An Omani Navy corvette ONS Al Rahmani outward bound from Portsmouth Naval Base, UK, 27 June 2013 and still in builder's hands and flying the British Merchant Navy Red Ensign. A Khareef class corvette built by BAe Systems in Portsmouth.

The Omani Pivot: Strategic Access in the Neutral Gulf

In recent days, Oman has agreed to grant the US military strategic access to ports and airports in the traditionally neutral Arabian Peninsula nation. The decision will likely be seen by U.S.-sceptic hardliners in Tehran as an attempt to restrict Iran’s maritime power projection in the Gulf – most notably in the Strait of Hormuz – and more broadly in the Arabian Sea. The move is a surprising one for a nation usually committed to neutrality and conflict mediation, and could represent a shift in foreign policy posture. In this piece, we examine the wider context surrounding this apparent pivot towards greater cooperation with the U.S.

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Iran’s naval capabilities have long made the Gulf states nervous, especially given their dependence on the narrow Strait of Hormuz for economically vital hydrocarbon exports and existentially vital food and materiel imports. While Oman is significantly less vulnerable to this due to its position astride the Strait (combined with its ownership of the strategic Musandam overlooking the Strait’s southern side), increasingly assertive foreign policy postures by neighbours on all sides has driven Oman to review its defensive strategies in recent years.

Tehran’s capabilities in the geopolitically-sensitive Hormuz operating theatre were recently demonstrated by the “Velayat 97” exercises, which were lauded by Iranian Navy Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi as “simulation of a battle at sea, amphibious exercises to simulate the capture of territory from hostile forces, and a show of strength”. This exercise comes amidst a period of heightened regional tensions following Iranian accusations that Saudi Arabia played a part in an insurgent attack on Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in February, and hostile statements directed at the United Arab Emirates and the United States, all against the backdrop of the now 5-year-old proxy conflict in Yemen.

Some analysts have also suggested that the Velayat exercises, and Iran’s increasingly assertive military posture in the Hormuz region, might be intended as a signal relating to Yemen and to an extent Oman. Iran has been implicated as a major supporter of the Houthi Shi’ite separatist movement in Yemen, which has been engaged in a brutal conflict with Saudi and Emirati forces across the country for five years as of March. While Iran has longstanding ties with Oman, and has turned to the typically neutral Sultanate to mediate in previous rounds of negotiations with foreign powers, Muscat appears to be following the wider Gulf region in creeping closer towards normalised relations with Israel; something seen as directly hostile to Iranian interests from Tehran’s perspective. Oman is of particular note on this front, having hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October.

Oman appears to have reacted swiftly to a potential Iranian threat, having announced last week that it had signed an agreement with Washington that would allow American ships and warplanes to take advantage of ports and airports throughout the Sultanate. The state-run Oman News Agency said the “framework agreement” would augment “Omani-American military relations” and “allow the US forces to take advantage from  [sic] the facilities offered at some of the Sultanate’s ports and airports during visits of the U.S. military vessels and aircraft, particularly in the port of Duqm”. The large-scale Duqm  port – with enough space to turn a Nimitz-class Aircraft Carrier around in – sits on the Arabian Sea coast 500 kilometres south of the Strait of Hormuz, which would likely provide a comfortable level of strategic depth to U.S. forces that have traditionally sat in bases along the United Arab Emirates’ northern coast that lie within close range of Iranian missile sites. The location will also supplement strategic bases in Djibouti for U.S. forces operating in the Yemen operational theatre.

It is worth noting that this isn’t Oman’s first issuance of berthing rights in Duqm; the Sultanate has existing agreements with India and the United Kingdom of this type, the later of which was recently expanded to include a permanent support base. Muscat has long taken a pragmatic approach to security, leveraging its reputation for staunch neutrality to bolster its external security, however with war raging along its southern border in Yemen, an increasingly belligerent Iran to its north, and more assertive foreign policy postures set by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi closer international cooperation seems like a logical move. Economically-speaking, the deal will also help Muscat to pave over a developmental investment shortfall following the disappointingly slow development of a planned deal with several Chinese firms to invest up to $10.7 billion in the Duqm “Sino-Oman industrial park” project.

Following the Duqm announcement, the Omani Royal Army and Air Force have launched a series of joint exercises with the U.S. Marine Corps under the operational name “Sea Soldier” in the southern Rakbot region.

Regional tensions are likely to increase as a result of this development, which could risk a periodic escalation over the coming year. This in turn could cause disruption to shipping during periods of heightened activity, in particular during U.S. and Iranian naval operations.

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial & technology sectors.

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Photo credit: Brian Burnell