Monday, June 24, 2013

Oman's Neutral Approach to Maritime Security

Oman's Neutral Approach to Maritime Security

By  Sigurd Neubauer | JUN 18,2013

Oman is strategically positioned across the Gulf of Oman from Iran, north of
Yemen, and east of Saudi Arabia. It has arguably been able to secure its
rapid economic growth-spurred by oil riches-by maintaining neutral, if not
friendly, relations with these neighbors, including Iran. Yet while Oman has
successfully kept itself neutral, it still inhabits a precarious location.
It shares with Iran the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway that Iran has
threatened to close due to its charged relations with the GCC countries and
the United States, who rely on the Strait to transport oil to world markets.
Such a position, coupled with Oman's geographic proximity to the Indian
Ocean, where Somali pirates operate, has made maritime security over the
past decade a key pillar of the country's foreign policy strategy. Muscat
thus seeks to counter a range of threat scenarios, from piracy to regional
tensions, by closely linking maritime security policies to its
neutrality-based foreign policy doctrine.


Pirates not only threaten international shipping off the coast of East
Africa; they are increasingly drawing nearer to the Sultanate's territorial
waters. In August 2011, pirates disguised as fishermen entered southern
Omani territorial waters and hijacked a chemical-oil tanker with 21 Indian
sailors on board near the port of Salalah. A Dutch navy ship ultimately
intercepted the ship as it was en route to Somalia. In 2012, pirates
hijacked a Liberian-flagged oil tanker off the coast of Oman. Due to this
attack and several others that year, in addition to over a dozen attempted
attacks during the same period, the International Maritime Board labeled
Oman a high-risk zone of pirate activity.

Oman is currently working to extend its continental shelf by an additional
150 nautical miles. By extending the shelf, the Sultanate is signaling to
the international community its firm commitment to fighting piracy, as its
extended naval presence could help push pirates further into the Indian
Ocean. Oman also informally coordinates its counter piracy efforts with

Hormuz Tensions

But perhaps the larger issue for Oman in terms of maritime security is the
situation with Iran and the Hormuz Strait. As tensions between Iran and the
international community continue to escalate over Tehran's controversial
nuclear program, Iranian threats to close the Strait, if carried out, would
not only endanger global energy supplies, as some 35 percent of all crude
oil carried by ship passes through the Strait, but would effectively violate
Omani territorial waters. Inevitably, this could cause great harm to Oman's
economic interests.

In a bid to mitigate such negative commercial consequences, the Omani
government recently constructed a port, al-Duqm, on the Arabian Sea. The new
port, whose location avoids the Strait, provides dockyard facilities and
ship maintenance services and has the potential to become a major regional
transport hub. Oman and its GCC allies, notably Saudi Arabia and the United
Arab Emirates (UAE), are currently holding talks on constructing a pipeline
that would transfer energy resources to Duqm and from there to world
markets. Once the $1.5 billion project is completed, Duqm could also become
a major international business hub, as the government is planning to
construct a special economic zone ringed with a petrochemical factory, a
refinery, an airport, beachfront hotels, and housing for more than 100,000

Relatedly, as part of an effort to circumvent the Strait, the UAE
inaugurated in June 2012 a $3.3 billion pipeline that stretches 230 miles
from the Habshan onshore field in Abu Dhabi to an offshore oil terminal in
Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman. (The province of Fujairah is sandwiched
between the northern Omani governorate of Musandam, which faces the Strait,
and the Omani governorate of al-Batinah.) Also known as the Abu Dhabi Crude
Oil Pipeline, the strategic pipeline, with a capacity of about 1.5 million
barrels of oil a day, represents a critical measure taken by the UAE to
secure its access to world energy markets. Saudi Arabia, for its part,
constructed two major pipelines, both over 600 miles long, from its Eastern
Province to the Red Sea port of Yanbu in the early 1980s.

Constructing the port at Duqm and cooperating with Saudi Arabia and the UAE
on pipelines are methods of circumventing troubles stemming from regional
and international tensions with Iran. Oman also engages with both sides on
maritime security to ensure its doctrine of neutrality at sea.

For instance, Oman's Royal Navy conducts annual bilateral exercises with its
partners from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), India, Pakistan, and the
United States, and it also carries out the annual khanjar hadd (sharp
dagger) multilateral exercise with its counterparts from the United States,
Britain, and France. While Oman's navy does not conduct any drills with
Iran's navy, the two countries, whose positive relationship dates back to
the early 1960s when Tehran assisted Muscat in quelling an insurgency in the
southern province of Dhofar, currently occasionally dock at each other's
ports. However, it should be noted that while, as mentioned, the two navies
also informally coordinate anti-piracy operations, Muscat has not signed any
naval intelligence agreements with Tehran as it has done with its GCC
allies, India, Pakistan, France, Britain, and the United States. In the
Strait of Hormuz, Oman and Iran "operate independently" of one another.


As a testimony to its effective policy of neutrality, Muscat successfully
mediated the release of 15 British navy personnel captured at gunpoint by
Iranian forces in 2007. By again drawing upon its close ties to Iran in
2011, Oman mediated the release of three American hikers that had been
accused by Tehran of espionage.

By maintaining close ties with Iran, Oman is not only securing its own
independence and prosperity, but is also providing an important stabilizing
factor in regard to the Strait of Hormuz and the region at large. In
addition, the Duqm port illustrates the Sultanate's apparent objective to
capitalize on its strategic location by establishing a business hub far
removed from the volatile Strait. Between Iran tensions and Duqm's location,
the port could help transform the country's economy as Oman faces dwindling
oil reserves.

As Iran grows increasingly isolated both regionally and internationally, an
"Omani channel" to the West could arguably serve international interests.
Though Iran is reliant on the Strait's narrow passage to access the Indian
Ocean and therefore is not likely to close it, if such a crisis occurs it is
conceivable that Muscat could draw upon its friendly ties to prevent Tehran
from blocking the strategic water passage.


1> [1] Oman Coast, "Pirates of the Arabian Sea," 10 August 2012,

2> [2] Private meeting with senior Omani official, Muscat, October 2012.

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