Small Wars Journal

Why Oman's Confiscation of Al Shehhi Property Threatens the Integrity of the GCC

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 12:28pm

Why Oman's Confiscation of Al Shehhi Property Threatens the Integrity of the GCC

Irina Tsukerman


With the ascension to power of the 65-year old new Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq Al Said on January 11, 2020, following the passing of his predecessor Qaboos after an illness, questions arose about the direction the Gulf country would take under the new head of state. Specifically, the two major questions that arose were whether Oman would continue growing closer to Iran and Qatar, while threatening the delicate balance within the GCC, and whether it would take any drastic measures to diversify its economy away from oil dependency or instead continue to rely on increasing Iranian business presence, despite US sanctions against a variety of Iranian industries and entities.

Shortly before his passing, Sultan Qaboos had met with Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman; this highly unusual visit by the highest ranking Saudi defense official in a long time allegedly included a discussion concerning the Yemen border issue.  The ongoing allegations, which resurfaced under former US Defense Secretary Mattis inluded Oman's role in facilitating the travel of Iran-backed Houthi separatists via its territory to the Islamic Republic, and back, armed with weapons. Houthis and organized crime elements have been known to smuggle fighters and contraband across Oman long before Saudi Arabia engaged in war with Yemen in 2015. Reports of the smuggling of sophisticated weapons to the Houthis that have been consequently used to attack Saudi territory have been provided by Western and Iranian officials to the public for years.

Nevertheless, open admissions of such activity by Iranian officials did little to attract attention or to exert pressure for transparency and cessation of such activity on Oman whether by the other members of the GCC or by the United States.  GCC was hard-pressed to highlight internal issues in public. Any criticism of Oman by those living inside the GCC could lead to undesirable security tensions between the member states, so the governments have looked with disapproval on such discussions in public until relatively recently when Westerners started highlighting Oman's role in facilitating Iran's backing of the Houthis. Whatever sparked this  particular visit and whatever the outcome of that discussion, two months later the Sultan was dead.

His death, however, did not resolve any of the issues as it becomes increasingly apparent that in the short-to-medium term, at least, Sultan Haitham will not veer too far off from his predecessor's course of action both in foreign policy, and domestically.  In his first public comment follow his ascension to the throne, the new ruler affirmed his continued foreign policy course in terms of a close relationship by Iran, which had invested financially and militarily into Oman and for which any deterioration in the relationship would be a blow to advancing its regional agenda. While the world has been dealing with the corona virus related disruptions and crisis, the speculation over whether that relationship will be affected by opportunistic pressure from UAE or Saudi Arabia, continued. Oman's nearly open borders with Iran, however, remained so even after the outbreak of the pandemic, and in failing to take measures to isolate itself from Iran, which has been one of the worst hit countries, Oman demonstrated its continued commitment to that relationship despite risks to its own population and to fellow GCC members.

Oman/Qatar/Iran and the Houthis

Belatedly Oman has banned citizens from traveling to Iran and also banned non-GCC visitors; however, much of travel to and from Iran is informal and done without visas, so such travelers may pass undetected. While tourism and informal business visits between the two countries may have deteriorated, intelligence and military exchanges may continue covertly. Along with Qatar, and Kuwait, Oman has increasingly aligned itself politically with Iran, in contrast to the so-called anti-Terrorism Quartet (ATQ or A4), consisting of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain. Although as part of the GCC, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait have claimed to be "neutral" and to balance their relations with the rest of the security bloc and with Iran, in reality, Iran's agenda in the region has been a direct threat to that ATQ.

Thus, the actions of the "neutral" countries that have empowered, enriched, or legitimized Iran or in any way advanced its agenda against any of the ATQ members has been seen as hostile and untrustworthy. After the imposition of the boycott against Qatar in 2017, the ATQ has been more open in criticizing Qatar's political, intelligence, and military actions that appear to be in line with Iran or which had facilitated any hostile action against other GCC members.  The critique of Oman's policies in Arabic until recently remained relatively rare and largely off limits as a matter of public discussion.

