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Thursday, June 7, 2012

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 gradually opening the political process in the Sultanate of Oman in the early 1980s without evident public pressure. The liberalization allowed Omanis a measure of representation but without significantly limiting Qaboos’ role as major decision maker. Some Omani human rights activists and civil society leaders, along with many younger Omanis, were always unsatisfied with the implicit and explicit limits to political rights and believed the democratization process had stagnated. This disappointment may have proved deeper and broader than experts believed when protests broke out in several Omani cities beginning in late February 2011, after the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Still, the generally positive Omani views of Qaboos, coupled with economic and minor additional political reform measures and repression of protest actions, put limits on the unrest and eventually caused it to subside. High turnout in the October 15, 2011, elections for the lower house of Oman’s legislative body suggested the unrest produced a new sense of activism, although with public recognition that reform will continue to be gradual.

The Administration did not alter its policy toward Oman during the unrest, perhaps because Oman is a long-time U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf. It was the first Gulf country to formally allow the U.S. military to use its bases and other facilities and has done so for virtually every U.S. military operation in and around the Gulf since 1980, despite the sensitivities in Oman about a U.S. military presence there. Oman is also a regular buyer of U.S. military equipment, moving away from its prior reliance on British military advice and equipment. Oman also has consistently supported U.S. efforts to achieve a Middle East peace by publicly endorsing peace treaties reached and by occasionally meeting with Israeli leaders in or outside Oman. It was partly in appreciation for this alliance that the United States entered into a free trade agreement (FTA) with Oman, which is also intended to help Oman diversify its economy to compensate for its relatively small reserves of crude oil.

The close U.S.-Oman relationship has also led successive U.S. Administrations to downplay Oman’s relatively close relations with Iran. In some cases, those Oman-Iran relations have been useful to the United States. Oman has a tradition of cooperation with Iran dating back to the Shah’s regime, and Oman does not perceive a potential threat from Iran than the other Gulf states do. 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. In addition, Oman has played the role of broker between Iran and the United States, including in the September 2011 release of two U.S. hikers from Iran after two years in jail there. 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: June 4, 2012
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: RS21534
Price: $29.95

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