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What can bind the Middle East

Shift in thought

As a rift opens between Arab states, adding to the region’s conflicts, Oman can possibly serve as neutral party. The small Gulf country relies on a brand of Islam that teaches unity and tolerance.

Sultan Qaboos, second right, receives Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, left, at Al Alalam Palace in Muscat, Oman, March 12, 2014.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

Yet another crisis has struck the Middle East. Four Arab states led by Saudi Arabia have cut ties with Qatar over accusation the tiny Gulf kingdom supports terrorism. The intra-Arab rift comes on top of four armed conflicts in the region, ongoing tensions over Israel and Iran, and struggles against terrorist groups. As these problems pile up, the Middle East is in need of a country that can be a calm center, perhaps even a model and mediator.

Outside powers, such as the United States, often fail in that role. And while young people in the region increasingly seek peace and liberty, their voices are still largely stifled by their rulers. The one Middle East country that has a history of acting as a neutral arbiter with a message of peaceful coexistence is Oman.

This small country, ruled for decades by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al‑Said, certainly has strategic interests to act as a middle man. It borders Saudi Arabia and lies just 35 miles across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran. With much less petroleum wealth than its neighbors, it must welcome trade and ties with countries that are often at odds with one another.

Because of an independent foreign policy, Oman has hosted an Israeli prime minister, helped bring the US and Iran together for talks, and sought peace in the current war in Yemen. It carefully chooses sides, if at all, in Middle East disputes. With this latest crisis between Qatar and other member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Oman could play a pivotal role.

Since the 1990s, Oman has been home to a desalination research center that brings Israelis and Arabs together. Its women enjoy more opportunities and freedom than in most other Muslim countries. And no Omani has been convicted of a terrorist crime.

Yet beyond national interests, Oman practices peacemaking because of its dominant brand of Islam called Ibadhi, which straddles the region’s religious divide between the Sunni and Shiite branches. Ibadhi Islam teaches unity and inclusivity among Muslims. In Oman, where the regime controls Islamic institutions, other religions enjoy far more freedom than in neighboring states. Its government is largely nondemocratic yet its society is relatively egalitarian.

All these characteristics have given it respect as a mediator, or at least neutral territory for adversaries to talk. In a region known for its violence and export of terror, such a country should be honored and supported for its ability to see beyond conflicts and to balance interests, opening the possibilities for peace.

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