Geopolitics

Oman’s joining of IMAFT: the ending of a policy of non-interventionism and neutrality?

Saudi Arabia recently established a coalition of Sunni states to combat terrorism under the banner of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). Its stated purpose is to help defeat the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and others they believe to be terrorist states and organisations. To the surprise of many, Oman has decided that it wanted to join the Riyadh-led network declaring the organisation ‘a new chapter in regional Muslim unity’. Oman was the 41st nation-state to join IMAFT which includes nations like Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey but which does not include Iran, Syria or Iraq.

There are numerous obvious benefits associated with Oman’s decision including the sharing of vital intelligence with some of the Middle East’s leading intelligence organisations and a strengthening of its own counter-terrorism capabilities. These are extremely important considerations given the ongoing volatility in the region. However, this decision made in Muscat has also raised many eyebrows and questions.

Notable among these is that Oman has traditionally been non-interventionist in its foreign policy stance. This is perhaps best recently evidenced by its decision to stay out of civil war in Yemen where Saudi Arabia has played a leading role. Oman was the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council who did not join hostilities, instead choosing to adopt more of an intermediary and diplomatic position. Oman also decided against joining the US-led war against Islamic State and stayed out of the recent Libyan uprising in 2011. In remaining committed to its policy of neutrality and non-interventionism, Oman has obviously not had to deploy its military into the neighboring sovereign nations, unlike most of the other states in the region. In short, Oman has preferred neutrality above all else.

A second important point worth considering regarding Oman’s decision to join IMAFT has to do with its relationship with Iran. Traditionally Oman has enjoyed close relations with Iran, a Shia state obviously left out of the alliance given its ongoing conflict with Saudi Arabia for hegemonic control in the Middle East. Tehran is less than impressed with Oman’s decision especially given the recent rise in tensions between the two Middle Eastern powerhouses.

Two inevitable questions arise from this. Does Oman’s decision to join IMAFT signal an abandonment of from its non-interventionist neutral position in favour of closer ties and siding with Riyadh? And if so, what does this mean for the future of Omani-Iranian relations?