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Friday, April 22, 2011

Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Prior to the wave of unrest that has swept the Middle East in 2011, the United States had consistently praised Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id Al Said for opening up the political process in the Sultanate of Oman, beginning this initiative in the early 1980s without prompting or pressure from the citizenry. The gradual liberalization allowed Omanis to express their views on issues but without significantly limiting Qaboos’ role as major decision maker. Some Omani human rights activists and civil society leaders, along with many younger Omanis, who have always been unsatisfied with the implicit and explicit limits to political rights in Oman, believe the democratization process had stagnated over the past five years. This disappointment within Oman may have proved deeper and broader than most experts believed when protests broke out in several Omani cities in late February 2011, apparently sparked by grievances similar to those that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11. Still, the generally positive views of Qaboos, coupled with economic measures, appears to have enabled his regime to calm the unrest.

The stakes for the Administration and Congress in Oman’s stability are considerable. Oman is a long-time U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf. It has allowed U.S. access to its military facilities for virtually every U.S. military operation in and around the Gulf since 1980, despite the sensitivities in Oman and throughout the Middle East about a U.S. military presence there. Oman also has fully and consistently supported U.S. efforts to achieve a Middle East peace by publicly endorsing the peace treaties that have been achieved between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, and by occasionally hosting Israeli political leaders or meeting with them outside Oman. It was partly in appreciation for this alliance that the United States entered into a free trade agreement (FTA) with Oman. The FTA was considered pivotal to helping Oman diversify its economy to compensate for its relatively small reserves of crude oil.

Perhaps because of the extensive benefits the alliance with Oman provides to U.S. Persian Gulf policy, successive U.S. Administrations have tended not to criticize Oman’s relatively close relations with Iran. Oman has a tradition of cooperation with Iran dating back to the Shah of Iran’s regime and Oman has always been less alarmed by the perceived threat from Iran than have the other Gulf states. Oman’s leaders view possible U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities as potentially more destabilizing to the region than is Iran’s nuclear program or Iran’s foreign policy that supports Shiite and some other hardline Islamist movements. Still, there is a long-standing assumption among U.S. policymakers that, in the event of U.S.-Iran confrontation, Oman would at least tacitly back the United States. For further information on regional dynamics that affect Oman, see CRS Report RL32048, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses, by Kenneth Katzman.

Date of Report: April 13, 2011
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: RS21534
Price: $29.95

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