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Interfaith Diplomacy in the Middle East: Is Oman an Anomaly?

Oman maintains a peaceful internal society, strikingly different from the rest of the countries in the Middle East. Although Oman is not a stranger to intergroup tensions and violence, it does not exhibit many of these attributes today, further highlighting its unique history in the region it resides. One factor does not suffice in understanding how and why Oman has abstained from the violence that characterizes its neighbors, but its explanation is boiled down to three main aspects of Omani society: Ibadism and Sultan Qaboos, economic development, and inter-religious diplomacy.

Ibadism and Sultan Qaboos

Apart from a community in Zanzibar (a former territory of the Omani Empire, modern day Tanzania) and a few small parts of North Africa, Ibadism is a majority tradition only in Oman. It predates the schism between Sunni and Shia schools of Islam. The original group of Ibadis settled in modern day Oman and has flourished ever since with manuscripts, archives, and modern multi-tribal communities.[1] This school of Islam has constantly experienced multiculturalism due to its location on the Persian Gulf near the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. This strategic location is shown in how modern Omani geopolitics intertwines modernity with tradition, religion and interfaith communities.[2] Ibadism’s unique situational and theological history has impacted modern Oman especially dialogue between its culturally different communities.

Sultan Qaboos, the only Ibadi world leader, has been continuously ruling the Sultanate of Oman since he led a bloodless coup d’état in 1970.[3] Through his policies, he combined Ibadism with the emerging Omani identity, subsequently creating a vibrant state that ended Oman’s isolationist tendencies by opening up its oil market, joining several international organizations, and focusing on economic and societal modernization.[4] He revised the Omani Constitution in 1996, which notes the religious diversity of Oman’s population, calls for the respect of other traditions, and respecting human rights. Educational services were expanded in Oman as a part of its development, a defining policy of Sultan Qaboos’ reign.

The tolerance found in present-day Oman makes it the perfect place to study how a leader can influence the societal tenants of coexistence and religious pluralism. Although there are no active or widespread conflicts throughout Oman as in many of its neighbors, it serves as a case study of domestic interfaith efforts. Oman’s multiculturalism revolves around its levels of religious and ethnic heterogeneity.[5] Although a majority of Oman’s citizenry are Ibadi, Sunnis, Shiites, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and other religious groups live in Oman. In Muscat alone, there are two Christian compounds (each with a Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Church) and two large Hindu temples. The government of Oman protects these religious spaces and has articulated that they will create new ones to reflect changes to its population. In addition, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in Oman, allows non-Muslims to enter the prayer halls. Further, the architecture of the mosque includes Ibadi, Sunni, and Shia styles, highlighting Oman’s commitment to religious plurality within Islam as well as throughout its diverse communities.

Throughout his rule, Sultan Qaboos has continually emphasized a culture of respect, tolerance, and coexistence that reflects his Islamic roots.[6] The significant role of Ibadism in Oman cannot be overlooked, as it is a historical heritage and political reference point for the country. Ibadism’s role in the modernization of Oman accounts for the success of its social development.[7] Ibadism combines pre-Islamic nomadic culture with the tenants of Islamic monotheism.[8] Pre-Islamic nomadic culture was one of tolerance due to the continual exposure to many other communities through trade, the central economic model of that era. This idea that the goods matter more than the identity of the trader allows for inter-religious communities to flourish.

Modern Oman continues in this trajectory of coexistence, as over a fourth of its inhabitants are migrant laborers that do not practice Islam.[9] Sultan Qaboos has ensured there are places of worship for the communities of migrant laborers, which leads to more integration throughout Omani society. Oman has been adamant about protecting the religious rights of all faiths residing in Oman, while also continually supporting economic development. One of its most notable economic policies is joining the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an organization of the six Persian Gulf petrostates (oil rich countries), which has allowed Oman to capitalize on the global oil market.[10]

Economic Development

As a previously isolated country, Oman is a prime example of the impact of the internationalization of resources and labor. On the international level, interdependence through successful trade lays the groundwork for peace as international cooperation can ensure a sharing of norms between the countries. Focusing on this kind of trade sharing, especially as Oman has a large amount of migrant laborers, enhances economic interaction between countries that, “creates opportunity for the investment of talent and creativity.”[11] This interaction becomes the foundation for economic stability, leading to peace-building efforts on other societal issues, and this transition directly relates to Oman’s history.[12] Since 1970, Oman has seen drastic social and economic progress through the use of its oil reserves to in create its living standards, build modern infrastructure, and establish social services.