The political bloc of Oman, Qatar, and Iran is working together to legitimize Houthis politically and to facilitate Houthi leadership travel to Iran, as well as training for the fighters. All of that serves to benefit Iran's agenda in the region and undermines the GCC even as GCC was created to counter jointly Iran's security threats to the Gulf Arab states in the 1980s. Given that Oman has a historic relationship with Iran that survived the Islamic Revolution, and despite occasional setbacks, blossomed under the Islamic Republic, perhaps the GCC from the start was a flawed security mechanism that could never be a sufficient response to Iran's planned aggression.

However, with time, as Iran became increasingly openly expansionist in promoting the Khomeinist revolution abroad (more accurately, less of a revolution and more of a systematic, planned takeover of smaller weaker countries with substantial Shi'a population), the ability of countries aligned fully or partially with Iran, to interfere with the purpose of the GCC and thus endanger the individual security of member states, calls into question the raison d'etre for the coalition.

Was the GCC Doomed to Failure from the Start?

"The purpose of the GCC is to achieve unity among its members based on their common objectives and their similar political and cultural identities, which are rooted in Arab and Islamic cultures".

The definition of the Gulf Security Council points to the inherent problems. Despite certain similarities between the Arab Gulf States, both political objectives, and on some level, cultural differences and identities are vast, perhaps insurmountable. Most of the Sunni majority states, for instance have an inherent suspicion of Ibadi-led Oman, which has a history of discriminating against its Sunni population. Some tribes in Oman have traditionally recognized their own sheikhs and have been reluctant to align with centralized governments whether in the territory that became modern day Oman or in the nearby emirates.  UAE is a confederation with diverse approaches to economy and politics.

Dubai, for instance, has been significantly dependent on trade with Iran, and for that reason has been accused of turning a blind eye to Iranian proxies' illicit activities, circumvention of sanctions against Iran, and assorted forms of smuggling and contraband. By contrast, Abu Dhabi, though it has shown certain flexibility in negotiating with Iran on minor issues, has been much more suspicious of the Islamic Republic, and its proclivity to align with movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and UAE's regional rival, Qatar in an effort to achieve its goals through effective regional alliances. Bahrain, a frequent victim of Iran's aggression, has a significant Shi'a population, a portion of which (mainly the families hailing from Saudi Arabia's East) has been susceptible to Iranian influence campaigns and ideological outreach.

And over time, GCC has become as much of an economic trade bloc as a security coalition, which created its own problem in disentangling member states from problematic economic relationships outside the needs of the Coalition as an entity. These economic decisions ultimately become security tools, particularly if the trade benefits "rogue actors" or destabilizing non-state organizations which the rest of the coalition perceives as the threat. Qatar took the most openly "independent" path by aligning closely with Tehran, welcoming the Muslim Brotherhood, and allegedly funding various terrorist/jihadist cells in Syria and Libya. According to some reports, Qatar had also funded Houthis and Muslim Brotherhood entities in Yemen, even as it had joined the Saud-led Arab Coalition in Yemen to put down the Iran-funded Houthi uprising, which expanded against the internationally recognized government to attacking Saudi territory.

When the boycott by some of the GCC states and other countries was imposed against Qatar in June 2017, this not so much "created" a rift within the coalition as recognized the existing and ongoing realities. Whether the economic measures meant to pressure Qatar to change its pattern of behavior and to move away from problematic alliance was ever in itself sufficient is debatable. However, what is clear is that the status quo inside the GCC had to change fundamentally for the coalition to continue without presenting a greater security threat to each individual state. Open borders among the states may have been good for promoting tourism, trade, and various aligned activities but in cases of troublesome actors aligned with Iran or aggressive non-state actors, this policy facilitates smuggling and creates additional opportunities for assorted subterfuge.

