Omani mediators arrive in Sanaa, Yemen to assist in brokering a peace deal, April 2023
Note: This is an amended version of an article originally published via Al Fusaic.
* * * * * *
Interfaith diplomacy is the process of dialogue, engagement, and connectivity amongst different faith traditions and systems of belief, especially as it pertains to conflict resolution and peacebuilding. This activity is particularly important in regions susceptible to religious tension, whether between differing religions or competing sects. A particular area of the world in which this sort of conflict has been prevalent throughout history is Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA), with a notable exception: Oman.
Although Oman has not been completely immune to intrastate conflict and tension, its ability to preserve peace and stability within its borders despite its multicultural composition sets the country apart from its neighbors. This is owing to three core elements, all linked to interfaith policies and diplomacy. This offers lessons for its neighbors, and it is one of the reasons why several elect to initiate their own peace processes in Oman. Ultimately, Oman’s interfaith diplomacy and the policies that surround it offer valuable lessons for practitioners not just in the SWANA region, but in other areas that normally struggle with religious conflict.
Diagnosing elements in Oman’s peace
Oman maintains a peaceful internal society, strikingly different from the rest of the countries in Southwest Asia. Although Oman was not a stranger to isolationism and intergroup tension, it stands apart because it does not exhibit many of those same attributes today. How and why Oman has abstained from the violence that characterizes circumstances for some of its neighbors is important, and three elements of Omani society help answer those questions: Ibadism and Sultan Qaboos’s leadership; economic development; and interfaith diplomacy. Ibadism and Sultan Qaboos
Ibadism is the one of the oldest traditions of Islam but also among the most multicultural. It predates the schism between Sunni and Shia schools of Islam and, apart from a community in Zanzibar (a former territory of the Omani Empire now in modern day Tanzania) and a few small parts of North Africa, Ibadism is a majority tradition only in Oman. Oman’s location on the Persian Gulf near the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean made it a converging point for all manners of peoples and religions. 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 rise of Omani heterogeneity is in part owing to Sultan Qaboos.[i] Sultan Qaboos organized a bloodless coup d’état in 1970 against his father and subsequently led the Gulf country until his passing in 2020.[ii] Through his policies, he combined Ibadism with the emerging Omani national identity, subsequently creating a vibrant state that ended its isolationist tendencies by opening its oil market, joining several international organizations, and focusing on economic and societal modernization.[iii]
Among the many policy changes, Sultan Qaboos revised the Omani Constitution in 1996. The amendments noted the religious diversity of Oman’s population, called for the respect of other traditions, and mandated the respect for human rights. Educational services were expanded in Oman as a part of its development, a defining policy of Sultan Qaboos’ reign. The government of Oman protected religious spaces and has articulated that it will create new ones to reflect changes in 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.
As a previously isolated country before 1970, Oman’s adoption of the nomadic cultural principle that the goods and services being provided mattered more than the identity of the trader offers a useful 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.”[iv] This interaction becomes the foundation for economic stability, leading to peacebuilding efforts on other societal issues, and that transition directly relates to Oman’s history.
Since 1970, Oman has seen drastic social and economic progress using its oil reserves to improve 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.[v] The country depends on migrant labor in highly skilled as well as unskilled occupations as Oman’s economy continues to grow.
Regionally, conditions for migrant laborers are abhorrent. Each Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country utilizes the kafala system that forces all migrants to be sponsored and subsequently tied to an employer who controls the housing, wages, travel, and well-being of each employee. In Oman’s neighbors, kafala resembles indentured servitude, exploiting workers for the benefit of the employers, trapping them under the employer’s purview.[vi] 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.
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 the other GCC states. It views them under the idea that “human security… can be more effectively realized in the process of peace-building.”[vii] The prevailing notion is that these laborers help provide Oman economic support; thus, their integration into Omani society impacts the national security of Oman.[viii] They have the power to improve domestic relationships, so 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, which in turn contributes to multiculturalism and acceptance of interfaith policies.
The Al Amana Centre and Interreligious Dialogue
While policies of inclusivity and economic incentives matter, Oman has demonstrated that institutionalized efforts aimed at interfaith diplomacy are essential. The Al Amana Centre in Muscat, Oman, is the best example of an organization committed to peacebuilding through facilitating interreligious dialogue.[ix] 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 faith 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 interreligious dialogue, religion, and globalization. Its effectiveness in Oman began with the flourishing culture of Ibadism but was expanded due to its international connections. The Al Amana Centre advocates for coexistence in Oman by instituting several opportunities for dialogue throughout the many religious communities in the country.[x] 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.