The continual production of this oil attracted thousands of migrant laborers to Oman, totaling to over a fourth of its population.[13] The country depends on migrant labor in highly skilled as well as unskilled occupations as Oman’s economy continues to grow, however it is slowly trying to integrate more Omani nationals into the work force.[14] Currently, Oman’s breakeven oil price is much higher that the international standard price per barrel, beginning to harm their economic progress.[15] Its engagement with the GCC has allowed Oman to create policies in tandem with its neighbors on the effects of the oil prices dropping, prompting economic collaboration. Every GCC country is also experiencing some economic harm, and thus the reliance of migrant laborers increase as these countries can pay them cheaper to allocate more financial resources elsewhere.

Regionally, conditions for migrant laborers are abhorrent. Each GCC countries utilize the kafala system, a system forcing all migrants to be sponsored and subsequently tied to an employer, who controls the housing, wages, travel, and well being of each employee.[16] In Oman’s neighbors, kafala resembles slavery, exploiting workers for the benefit of the employers, trapping them under the employer’s purview.[17] Although many human rights groups have advocated for the end of kafala, GCC countries continue to use it for reliable and cheap labor in their economic sectors, especially construction.[18] However, Oman is instituting new policies to amend the kafala system, especially with allowing amnesty calls where undocumented, overstayed, or other migrant laborers can return to their homes.[19] Other policies that Oman is promoting include the creation of avenues for social dialogue for employers and employees, development of more transparent recruitment practices, allowance for exit visas, and the implementation of a minimum wage for workers.[20]

Although there are still reported instances of migrant labor human rights abuse in Oman, the country does not view its migrant laborers in the same light as many other states.[21] It views them under the idea that, “human security… can be more effectively realized in the process of peace-building.”[22] These laborers help provide Oman economic support and thus their integration into Omani society impacts the national security of Oman.[23] They have the power to improve domestic relationships and thus Omani officials view them as a positive externality for society. This securitization of economic success is a strong reason why Oman continues to utilize the work of migrant laborers.

Inter-religious Diplomacy

The Al Amana Centre in Muscat, Oman, is the best example of an organization committed to peacebuilding through facilitating interfaith dialogue. Starting in 1893 as a medical and educational venture from the Reformed Church of America, the Al Amana Centre morphed in the 1970s into an organization that began teaching how interfaith communities within Oman coexist, at the same time as when Sultan Qaboos began his rule. The Al Amana Centre organizes study abroad programs in Oman, advises the United Nations from its sister organization in New York, hosts scriptural readings from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts and contributes academic articles about interfaith, religion, and globalization. Its effectiveness in Oman began with the flourishing culture of Ibadism but was expanded due to its international connections.[24]

The power of inter-religious dialogue in Oman is a testament to the ability of this organization to switch to the needs of the culture. This organization is, “an academy for the study of global Muslim-Christian Relations, a center for Gulf ecumenism and an institute providing trainings in the field of religion and diplomacy based in the Sultanate of Oman.”[25] Further, the Al Amana Centre coordinates with the Omani government on interfaith activities highlighting the Al Amana Centre’s efficacy in conducting interfaith activities. One of the main reasons for this efficacy is the commitment from the government of Oman to protect the religious rights of all people living in its borders, both citizens and migrant laborers.[26] The Al Amana Centre advocates for coexistence in Oman by instituting several opportunities for dialogue throughout the many religious communities in the country.

 

The Al Amana Centre’s ideology focuses on the importance of peace and finding steps to understand how to improve society, not just ending conflicts.[27] Interreligious dialogue is a method of conversing with other groups of people instead of discussing about them, and this important distinction highlights the success of the Al Amana Centre. Omanis of all faiths are willing to have conversations to sustain the peace throughout the country. Constant programming and collaborative efforts between the Omani government and the Al Amana Centre further reaffirm each side’s commitment to a peaceful internal society.

Along with its internal society, Oman’s regional role as the center of diplomacy for the Middle East has allowed it to internationalize its penchant for peace.[28]  Many Middle Eastern conflicts find their resolution process beginning in Muscat, as it is the perfect location for this non-biased mediator. Oman is culturally similar to the rest of the Middle East given its Islamic identity and usage of Arabic as well its geographic location in the region itself; however, it is neither a Sunni nor a Shia dominated government, allowing Oman to host the preliminary negotiations for regional conflicts without seemingly choosing sides. Most notably, Oman has been the center of negotiations for the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, the current Yemeni war, and the current disputes with Qatar and the rest of the GCC. Oman’s unparalleled role for peace diplomacy is amplified by its cognizance of the religious dimensions of each conflict. It uses its outsider Ibadi status to successfully organize these negotiations, highlighting the strength of interfaith dialogue in terms of diplomacy.

