THE BLOG
09/03/2015 12:56 pm ET Updated Sep 03, 2016

What the Arab World Can Learn from Oman

Earlier this year, the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) released a report on foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. Of the 20,000 counted by ICSR, most hailed from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and countries of the former Soviet Union. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia topped the list with a combined 3,000-5,500. However, there has not been one reported case of an Omani fighting on the battlefields of Iraq or Syria.

As the only Arab nation that has not had any of its natives join the ranks of Daesh ("Islamic State"), some analysts point to Oman's signing of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and Muscat's establishment of an Anti-Money Laundering (AML)/Combating the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) system, which, according to the Financial Actions Task Force, is compliant with international standards.

Daesh's reported failure to recruit a single Omani -- or to inspire "lone wolf" attacks in the sultanate--must be analyzed, however, within the context of Oman's foreign policy and social norms. Unlike other Gulf Arab monarchies, hardline Wahhabism/Salafism is not a pillar of Muscat's foreign policy, which has instead emphasized diplomatic engagement with all actors in the region and a rejection of extremism in all forms. Consequently, Oman does not face blowback on the scale as other Arab states which have sponsored intolerant teachings and supported hardline Salafist militias in Syria and beyond.

During the 8th century, the Omanis of the interior adopted Ibadi Islam -- a sect distinct from Sunnism and Shi'ism. Ibadi Islam, which predates both the Sunni and Shi'ite denominations, is an extant of the Khārijite movement (Islam's first subgroup). Oman is the world's only Ibadi-majority country and while the sect has its followers in Zanzibar and the Maghreb, three-quarters of the world's Ibadi Muslims are Omani.

Ibadism is frequently described as a conservative yet tolerant sect that emphasizes the "rule of the just" and rejects violence as a means to political ends. As Ibadism constitutes a key pillar of Oman's national identity, the sultanate's foreign policy appears to reflect the sect's moderating influence on Omani society. As Jeffrey A. Lefebvre put it, "Agreeable disagreement with friends and peaceful compromise with enemies would appear to be consistent with Ibadi thought in the conduct of foreign policy."

The Ibadi sect's emphasis on tolerance and moderation is underscored by the accommodations that Oman's leadership provides the 25 percent of the population that is not Ibadi. Oman's legal system offers extensive protection to religious minorities (Hindus, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, etc.)

Rhetoric that promotes sectarian strife is not only unpopular in Oman. It is simply not tolerated. Under the Basic Law, religious discrimination is prohibited and all individuals are free to practice religious rites as long as they do not disrupt the public order. The crime of "defaming" any religion or inciting sectarian hatred is punishable with a prison sentence of up to ten years. Posting messages online that "might prejudice public order or religious values" can land one in prison for a year, along with a fine of USD 2,600. Although Oman's Personal Status and Family Legal Code strips a father who converts from Islam--the official religion of Oman--of his paternal rights, apostasy is not criminal. This is in significant contrast to Saudi Arabia, where public beheadings of people found guilty of apostasy and corporal punishment for those guilty of blasphemy are common occurrence.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia -- where the kingdom's three million Shi'ite Muslims and 1.5 million Christian expatriates have no formal Shi'ite mosques or churches -- Oman permits the existence of Sunni and Shi'ite mosques, Hindu temples, Christian churches and Sikh gurdwaras. Ibadi, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims pray together in the same mosques and Muslims can enter Hindu temples and Christian churches (even if that is a rare occurrence). According to the U.S. State Department's Oman 2012 International Religious Freedom Report, "there were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination [in Oman] based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice."

Whereas some political and religious leaders in a number of Arab states have played off sectarian hatred to urge their countries' youth to fight in Iraq and Syria, such rhetoric has virtually no appeal among Omanis who are not indoctrinated with the intolerant teachings of Wahhabism in contrast to large segments of other MENA countries.

An Outward Looking Worldview

Unlike Oman's fellow GCC states, the sultanate has an ancient history of trade with the outside world dating back to pre-Islamic times, which has done much to contrast its national identity with that of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms. As early as the 4th century, Omani traders sailed to China from the Sohar harbor, north of Muscat. By the time Omanis and Europeans first interacted during the 15th century, Omani seafarers had already been in contact with Persians, Indians, East Africans and people from other parts of Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. By the mid-19th century, Oman ruled a vast marine empire that encompassed land in present-day Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. As the rulers of an "Indian Ocean Empire" that governed people of many different races, religions, ethnicities and cultures, the Omanis grew increasingly tolerant of the non-Muslim "other".