Leading with Interfaith Diplomacy
Along with its internal society, Oman’s regional role as the center of diplomacy for the SWANA region has allowed it to internationalize its penchant for peace.[xi] Many SWANA conflicts find their resolution process beginning in Muscat, as it is the perfect location for an unbiased but relatable mediator. Oman is culturally similar to the rest of the SWANA region given its Islamic identity and usage of Arabic, as well its geographic proximity; however, it is neither a Sunni nor a Shia dominated government, allowing Oman to host preliminary negotiations for regional conflicts without giving the appearance of choosing sides. Most notably, Oman has been the center of negotiations for the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, the Yemeni war, and disputes between Qatar and the GCC. Oman’s unparalleled role for regional peace diplomacy is amplified by its cognizance of the religious dimensions of each conflict. Ultimately, it leverages its status as an Ibadi outsider as a tool for successfully organizing these negotiations.[xii]
This insistence on diplomacy has allowed “smaller, more politically nuanced nation-states to exert significant leverage on deals much larger than them.”[xiii] Oman is a prime example of this exertion of diplomatic prowess. The Omani government 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.”[xiv]
Even now, Oman continues to champion this type of diplomacy despite the many international actors pulling the country in all directions.[xv] 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 other feasible options for negotiations. Its regional relevance and cultural comparisons to the rest of the Middle East make it a prime location—perhaps the only place—for this kind of mediation. Oman’s nuanced and unique role in its region is further shaped by its history of internal peacemaking and sustainment, and thus chooses to combine its foreign policy with its domestic status: maintaining balance through interreligious dialogue.
Oman serves as a case study of peace in a region characterized by conflict. Its modernization, efforts towards 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 tenets of collaboration, 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 peace through the emphasis of a culture of respect, tolerance, and coexistence, incentivized through economic development and institutionalized through policy decisions at the highest levels of government. As a result, Oman emerged as both a meaningful example and intermediary for regional conflict and tension. Its domestic policy designs have offered models for application elsewhere. Meanwhile, the same interfaith policies and diplomacy that enabled internal stability have become tools for facilitating resolution of external problems. That Muscat has become a central point of engagement in those intergovernmental efforts is representative of this, and it offers useful lessons for practitioners in areas where the pursuit of religious or cultural homogeneity may create obstacles to peaceful engagement.
Benjamin Lutz is the co-founder of Al Fusaic, a non-profit organization focused on driving change in Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) dialogue through education and career advancement to promote peace and security. He is pursuing his Ph.D. in Religion, Reconciliation, and Peace from the University of Winchester and holds a MA in Middle Eastern Politics and Security Studies and a BA in International and Global Studies with a quadruple emphasis on Inter-religious Studies, Arabic, the Middle East, and Peace Studies. Benjamin is currently living and working in Washington, D.C. at a peacebuilding institute. In his spare time, he takes Arabic classes and uses his network to support young professionals seeking overseas experiences and identify their calling.
[i] Niethammer, Katja. “The Perisan Gulf States.” In The Middle East, edited by Ellen Lust. 13th edition., 717–45. Los Angeles: CQ Press, 2013, 724-725. [ii] Valeri, Marc. “Ibadism and Omani Nation-Building Since 1970.” In On Ibadism, edited by Angeliki Ziaka, 165–76. Hildesheim ; New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 2014, 165. [iii] Jones, Jeremy, and Nicholas Ridout. “Democratic Development in Oman.” Middle East Journal 59, no. 3 (2005): 376–92. [iv] Abboud, A. Robert, and Newton N. Minow. “Advancing Peace in the Middle East: The Economic Path out of Conflict.” Foreign Affairs 81, no. 5 (2002): 14–16, 14. [v] Critchfield, Lois M. Oman Emerges: An American Company in an Ancient Kingdom. Selwa Press, 2012. [vi] Abdulla, Husain, Harris Ayuk-Taylor, Hoa Do, Karen Garcia, Chiara Guzzardo, DeMarius Jackson, and Hey Lyung Lin. “Slaving Away: Migrant Labor Exploitation and Human Trafficking in the Gulf.” [vii] Conteh-Morgan, Earl. “Peacebuilding And Human Security: A Constructivist Perspective.” International Journal of Peace Studies 10, no. 1 (2005): 69–86. [viii] Kapiszewski, Andrzej. Nationals and Expatriates: Population and Labour Dilemmas of the Gulf Cooperation Council States. Reading: 2001, 226-229. [ix] Leonard, Douglas R. “The Origins and Contemporary Approaches to Intra-Islamic and Inter-Religious Coexistence and Dialogue in Oman,” The Muslim World 105, no. 2 (April 2015): 266. [x] Alfaham, Sarah. “Coming Together in Faith / Muslim, Christian Work Together on Interfaith Issues.” Richmond Times - Dispatch (July 12, 2008). [xi] Monshipouri, Mahmood, ed. Human Rights in the Middle East: Frameworks, Goals, and Strategies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. [xii] Ziaka, Angeliki. “Introduction.” In On Ibadism, edited by Angeliki Ziaka, 11–20. Hildesheim; New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 2014. [xiii] Ma, A. “The Omani Backdoor: Europe’s decline: the growing advantage of regional ties.” Harvard International Review 35, no. 4 (2014): 7–8. [xiv] Ibid., 8. [xv] Ottaway, M. “Diplomacy in the Middle East: Arab Allies Push Their Own Agendas.” Harvard International Review 30, no. 3 (2008): 68–71.