Recognizing this issue, the boycott against Qatar was meant not only to rile in the tiny, but disproportionally wealthy state (with the highest per capita income in the world and only approximately 300,000 citizens), but also to send a message to other members engaged in similar policies - namely Oman, which up until this point has gotten away with these activities due to hosting multiple US bases and by staying below the radar, and to a lesser extent, to Kuwait. The limited effect these measures have had on Qatar did not deter Oman from continuing to pursue the same direction. The more "independent" a security path member pursue apart from the general foreign policy "lines" of the coalition, the more they endanger the goal of the coalition and fracture it. It is not the boycott against Qatar that caused the rift, but Qatar's path of enabling organizations, entities, and countries that were perceived as an existential threat to other members of the coalition.

Coalitions only work if the members work to address common challenges in some unified way, otherwise they only undermine independent interests of individual members. Qatar, Oman, and to a lesser extent Kuwait, perceived their interests and opportunities as small countries to be in contrast to the GCC overall scheme. Perhaps GCC has never been and certainly never is now a framework that can ensure the goals and safety of its members. Increasingly, rather, it makes more sense to define security goals along the lines of being pro the Iran bloc or against it, and take members based on the ability to adhere to this common goal rather than questionable cultural, religious, or unrelated political commonalities.

The second way, GCC's vulnerabilities have come into the light is the ideological agenda of its |pro-Iran members with respect to using the GCC status as a way of pressuring other countries, such as the United States, to intercede on their behalf for the sake of "preserving the integrity" of the GCC, which actually does nothing to heal the seemingly insurmountable divide (the ATQ members of the GCC see Iran's aggression and Muslim Brotherhood proliferation as existential goals, the pro-Iran members see them as advantages to be exploited).

Additionally, of course, in the event that some members may be involved in facilitating or covering up aggression by Iran against other member states and their interests, hiding behind the GCC name shields them from additional scrutiny by outsiders and absolves them from any investigation and accountability for the involvement in these acts. So long as Oman and Qatar are perceived as indispensable members of the coalition, the United States will continue to justify overlooking their anti-GCC policies. If, on the other hand, these countries are expelled from the coalition and are seen as independent states that are causing problems for a group, greater pressure may be warranted to force them back in line. However, so long as both countries continue housing US bases, that is unlikely to happen.

That may be true of any coalition that is based primarily along ethnic or religious lines rather than specific narrow goals. Even among culturally similar countries there are significant tribal, religious, and political distinctions that the focus on common identity rather than common goals can aggravate beyond normal such differences in any group effort. Furthermore, when that is coupled with taking in members who have openly defied a rigid concern about Iran from the moment they joined, the coalition is bound to become, sooner or later, inoperable. Qatar's unwillingness to meet any of the thirteen goals demanded by the ATQ and ultimately making a joke out of the annual GCC meeting showed that Qatar's interests lie not with the group agenda, but primarily with the individual interests of its own government.

Oman has been less obvious about its priorities, but its political actions point in the same direction.  Unlike Qatar, Oman has not invested as heavily into lobbying efforts in Western countries, but it has done fairly well with convincing the media of its overall benevolence and has managed to downplay the role it has played as an ally to Iran by reframing the discussion as a line of neutrality and as an objective mediator which is willing to talk with all parties. Furthermore, Oman ultimately did retain some of the same lobbyists as Qatar, given that the issues, agendas, voting interests of the pro-Iran portion of the GCC largely align. The distrust over this line of policy cannot be ignored within the GCC, however.

Whatever the case may be in the near future, the coalition will have to be rethought or face collapse so long as Qatar and Oman can facilitate Iran's operations with impunity. For now, both countries continue to grow their economic ties with the Islamic Republic, and whether as a condition or as a natural repercussion of working closely with Iran in various financial sectors, both continue to find ways to damage their opponents inside the coalition. Oman, in particular, even uses domestic agenda to demonstrate strength and to elbow the neighboring UAE.

