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French hostage release highlights Oman’s diplomatic role

Omani Leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said addresses the annual session of the Council of Oman in Muscat on November 12, 2012.
Omani Leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said addresses the annual session of the Council of Oman in Muscat on November 12, 2012. Mohammed Mahjoub, AFP
3 min

France on Friday thanked Oman for helping to free a French aid worker who was abducted in February. The release of Isabelle Prime has underscored the sultanate’s role as a diplomatic bridge between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the West.

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A statement on Thursday from the Elysée palace said the French presidency wished “to thank all those who helped to achieve this outcome (the hostage’s release), and in particular Sultan Qaboos Bin Said”. It was a rare official recognition of Oman’s discreet but independent foreign policy.

Omani officials in Yemen helped to locate and bring the abducted aid worker to the sultanate at dawn, according to an unnamed source at Oman’s foreign ministry.

“The sultan of Oman has been one of the most sought-after intermediaries in the region,” Hasni Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World, told FRANCE 24.

Trusted peace broker

Sultan Qaboos has spent most of his 45 years in power maintaining a neutral position on regional conflicts, which has enabled this tiny country in the southeastern part of the Arabian Peninsula to gain leverage as a trusted peace broker.

Despite being a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a Saudi-led organisation seen as an alliance of Sunni rulers, Oman has managed to maintain good relations with Shiite Iran. In contrast to its GCC allies, the sultanate’s leadership openly supported the July 14 nuclear agreement struck in Vienna between Iran and six world powers.

Oman is also the only GCC country that refused to take part in Riyadh’s Operation Decisive Storm, the military intervention against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“It’s the sultan of Oman who has convinced the Houthis to take part in the Yemen peace roundtable that took place in Geneva,” said Abidi, underscoring the country’s role as the only mediator trusted by the different warring factions in Yemen.

Tolerance of other faiths

The sultanate’s building of a diplomatic bridge between its Sunni allies and Iran is seen by Western countries as an opportunity to temper growing sectarian tensions. Oman is the only Ibadi-majority Muslim nation in the region, which has largely allowed it to avoid the factional fighting that has engulfed many other countries. Ibadism is a branch of Islam that is distinct from both the Sunni and Shia sects.

“Most Omanis pride themselves for being neither Sunnis nor Shias (…). Whether the Ibadi creed, which is an offshoot of Shiism and is doctrinally much closer to Sunni Islam than many believe, has anything to do with it is hard to tell,” Joseph Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, told FRANCE 24.

“Oman is not a neutral country but one that always wished to make itself an arbiter, a society that banked on its high tolerance levels in socio-political affairs,” Kechichian said.

“The country experienced its own civil conflict in the 1960s until the mid-1970s, and it won't return to such a state,” he said.
 

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