Warming ties: Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tarik al Said visits Downing Street in December 2021. Image: ZUMA Press / Alamy
The UK and Oman, both once-great powers in the Indian Ocean, are now consolidating a military and economic partnership for the 21st century.
The UK has turned its gaze to the Indo-Pacific, a region which is particularly sensitive to geopolitical shifts. It is now coveting a trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). which could boost trade between the two by 16% in the long term from a high of £65.2 billion last year. Its oldest ally in the region, Oman, is central to these ambitions.
Nigel Huddleston, UK minister for international trade, recently travelled to Muscat to meet with Omani Business Minister Qais ibn Muhammad al-Yousef. Their discussions on future areas of collaboration promise a new chapter in the Anglo-Omani partnership, and Huddleston left convinced that the rewards for both parties were clear, declaring: ‘There’s a great prize on offer here – the potential for what we can achieve together in the years and decades to come is huge’. This has occurred in the context of China seeking to expand its influence in the region.
A Friendship ‘Unshook’
Relations between the UK and Oman are deep and time-honoured. The countries signed their first formal treaty in 1800, a treaty which hoped ‘that the friendship between the two states [would] remain unshook till the end of time’.
The UK and Oman have remained stable allies even when the global position and foreign policy of each have not. Oman was isolated from international affairs until 1970, when former Sultan Qaboos bin Said began rapprochement with the international community. Oman joined the Arab League, the IMF and UNESCO in swift succession, while the UK gradually reduced its commitments in the Indian Ocean.
Relations between the UK and Oman are deep and time-honoured
Military cooperation has undergirded the Anglo-Omani alliance. The large-scale ‘Saif Sareea’ (‘Swift Sword’) exercises conducted by the UK and Oman in 1986, 2001 and 2018 have helped refine British expeditionary strategy, as well as advancing its strategic interests in both the MENA region and the Indo-Pacific.
The Anglo-Omani alliance was buttressed further still when, in 2017, the Royal Navy signed a deal with the Omani government to establish a Joint Logistics Support Base at the port of Duqm, a £10-billion project planned under Oman’s ‘Vision 2040’.
Oman’s Maritime Acumen
For much of its history, Oman faced outward. Between 1623 and 1742, the Ya’rubid dynasty established trading posts on the coasts of Western India, East Africa and Baluchistan. Trade and cultural exchange between these different centres flourished, and modern Oman’s diverse population reflects this history of cross-pollination.
Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman once again established a firm foothold in the Indo-Pacific, a region through which approximately half of global trade passes. 80% of the world’s oil passes through the Indian Ocean, with most of that passing through the Strait of Hormuz, abutted by the Omani province of Musandam.
The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar in 2017 proved to be a short-term boon for Omani shipping, with Qatar moving much of its port capacity to Sohar in the al-Batinah governorate. The most lucrative developments in Omani shipping, however, have occurred in Dhofar. The port of Salalah opened in 1998 and has grown markedly ever since. In 2021, the World Bank Container Port Performance Index ranked Salalah’s as the world’s second most efficient port.
Oman has built on the success of Salalah with another large-scale port at Duqm, 600 km south of Muscat. The port opened in 2012, and is well-situated, near to Oman’s major LNG, oil and mining operations. It benefits from a position equidistant between Salalah and Muscat, sitting on Maritime Silk Road shipping lanes which link the Suez Canal and Bab al-Mandeb to the Indo-Pacific.
Beyond its prime location, Duqm has the attributes of a world-leading port. It boasts an 18-metre deep draft and a wide basin which can accommodate the largest freight liners, as well as the largest dry dock in the Middle East.
China has also made clear its stake in Vision 2040
Duqm forms part of a 2,000-square kilometre Special Economic Zone (SEZ), one of four in Oman. As Laleh Khalili contends, SEZs in the GCC create ‘enclaves within states’, offering little to no corporate tax, income tax or tariffs in order to stimulate trade and cargo shipping. The UAE has 41 SEZs, the largest of which is Jabal Ali (Dubai), also the largest port in GCC. The Emirate of Dubai has weaned itself off oil dependency most successfully, and its example may prove paradigmatic for the future Omani economy which Vision 2040 sets out.
China has also made clear its stake in Vision 2040 . Oman Wanfang – a consortium of six companies – invested $10.7 billion in Duqm in 2016, with the intention of establishing a Chinese military base there. The port is now the Omani hub of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, located only a day’s journey from Gwadar and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and is an ample conduit to its naval base in Djibouti . This has, of late, turned heads in Washington, putting the Omani ethos of ‘my enemy’s enemy can still be my friend’ under scrutiny again.
Oman in the Context of ‘Global Britain’
The port of Duqm’s distance from the Gulf orients it away from the region’s febrile politics. Diplomatic tensions between the UK and Iran certainly influence the British interest in Duqm. In 2017, a statement from the Ministry of Defence emphasised that the Joint Logistics Support Base at Duqm was: ‘East of Suez, but outside of the Gulf’. Oman has maintained amicable relations with both Iran and NATO since 1979 and has long been regarded as a safe bet. Many analysts often refer to Oman as the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’, though it is not avowedly neutral. Its reputation for stability, however, shall prove ever-more valuable for the UK’s growing defence and security interests in the GCC and Indo-Pacific.
Much of the Anglo-Omani military alliance rests on maritime activity: the Joint Logistics Support Base at Duqm is just one of several Royal Navy bases around the Indian Ocean, and the Navy’s largest-ever aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be able to dock there. Meanwhile, the British Army has access to the nearby Ras Madrakah base, where last year joint training exercises increased from six weeks to eight months per annum, as the UK and Oman increase their military cooperation in preparation for the fourth Saif Sareea exercise in 2028.
The military benefits of the Anglo-Omani relationship are clear, but the UK also stands to gain economically from a long-term partnership with Oman. In January 2022, Oman and the UK signed a Sovereign Investment Partnership to boost future trade. British companies already constitute up to 50% of foreign direct investment in the country. Economic cooperation – as with the military alliance – at once offers the opportunity to consolidate a relationship which is already warm and provides a firm foundation for trade with all of the GCC and the Indo-Pacific.
The bilateral partnership between the UK and Oman looks set to reach new heights over the next two decades. This encompasses a bolstered military alliance, which will provide a strong base for the UK in the Indian Ocean, and greater economic interdependency as both countries seek to ranch out and diversify in a changing world.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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