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. The generally positive Omani views of
Qaboos, coupled with economic and minor additional political reform
measures and repression of protest actions, caused the unrest to subside. Some
protests have continued, but sporadically, in 2012. High turnout in the
October 15, 2011, elections for the lower house of Oman’s legislative body
suggested the unrest produced a new public sense of activism, although
with public recognition that reform will continue to be gradual. The government
is also hoping that an expanded municipal elections on December 22, 2012, will further
a sense of political empowerment among the electorate.
The Obama Administration has not altered policy toward Oman despite the unrest
there, perhaps because Oman is a long-time U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf.
It was the first Gulf Arab monarchy to formally allow the U.S. military to
use its military 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 visible U.S. military presence there. Oman is has become a
regular buyer of U.S. military equipment, moving away from its prior
reliance on British military advice and equipment. It is also a partner in
U.S. efforts to counter the movement of terrorists and pirates in the Persian
Gulf and Arabian Sea. 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.
Unlike most of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, Oman does not perceive a
major potential threat from Iran. Sultan Qaboos has consistently
maintained ties to Iran’s leaders, despite the widespread international
criticism of Iran’s nuclear program and foreign policy. Successive U.S. Administrations
have generally refrained from criticizing the Iran-Oman relationship, perhaps
in part because Oman has sometimes been useful as an intermediary between
the United States and Iran. Oman 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: November 21, 2012
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