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The Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement initialed December 1, 2021 between the European Union and Oman is the latest in a series of small steps showing the EU’s interest in increasing bilateral cooperation with Oman. The aviation agreement paves the way for gradual market opening and the expansion of networks between European airlines and the Omani flag carriers, Oman Air and Salam Air. It is part of the wider EU Aviation Strategy, which aims to increase connectivity in line with the multidimensional approach of the EU’s Global Strategy.
The agreement has been particularly welcomed by Oman, and it fits within Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said’s foreign policy focus on economic diplomacy, directed at translating Oman’s friend-to-all strategy into business opportunities. The agreement is also in line with the EU’s increasing interest in enhancing bilateral relations and trade with individual Gulf countries, after the failure of EU-Gulf Cooperation Council free trade agreement negotiations.
The EU and Oman share a complementarity of means and goals in the region, especially in Yemen, that could be translated into a stronger partnership. However, the EU’s interest in expanding dialogue with Oman is very recent, and concrete steps toward the building of mutual trust, through stronger political and economic ties, are nascent.
In 2018, the EU and Oman signed their first Cooperation Arrangement, which set the basis for regular political dialogue, both at the highest level and between the EU External Action Service and Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The EU and Oman have also recently increased their informal cooperation in the field of maritime security, to help provide stability for oil supplies passing through the Strait of Hormuz and combat piracy, smuggling, and organized crime, mainly through information sharing and exchange of best practices.
According to senior diplomats from seven EU member states interviewed in Oman in the spring of 2021, the informality of these relations has often made Omanis feel they are being overlooked by the EU, a perception that is reinforced by the lack of an EU delegation in Oman (while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait do have an EU delegation), and failings with other symbolic gestures, such as the absence of EU representatives at the funeral of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said in January 2020. Moreover, according to a senior Omani official, the complex decision-making process within the EU makes it difficult for Oman to understand what the EU can promise and deliver, especially considering the clear divergences between the EU and its member states in their approaches to the Gulf.
Despite these tentative relations and occasional misunderstandings, the EU and Oman share a similar view on the need for de-escalation in Gulf Arab and U.S. tensions with Iran as well as a shared preference for dialogue and impartiality.
A Complementary Role in Yemen
The ground for cooperation is especially evident in Yemen, where the EU has benefited from not being perceived as a neocolonial military power. Similarly, Oman’s peace efforts in Yemen have been welcomed by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking. Also, European diplomats in Muscat have described Oman as a discreet and reliable player in mediating the conflict. In practice, since 2011, both the EU and Oman have focused on enhancing dialogue with parties excluded from negotiations, i.e., the Houthis, the Southern movement, youth, and women. Moreover, the EU and Oman each have a preferential channel with Iran that other actors, including the United States, do not have.
In its outreach efforts, the EU has developed the tools and expertise to support local negotiations and work to address long-term grievances of Yemenis. As underlined by Raiman Al-Hamdani and Helen Lackner, however, for the EU to become more effective in its humanitarian and peace building efforts, it needs to increase its presence in the Gulf and engagement with key Yemeni actors. Oman has the advantage of already being located in the neighborhood and able to physically host and directly talk to key actors among the Houthis and Saudi-led coalition.
Despite these complementarities, a senior Omani official and a senior EU official confirmed, in May 2021, that cooperation between Oman and the EU on Yemen had not evolved beyond informal exchanges of viewpoints. However, according to the same Omani government representative, the need for dialogue has increased in the past few years. He argued that the change in the United States’ approach to Yemen, from the more polarized attitude of Donald J. Trump’s presidency to the “more open to listen” approach of the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., has shown Omanis that U.S. positions on the region can shift dramatically depending on who is in charge. For this reason, three Omani researchers from Sultan Qaboos University, a senior Omani official, and a number of senior European diplomats in Muscat argued that Oman would benefit from increased cooperation with the EU on Yemen.
