of the people.

The PFLO threat diminished further with the establishment of diplomatic relations in October 1983 between South Yemen and Oman, and South Yemen subsequently lessened propaganda and subversive activities against Oman. In late 1987, Oman opened an embassy in Aden, South Yemen, and appointed its first resident ambassador to the country. After North and South Yemen merged in May 1990, Oman settled its border disputes with the new Republic of Yemen on October 1, 1992. The two neighbors have cooperative bilateral relations. Oman's borders with all neighbors are demarcated, including a 2002 demarcation of the Oman-U.A.E. border that was ratified in 2003.

The northern tip of Oman, called the Musandam Peninsula, is strategically located on the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Gulf, 35 miles directly opposite Iran. Oman is concerned with regional stability and security, given tensions in the region, the proximity of Iran and Iraq, and the potential threat of political Islam. Oman maintained its diplomatic relations with Iraq throughout the 1990-91 Gulf war while supporting the UN allies by sending a contingent of troops to join coalition forces and by opening up to prepositioning of weapons and supplies. In addition, since 1980 Oman and the U.S. have been parties to a military cooperation agreement, which was revised and renewed in 2000. Oman also has long been an active participant in efforts to achieve Middle East peace.

The majority of Omanis are Ibadi Muslims, a form of Islam distinct from the Shi'ism of Iran and the "orthodox" schools of Sunnism of the other Gulf states. Oman's perceptions of the strategic problems in the Gulf diverge somewhat from those of the other Arab gulf states. Geographically, it faces outward to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, and only a few kilometers of its territory--the western coast of the Musandam Peninsula--border the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, sharing the guardianship of the Strait of Hormuz with Iran, Oman's position makes it of key importance to the security of the entire gulf.

Oman's traditionally good relations with Iran were strained by Iran's attacks on tanker movements in the gulf and Iran's emplacement of Chinese Silkworm antiship missile launchers near the Strait of Hormuz. The sultanate reinforced its military position on the Musandam Peninsula, which is only about sixty kilometers from Iranian territory. Although they do not find the threat imminent, Iran is Oman's number one strategic threat; however, the Government of Oman fundamentally believes the threat can be mitigated through careful management of the relationship. Therefore, the Government of Oman works very deliberately to create a public perception of balance in its relationships with the U.S. and Iran. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that "The sultanate hopes Washington will engage in a "direct dialogue" with Teheran to resolve the crisis over the Iranian nuclear program. The sultanate has no reason not to believe Iran's assurances that its program has purely civilian purposes. This region, no doubt, does not want to see any military confrontation or any tension."

While Omani officials acknowledge U.S. concerns about Tehran's opposition to the peace process, support for terrorism, and nuclear activities, the Sultanate nevertheless enjoys the best working relations with Iran of any GCC state and is careful not to antagonize its neighbor to the north. Omani officials conduct reciprocal visits to Iran and the Omani police and military maintain open channels of communication with their Iranian counterparts on matters of joint concern, such as the smuggling of illegal migrant workers and drugs. While keen to maintain amicable relations with Tehran, Oman has traditionally maintained a comfortable distance from its Persian neighbor. Iranian travel to Oman is carefully scrutinized and controlled. Apart from a few subjects, meaningful bilateral cooperation has been scant while economic and commercial ties are limited. There are indications, however, that both Oman and Iran are trying to strengthen their bilateral relationship. Iran is pushing to increase tourism, trade and investment with Oman, as well as the level of mil-mil cooperation. The Omani government has responded positively, albeit cautiously, to some of these overtures.



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