Rouhani’s Oman visit adds to flux in the Gulf

Iran’s closer ties with Oman may not be welcomed by its main rival Saudi Arabia

March 12, 2014 09:01 pm | Updated May 19, 2016 08:10 am IST - DUBAI

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has arrived in Oman on a visit that is feeding into the swift geopolitical realignment that is taking place in the Gulf following the Arab Spring and the change of guard in Tehran.

Ahead of his arrival in Muscat, Mr. Rouhani signalled that Tehran was aiming to build special ties with Oman.

Analysts say that it is unlikely that the Iranian President's ambition will be well received in Saudi Arabia, Tehran's main regional rival and leading heavyweight in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Oman is a part. "Oman, which lies on one side of the Strait of Hormuz, is of special importance for us, who stand on the other side of the strait," said Mr. Rouhani, before embarking for Muscat. The Iranian President, who was elected as a bridge-building "moderate" last year, was referring to the strategic channel that links the Persian Gulf with the Sea of Oman, through which the bulk of the world's energy supplies pass. Apart from the Gulf, Riyadh and Tehran are fiercely competing for influence in the Levant, especially Syria, from where the raging internal conflict is resonating powerfully in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq.

Observers say that Iran's nuclear dialogue, which could lead to a rapprochement with the United States, has also caused considerable consternation in Riyadh, though the Kingdom has officially supported Tehran's talks with the six global powers.

The presence of the ministers of foreign affairs, oil, industry and trade, road and transportation, and labour, in the presidential delegation seemed to indicate Iran's substantial agenda of engagement with Oman. Mr. Rouhani stressed that during the visit "we will make new agreements in the economic and trade fields, especially on oil, gas, as well as monetary and cultural issues". Iran's ambassador to Oman had said last week that the two countries plan to build a causeway that would link the two countries--a claim that Muscat has subsequently denied.

President Rouhani's visit follows other signs of turbulence within the GCC --- largely a fall-out of the Arab Spring. Among the Gulf petro-monarchies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been targeting the Muslim Brotherhood as a perceived source of acute political instability in the region. Their animosity towards the Brotherhood amplified after the candidate of the Islamist group, Mohamed Morsy, won Egypt's presidential elections that took place after the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE recalled their ambassadors from Qatar, apparently to protest Doha's support for the Brotherhood.

The dissonance within the GCC acquired sharp focus on Tuesday-when UAE welcomed Egypt's Field Marshall Abdel Fattah El Sisi--the face of the army's intervention to remove President Morsy from office, and the

fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood ranks that subsequently followed.

Diplomatic sources say that Riyadh and its core partners seem inclined to bolster Egypt as a counterweight to Iran.

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