This insistence on diplomacy has allowed, “smaller, more politically nuanced nation-states to exert significant leverage on deals much larger than them.”[29] Oman is a prime example of this exertion of diplomatic prowess. Oman has consistently brokered the backdoor meetings that subsequently led to full-fledged diplomatic talks between international powerhouses. Muscat continues to serve as an interlocutor for dealmakers, “who look to use Oman’s isolated location as a carrot…. moving away from traditional hard powers such as size and military and towards more complex factors such as leverage in negotiations.”[30]

Even now, Oman continues to champion this type of diplomacy, even with many international actors pulling the country in all directions.[31] It cannot be overstated of the importance of Oman’s role as an intermediary, especially since conflicts like the Yemeni war, Iranian nuclear crisis, and GCC tensions have no feasible other options for negotiations. Its regional relevance and cultural comparisons to the rest of the Middle East make it the prime place, but simultaneously the only place, for this mediation. Oman’s nuanced and unique role in its region is further shaped by its history of internal peacemaking and sustaining, and thus chooses to combine its foreign policy with its domestic status: maintaining balance through interreligious dialogue. 

Analysis

Oman serves as a case study of peace in a region characterized by conflict. Its modernization, relatively fair treatment of migrant laborers, and insistence on interreligious dialogue has defined the last forty-eight years in Omani history as one of continual development and growth. The tenants of collaborating, engaging in dialogue, and embracing multiculturalism are all central to Ibadism, and thus to Omani identity. The interplay between Ibadism and Omani society highlights the countrywide commitment to sustaining the peace through the emphasis of a culture of respect, tolerance, and coexistence.

Sultan Qaboos has been instrumental in creating policies of modernization in Oman. Oman ended its isolationist tendencies and embraced the international community, it capitalized on its oil resources to ensure the development and enhancement of infrastructural and social services projects, and it emphasized a culture of mutual respect and understanding. These aspects are cornerstones of Sultan Qaboos’s reign and have shown that a theocratic and authoritative state is able to prioritize peace along with economic growth. The continued peaceful trajectory of Oman is largely accounted from the inclusivity of Ibadi society.

Although Oman is the only Ibadi-majority country, its shared cultural context with the rest of the region highlights the importance of this research and its potential ability to be replicated. Bringing Oman’s and the Al Amana Centre’s successes to the international arena can help other global communities struggling with problems of coexistence and religious plurality, especially in countries with similar religiously diverse communities.