Recent developments in Yemen could prepare the ground for this deeper cooperation. The Saudi-led coalition’s military redeployments, which included withdrawals from the Mahra region in the fall of 2021, have reduced tensions between Saudi Arabia and Oman and have increased space for a stronger Omani role. Yemen’s neighboring Mahra governorate holds historical importance for Oman, which has worked to avoid any spillover of conflict in Yemen through constant involvement in Mahra’s local development, especially since Yemen’s uprising in 2011. The Saudi military intervention in Mahra had both raised tensions between Saudi Arabia and Oman and reduced Omani influence. So, the Saudi redeployments have paved the way for renewed Omani engagement. At the same time, the appointment of the former EU head of delegation to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, as the U.N. special envoy in September 2021, provides an opportunity to resume EU involvement in the negotiation process.
A Growing Will for Cooperation
To develop cooperation between the EU and Oman in Yemen, and elsewhere, Omani government representatives have called for an improved level of reciprocal understanding and trust, which can be cultivated through regular contact and formal agreements. Oman has a lot to gain from deeper relations with the EU, especially considering the current challenges of the country’s economic transition.
According to a senior European diplomat in Muscat, the EU would benefit from taking a more active role in Oman’s Vision 2040 economic development initiatives or “new renaissance,” by offering its expertise in training programs and capacity building projects. At the same time, Oman is working to attract European businesses, especially in logistics and port management, insisting on its reputation as an “economically, politically and socially stable country in the MENA region.” This attractive narrative, however, was challenged in the spring of 2021; Oman experienced the first public protests since 2011, largely due to increasing youth unemployment and deteriorating economic conditions, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and fall in oil prices. With the rise in oil prices and the implementation of an initial set of economic reforms under Sultan Haitham, Standard & Poor’s upgraded Oman’s credit rating in October 2021, and it was followed by Fitch in December 2021. These developments appear to have eased, to some extent, the economic conditions that prompted the unrest.
Despite the situation trending in a positive direction, Oman is facing serious challenges, and Cinzia Bianco argued in October 2020 that the EU’s ability to advance its security and political interests in the region will be enhanced if it helps Oman maintain its independent political positions and economic resilience. A similar vision for the security of the Gulf region, mainly aimed at the de-escalation of Saudi-Iranian tensions, has led the EU to place a greater emphasis on increasing cooperation with Oman for the stability of the region. In 2019, David McAllister, the chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, underlined the relevance of Oman not only as an economic partner, thanks to the accomplishments and planning of its 2020 and 2040 Visions, but also as a political asset, since, he stressed, “Oman’s actions are complementary to the EU’s diplomatic efforts” in the region.
The timid steps taken since 2018 have signaled a greater understanding of the need to develop stronger cooperation with Oman, in line with the EU Commission’s increased emphasis on bilateral and decentralized approaches toward the GCC countries. The aviation agreement is an important step in this trust- and relations-building process, especially considering the relevance attributed to it in Oman’s official media, on the road toward building a stronger partnership.
To cement further progress, senior European diplomats in Oman and a senior EU official in Saudi Arabia argued that another important step would be the opening of an EU delegation in Muscat. They confirmed that there are ongoing discussions on the need for it, perhaps heightened – at least in the short term – by the reality that the coronavirus pandemic has made travel to Riyadh more difficult.
There is still significant confusion in Oman about the interests and capabilities of the EU, and there is limited awareness of the existing projects between the EU and Oman in the economic and maritime security fields. As part of its slow, but growing, effort to increase cooperation with Oman, the EU would therefore benefit from the implementation of a coherent communication strategy, which could be reinforced through the establishment of an EU permanent presence in Muscat. A move in this direction would underscore at the same time the importance of symbolic gestures and concrete steps. Taken together, the progress to date and aspirations for better relations are likely to amplify the EU’s political gains in establishing stronger cooperation with Oman.
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