This centuries-long experience with people from the non-Muslim world contrasts with other Gulf Arab monarchies. Very few non-Muslims visited modern-day Saudi Arabia before the discovery of oil in the 1920s and the Muslims who made hajj pilgrimages to Mecca were few in number prior to the 20th century. Saudi Arabia's first major exposure to the outside world came when Western geologists and petroleum experts began travelling there a hundred years ago.

Even after the oil industry attracted non-Muslims to the kingdom, Saudi rulers took extensive measures to preserve the Wahhabi culture that to this day greatly restricts their subjects' exposure to non-Muslim religions. For example, Saudi Arabian police prevent Saudis from attending non-Muslim religious services held in foreign embassies and anyone who conducts any Christian services in a private home if even a small group attends faces arrest and possible deportation. Last September, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention (the former name of the kingdom's religious police) arrested 27 people after a "house turned into church" was raided and copies of the Bible and musical instruments were seized.

Oman's Religiously Inclusive Political and Economic Systems

Unlike Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where Sunnis have a hold on political authority and enjoy higher standards of living than the kingdoms' Shi'ite subjects, Oman's Shi'ites (who constitute five percent of the national population) wield disproportionately strong political and economic influence.

Oman's largest and wealthiest Shi'ite group is the Lawatiyya, a group which migrated to Oman from India in the 18th and 19th centuries and is concentrated in Muscat and Muttrah. Members of Oman's Lawatiyya community hold large shares in the National Bank and Petroleum Development Oman (the country's main oil and gas company), and they have large family businesses, such as the W.J. Towell Group. Being well versed in English and a variety of Asian languages, the Lawatiyya are said to be Oman's most educated group. Prominent members of this Shi'ite community are high-ranking figures in the government, holding positions such as members of the Diwan of the Royal Court, cabinet ministers, and ambassadors to Western countries. The Baharna--a smaller Shi'ite group of only several thousand that came to Oman from Bahrain, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia within the past several hundred years and is concentrated in Muscat--also play prominent roles in the economy. Several have served as prime minister, minister of health, and ambassador to the U.S. and France.

Yet the perceived threat of Iranian meddling in the sultanate has led to a degree of regime-Shi'ite tension. Certain officials have expressed concern about the Omani Shi'ites' loyalty to the sultanate, accusing certain Shi'ite sheikhs of pro-Iranian tendencies and criticizing Shi'ite citizens for making charitable donations to Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Officials in Muscat have at times denied visas to religious figures from Iran seeking to enter Oman and they monitor foreign Shi'ite leaders in the sultanate to ensure that they deliver religious--not political--messages.

However, Omani Shi'ites' loyalty to the nation is questioned far less than their counterparts in other Arab nations, where Shi'ite communities are often accused of succumbing to Iranian influence and are treated like a "fifth column." In Oman--where Hezbollah has no established branch and there have been no reported cases of Shi'ites travelling to Syria to fight along the Assad regime--transnational Shi'ite movements have failed to garner significant influence over Oman's Shi'ite minority even during the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, which inspired Shi'ite revolts in other Gulf Arab monarchies.

A Valuable Lesson for all Arab Nations

The ideologies and agendas of Daesh, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other extremist groups continue to strike a chord among segments of the hardline Salafist communities in the region. Recent suicide bombings at Shi'ite mosques and murders of expatriates orchestrated by Daesh-affiliated organizations in the GCC, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen evidence this reality.

As Daesh sets its sights on the GCC, having carried out and/or inspired recent attacks in Kuwait City, Riyadh and the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchs appear to be coming to terms with the rising threat that the group poses to the Council. Recent rhetoric on the part of political and religious leaders in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia indicates a growing realization that their kingdoms' own sectarian issues make them easier targets for Daesh and other extremist groups. As Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative Wahhabi religious establishment has routinely delivered anti-Shi'ite messages, the kingdom's own social order is largely responsible for creating an environment in which the extremist worldviews of Daesh and AQAP have a strong appeal among Saudis who support of these groups' hardline ideologies and agendas of toppling the GCC's ruling families.

Oman's success in terms of preventing their young subjects from leaving the sultanate to fight with global jihadist networks on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, or waging "lone wolf" attacks in the Gulf Arab nation, is a notable achievement given the thriving success of such groups in the region. Much of this success can be attributed to the nature of Oman's foreign policy and the manner in which the nation has managed its own society. Other Arab states can learn from Oman that the best way to prevent foreign meddling in their internal affairs is to accommodate all ethnic and religious groups to avoid granting outsiders opportunities to exploit tensions between regimes and historically marginalized communities.

Giorgio Cafiero is the co-founder of Gulf State Analytics