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David Vs. Goliath

Oman is a predominantly Sunni country
By The News · 18 of July 2017 09:59:28
Dusk_at_the_Pearl_Qatar_(6279825109)[1], No available, Doha is one of the wealthiest cities on Earth. Photo: Commons

As the diplomatic standoff between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its cohorts continues to grow, members of the Muslim World are taking sides in the dispute, not just along religious lines, but also along geopolitical lines.

One example of this is Oman, a 310,000-square-kilometer sultanate along the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Oman is, essentially, a predominantly Sunni country (although, technically, most of its people are followers of the Ibadi School of Abd-Allah ibn Ibadh, which is very close offshoot of mainstream Sunni Islam), but it has always maintained close ties with predominantly Shi’ite Iran, Saudi Arabia’s sectarian nemesis, dating back to the time of the Shah’s regime.

Part of the reason for this is geography.

Oman, which is the least wealthy member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is, in fact, relatively isolated from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula by the Al Hajar Mountains, while Iran lies just across the Strait of Hormuz.

Consequently, sectarian differences aside, the two countries have always had good relations (their combined bilateral trade amounts to about $800 million annually).

And while Oman also has close commercial ties with Saudi Arabia (Muscat sells about $8 billion in non-oil exports such as base minerals and chemicals to other GCC members), it depends heavily on Iran for gas imports and is currently developing a joint-venture underwater gas pipeline with Tehran.

During the first month of the embargo, Oman, like Kuwait, had taken a mum approach to the riff between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt, with a wait-and-see attitude.

But now, Oman — which has inadvertently benefitted financially from the blockade against Qatar because its ports are taking up the slack for the UAE’s embargoed harbors (cargo from Qatar was traditionally shipped to Emirate ports and then loaded onto smaller vessels to be transferred to Doha) — is making diplomatic overtures in support of the tiny-but-wealthy Peninsula state, in effect, thumbing its nose at Riyadh, which is spearheading the boycott.

Last week, Muscat not only nuzzled up to Tehran through a meeting between Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, during which several bilateral accords were signed to beef up two-way cooperation, but also ordered all its banks to accept the Qatari riyal at the official exchange rate, even though Doha’s currency has been sinking as a consequence of the seven-week economic and diplomatic row.

Iran has officially condemned the four-nation boycott of Qatar, and more and more countries are throwing their support, directly or indirectly, in Doha’s direction.

In the end, Qatar, which is increasingly rallying empathy throughout the region and around the globe by tactfully playing the underdog against a bullying Saudi Arabia, may just turn out to be the ultimate winner of this David-versus-Goliath faceoff.

The punitive air, sea and land embargo against Qatar is certainly exacting a high economic price on the little oil- and gas-rich nation.

Indeed, Doha is having to fly in basic supplies such as milk and can goods that used to enter by land through Saudi Arabia in order to provide for its people.

But it is also taking a toll on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt (which can ill afford any more hits to its vacillating economy).

If the dispute drags on, there is the possibility that Riyadh will try to pressure the GCC to expel Qatar, which, in turn, would weaken the council itself, and that would give Iran more regional clout.

By bulldozing its allies into ganging up on Qatar, Saudi Arabia may be pushing them straight into the arms of Iran.

That is, essentially, what has happened in the case of Oman.

Meanwhile, Qatar can afford to hold its diplomatic and political ground because its biggest trade partners — Japan, South Korea and India — are not endorsing the Saudi-led blockage and are conducting business as usual with Doha.

Saudi Arabia may try to leverage international support through its energy resources, but with dirt-cheap international hydrocarbon prices and a glut of oil reserves on the market, Riyadh’s global clout is wavering.

As Riyadh’s high-stakes gamble continues to play out, Doha might just set an example for other countries in the Gulf to resist Saudi Arabia’s imposed mandate, leading to a regional rebellion that could destabilize the entire area and potentially lead to internal strife for the House of Saud (where just last month, the king’s heir apparent was ousted from his position and put under house arrest, causing ripples of discontent among some members of the ruling class).

For now, Qatar is playing it cool and calmly defending its sovereignty.

But when push comes to shove, it might not be the mightiest contender who wins the battle.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.