Recent reports that Oman had joined the Saudi-led collation to fight terrorist groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS), took many by surprise. In an increasingly polarized Gulf region, relations between Oman and Saudi Arabia had been tense over the Sultanate’s continued ties to Iran and its recent refusal to join several key Gulf security arrangements and efforts. Muscat’s decision to sign on to Riyadh’s Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) was thus read as a sign that Oman was ready to shift politically, military, and economically toward its neighbor to the west and that Saudi Arabia was gaining the upper hand in the region. In reality, however, the move does not represent a swing in Omani policy. It is actually a continuation of the country’s decades-long strategy of balancing between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Saudi Arabia spearheaded the creation of IMAFT in December 2015. The alliance is made up of 40 Muslim countries, but it excludes two Shia-majority countries in the region, Iran and Iraq, as a check on what Riyadh views as Iran’s meddling in Arab affairs. When the alliance was first announced, Oman declined to join so that it could maintain its traditionally independent foreign policy and not upset the status quo with Iran.
Muscat’s recent reversal on IMAFT came at a time of increasing disillusionment with Tehran; Oman had expected to see greater economic dividends from Iran’s international reintegration after the 2015 nuclear deal. But business was slow to resume as Iran prioritized ventures with more lucrative partners, such as the European Union. The Sultanate felt that Tehran was dragging its feet on a number of joint projects, including the Oman-Iran gas pipeline. In 2013, Iran and Oman had signed a memorandum of understanding through which Oman would begin importing 28 million cubic meters of gas from Iran in 2015. But the pipeline was rerouted in 2016, and the operational date was delayed to 2017. Oman’s relationship with Tehran is longstanding and durable.