Oman’s announcement of a $16 billion gas project deal with BP on Monday is a fitting rejoinder to a week’s worth of Saudi fuming following a surprising recent face-off between the two neighbors. The gas deal, which would see Oman harnessing its energy assets to boost continued economic development, is a defiant reminder of the sultanate’s autonomy on the Gulf — and the room it has to deviate from the Saudi line on regional policy.
Saudi efforts to fortify their influence among their Arab neighbors in light of Iran’s recent international diplomatic push appear to be backfiring on them. The rebuff of their heavy-handed attempts at spurring regional unity, as demonstrated by Oman’s blunt rejection of the kingdom’s longtime pet project of upgrading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to a regional union, shows how counterproductive the hasty effort is proving to be.
Oman has always been a bit of a black sheep on the Gulf, maintaining ties with Iran and even going so far as to broker the back-channel talks between Tehran and Washington that led to the interim nuclear agreement now causing the Saudis so much grief. Coming out publicly against the GCC upgrade serves to aggravate an already sore Riyadh, which will be smarting not just from Muscat’s defiance but its untimely public display of this defiance.
After all, appearances are key at the moment as the kingdom desperately attempts to spin the recalibration of regional dynamics to its favor. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif’s recent tour of Gulf states exposed the balancing act Saudi Arabia is attempting to maintain in the face of Iran’s kindness offensive. Their isolation is beginning to show and, rather than countering Iran head-on, shoring up their strength in their immediate neighborhood may have seemed a smart way to go instead. Unfortunately, they apparently did not anticipate Oman vocally undermining the effort.
The Omani GCC rejection may have stung because of how publicly it emerged, but Muscat’s stance still shouldn’t have been surprising to the Saudis given its consistency with the sultanate’s long-maintained strategic neutrality policy. But regardless of the soundness of the Omani’s reasoning, the rejection will still add to the impression of a GCC increasingly fractured by the Iran issue — the last thing Riyadh wants right now.
Perhaps the Saudis were optimistically hoping that their neighbors were just as eager as they are to project a united front against Iran? If so, they should be prepared to be disappointed as other Gulf states begin to eye the potential economic benefits of future ties with Tehran. Saudi Arabia, which has historically been the main Gulf heavyweight, now not only has to grapple with a shifting regional power landscape but also its diminishing clout in its own backyard.