Alwaght- Oman’s official news agency on Monday reported that the small Arab monarchy has decided to reopen its embassy in Iraq, nearly three decades after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that caused Muscat to close its embassy in Baghdad. The reopening raises a couple of questions: How is the new Omani approach to Iraq and why Muscat has decided to change its policy towards Iraq at the presnt time being?
Oman-Iraq relations record
Due to their geographical position, Oman and Iraq have a long history of relations. Even before the modern Iraq and Oman, there were trade ties linking the two regions, something making the historical bonds effective in the two nation’s ties. The two countries started their official diplomatic relations in the 1970s. Relations with Iraq followed a set of policies introduced by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said who after assuming power in the country sought to end the nation’s political isolation.
When in the early 1980s, Saddam Hussein invaded his neighbor Iran, Oman’s foreign policy suffered some temporary challenges as the leaders in Muscat failed to take an appropriate stand. Initially, they showed symbolic support to Saddam, but finally their policy ended up neutral. The sultanate even hosted negotiations between Baghdad and Tehran for a ceasefire.
The country cut off its diplomatic ties with Iraq in the 1990s when Saddam invaded neighboring Kuwait. In 2003, Muscat opposed the US invasion of Iraq. When Oman was a temporary member of the United Nations Security Council, it pushed forward the oil-for-food program to help alleviate Iraqi nation’s sufferings under heavy sanctions imposed on the country due to Saddam’s aggression.
Oman’s attitude after government change in Iraq
When Saddam was toppled in Iraq in the early 2003s, Oman supported the new government in Baghdad. Despite the fact that Muscat in line with other Persian Gulf Arab states severed its diplomatic ties with Baghdad in the 1990s, it opposed an Arab League resolution in 2003 to suspend the Iraqi membership in the 22-member bloc.
Two reasons caused Oman to keep its embassy closed up to now since 2003:
1. Iraq’s volatile situation
After 2003, Muscat was relatively confused about taking a stable policy towards Iraq due to the political transitions. It, however, voiced support to the Transitional Council formed after Saddam removal. Oman did not support a specific group in Iraq or at least did not publicize the support for a particular Iraqi political group. All of its emphasis was on seeing a united and democratic Iraq.
2. Following Saudi policy
Although Muscat adopts a moderate policy, sometimes, largely to make a balance in the face of the Saudi pressures on it, moves in line with Riyadh policies. Oman kept its embassy closed up to now mainly because Iraq had a chaotic situation and there was no possibility for Baghdad to reciprocate. But now things have changed. Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in 2016 but Oman waited until now to make sure that the alliance makings in Iraq end. As Baghdad-Riyadh relations improved in the post-ISIS period, Saudi Arabia a month ago opened a consulate in Iraq as a sign of ties improvement after three decades. Following the Saudi move, Muscat found the atmosphere suitable to engage in official relations with Baghdad. With regard to the presence of the major actors of the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia in Iraq, Sultan Qaboos seeks an independent policy with Baghdad without foreign pressures to avoid Oman’s interests being overshadowed by a conflict of interests of the three players.
Future of Oman-Iraq relations
Oman is the seventh-largest oil producer in West Asia and needs stability in the region more than any other country. That is what makes friendly relations with all of the regional sides of strategic significance for Muscat.
Before the decision to reopen the embassy, Muscat leaders promoted their ties with Iraq, particularly when Nouri al-Maliki was Iraq’s prime minister. The sultanate also hosted Iraqi government and parliament officials. What makes them close is the shared views and policies on the regional and Syrian security and the relations with Iran.
Sultan Qaboos seeks to avoid adopting policies that are subjected to change in the short run. He is now reopening his embassy in Baghdad while he made sure that he can adopt a stable strategy towards Iraq for a long period. The Iraq-Oman political relations in the post-Saddam period did not grow mature all of a sudden. Historically, Oman has been engaged in active business ties with Iraq through Basra province of Iraq. Since 2012, the trade volume considerably expanded, with Omani exports to Iraq, including electricity, food, and medicines, touching $160 million in 2017.
The dominant faith in Oman is Ibadi Islam. Even the ruler is an Ibadi. With its faith separated from Shiite and Sunni Islam, Oman has a chance to steer clear of religious conflicts characteristic of religious ideologies in Islam. So, it will not have to take into account the Saudi religious considerations in its development of ties with Iraq, a dominantly Shiite country. The top priority will be regional security by adopting a balanced policy. In fact, the regional and Iraqi conditions at the present time suit Muscat’s stabilizing policies. So, Oman-Iraq relations are expected to grow even stronger in the future.