[1] Ziaka, A. (2014). Introduction, in: Ziaka, A. (Ed.), On Ibadism. Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim: New York, 11–20.
[2] Ibid, 13.
[3] Furlow, R. (2017). Oman’s Looming Succession Crisis Is a Warning Sign in an Already Fractured Gulf. World Politics Review. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/22969/oman-s-looming-succession-crisis-is-a-warning-sign-in-an-already-fractured-gulf
[4] Valeri, M. (2014). Ibadism and Omani Nation-Building Since 1970, in: Ziaka, A. (Ed.), On Ibadism. Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim: New York, 165–176.
[5] Niethammer, K. (2013). The Perisan Gulf States, in: Lust, E. (Ed.), The Middle East. CQ Press: Los Angeles, 717–745.
[6] Singhal, R. (2012). The Religion Of Oman — Ibadism. Lesser-known Religions. https://lesserknownreligions.wordpress.com/2012/12/21/ibadism-the-religion-of-oman/
[7] Jones, J. and Ridout, N. (2005). Democratic Development in Oman. Middle East Journal 59(3), 376–392.
[8] Al-Nāmī, ʻAmr Khalīfah (2008). Studies in Ibadhism (al-Ibāḍīyah). Sultanate of Oman, Ministry of Endowments & Religious Affairs: Muscat.
[9] Gokhale, N. and Das, K.C. (2010). Localization of labor and international migration: a case study of Sultanate of Oman. European Population Conference. http://epc2010.princeton.edu/abstracts/100160
[10] Cafiero, G. and Yefet, A. (2016). Oman and the GCC: A Solid Relationship? Middle East Policy 12(3). http://www.mepc.org/journal/oman-and-gcc-solid-relationship
[11] Abboud, A.R. and Minow, N.N. (2002). Advancing Peace in the Middle East: The Economic Path out of Conflict. Foreign Affairs 81(5), 14–16: 14.
[12] Gartzke, E., Li, Q. and Boehmer, C. (2001). Investing in the Peace: Economic Interdependence and International Conflict. International Organization 55(2), 391–438.
[13] Critchfield, L.M. (2012). Oman Emerges: An American Company in an Ancient Kingdom. Selwa Press: Vista, California.
[14] Das, K.C. and Gokhale, N. (2010). Omanization Policy and International Migration in Oman. Middle East Institute. http://www.mei.edu/content/omanization-policy-and-international-migration-oman
[15] Raghu, M.R. (2015). How GCC states’ break-even oil prices stack up. The National.ae. http://www.thenational.ae/business/energy/how-gcc-states-break-even-oil-prices-stack-up
[16] A comparison of “kafala” system in GCC; Qatar lags behind on reforms. (2013). JustHere. http://www.justhere.qa/2013/11/comparison-kafala-system-gcc-qatar-lags-behind-reforms/
[17] Abdulla, H., Ayuk-Taylor, H., Do, H., Garcia, K., Guzzardo, C., Jackson, D. and Lyung Lin, H. (2014). Slaving Away: Migrant Labor Exploitation and Human Trafficking in the Gulf. Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain. https://www.american.edu/sis/practica/upload/Bachman-ADHRB-Report.pdf
[18] Monshipouri, M. (Ed.) (2011). Human Rights in the Middle East: Frameworks, Goals, and Strategies. 2011 edition. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
[19] Al-Ghadani, F. (2015). Oman launches amnesty for undocumented workers. Al Jazeera English. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/05/oman-launches-amnesty-undocumented-workers-150505080844523.html
[20] Burrow, S. (2015). Can Oman’s labour reforms catch on in the Gulf? Equal Times. http://www.equaltimes.org/can-oman-s-labour-reforms-catch-on
[21] Hancock, S. (2016). Horror and Heartbreak in Oman. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/07/12/horror-and-heartbreak-oman
[22] Conteh-Morgan, E. (2005). Peacebuilding And Human Security: A Constructivist Perspective. International Journal of Peace Studies 10(1), 69–86: 69.
[23] Kapiszewski, A. (2001). Nationals And Expatriates : Population And Labour Dilemmas Of The Gulf Cooperation Council States. Ithaca Press: Reading.
[24] UK minister praises Oman for its religious tolerance. (2014). Muscat Daily. http://www.muscatdaily.com/Archive/Oman/UK-minister-praises-Oman-for-its-religious-tolerance-2y0l
[25] Leonard, D.R. (2015). The Origins and Contemporary Approaches to Intra-Islamic and Inter-Religious Coexistence and Dialogue in Oman. Muslim World 105(2), 266–279: 266.
[26] Ibid, 266.
[27] Alfaham, S. (2008). Coming together in faith / Muslim, Christian work together on interfaith issues. Richmond Times. http://search.proquest.com/docview/424059622/D2DDC8E7ABF340F8PQ/4
[28] O’Reilly, M.J. (1998). Omanibalancing: Oman Confronts an Uncertain Future. Middle East Journal 52(1), 70–84.
[29] Ma, A. (2014). The Omani Backdoor: Europe’s decline: the growing advantage of regional ties. Harvard International Review 35(4), 7–8: 7.
[30]Ibid, 8.
[31] Solomon, J. (2018). Will the Trump Administration Force Oman to Choose Sides? The Washington Institute. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/will-the-trump-administration-force-oman-to-choose-sides

Benjamin Lutz
Benjamin Lutz
Benjamin Lutz is a recent graduate from Elon University with a Bachelor’s of Arts in International & Global Studies and Political Science where he concentrated on the Middle East, Peace Studies, and Inter-religious Studies. He is currently enrolled at the University of Bradford for a Master’s of Arts in Middle East Security and Peace and Conflict Studies, after which he plans to permanently move to the Middle East to conduct internal and regional peace diplomacy. His interests in Middle East diplomacy began with an eight-year-long engagement with Model United Nations and Model Arab League. He previously worked as a Research Intern at Generations for Peace, a youth-diplomacy peace-oriented NGO located in Amman, Jordan. You can reach him at [email protected]