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Friday, May 3, 2013

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 paramount decision-maker. However, the modest reforms did not satisfy Omani civil society leaders and youths. This disappointment proved deeper and broader than experts believed when protests broke out in several Omani cities in late February 2011, after the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. The generally positive Omani views of Qaboos, some additional economic and political reform measures, and repression of protest actions, caused the unrest to subside by the end of 2011. High turnout in the October 15, 2011, elections for the lower house of Oman’s legislative body suggested the unrest had produced a new public sense of activism, although with public recognition that reform will continue to be gradual. The government also expected that first ever municipal elections on December 22, 2012 would further the sense of political empowerment among the electorate.

The Obama Administration did not alter policy toward Oman even though some of the 2011-2012 protests were suppressed and activists arrested - perhaps because Oman is a long-time U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf. Oman was the first Gulf Arab monarchy to formally allow the U.S. military to use its military facilities, despite the sensitivities in Oman about a visible U.S. military presence there. It has hosted U.S. forces during every U.S. military operation in and around the Gulf since 1980. Oman 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: April 10, 2013
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: RS21534
Price: $29.95

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