The Al-Shehhi Tribe as a Bridge Between Oman and UAE

Oman has used the oppression of its Sunni population which resides largely in the strategically vital Musandam region in pursuit of several goals:

  • As punitive measure against dissenters and critics of government policy and to deter potential rebellions
  • To drive out the population and liberate the oil-rich strategic space for government use and additional base building, such as with the United States and Iran
  • As a power play against Oman's anti-Iran GCC neighbor, UAE.

Musandam province is a peninsula marked by jagged, rough mountains which has made it strategically difficult to conquer. The Al Shehhi tribe populating this area largely focuses on fishing and farming and has in the past migrated back and forth between Musandam and the nearby Emirate of Sharjah. The tribe has been known for its opposition to both Sharjah and Omani rule; after Britain assisted Sultan Qaboos with coming to power, they became a unique challenge in his attempt to impose state-sovereignty on the area. Musandam is a geographical bridge between UAE and Oman; the Al Shehhi tribe is the cultural one. They speak a unique Arab dialect (Hamriya), which dates back to pre-Islamic rulers in Arabia,and are Sunni. Al Shehhi share in many cultural customs with other Gulf Arabian tribes, but at the same time have unique tradition of choosing rules, tribal power sharing, distribution of goods, methods of government, and mediation/arbitration and problem solving. Al Shehhi, also known as Al Shuhuh, have also suffered human rights abuses and discrimination under the Ibadi rule.

On the one hand, the tribe was a trade bridge between the emirates. On the other hand, their distinct cultural and religious identity proved a challenge to Sultan Qaboos's efforts to impose uniformity as he builds up the country. Furthermore, their presence in the oil-rich part of the Oman presented a potential obstacle to the hoarding of the country's wealth through government-cronyism, which eventually became a widespread practice, which mired much of the country (not just the Al Shehhi) in poverty. Furthermore, the proximity of potentially troublesome population to a neighboring state with significant policy differences has been treated by the Omani ruler as a security challenge, to be addressed through suppressive measures. Several Emirati "spy rings" consisting of Al Shehhi tribe members have been allegedly uncovered during the Arab Spring and in subsequent years, and all outreach to foreign human rights organizations and complaints about human rights abuses have likewise been treated as espionage and subversion.

Operation Inter-Dawn Paves Way to Sultan Qaboos' Contemporary Military Alliance with Iran

The critical point in turning the entire tribe into being viewed as a prospective enemy happened in 1970, during the events of the so-called Operation Interdawn (the following comments are based on reviewing documents from the British military archives).

The British Occupation was Aimed at Maintaining Pro-British Status Quo

In late 1970, a group of approximately 70 members of Al-Shehhi tribe and assorted other groups rebelled against the imposition of control by Sultan Qaboos. There was also speculation at the time that the group was likewise opposed to the authority of the Emir of Sharjah. A portion of the group consisted of the residents of Sharjah and other emirates and the rest were their counterparts in Oman. The Sultan had reached out to the British requesting military intercession. The British dealt with putting down with the small group as if itw ere a full-fledged military campaign. The factors that contributed to that reaction included:

  • The complexity of the formidable terrain which made it extremely difficult to conduct reconaissance and find the dissident group, much less operate.
  • The concern about the public reaction by the Arab states at the United Nations and public outrage against the British for bringing in troops from Bahrain and their bases in Oman, which could be considered as British interventionism. The assessment  was that most of the Arab states at the time were in disarray and were unlikely to do significantly more than make some noise. Iran, however, which is also a close neighbor to Musandam, was likely to be concerned because of its own interest in the area and relationship with Oman, and Iraq backed the dissidents.
  • British own interest in Omani oil, as well as close relationship with the Sultan, who was brought to power by Britain. The British were also tangentially concerned by the impact this uprising could have on regional stability, and particularly on Sharjah.
  • The backdrop to the story included the tensions between Saudis,  various Emirates, and Omanis over oil-related disputes and territory. These were never completely resolved and would later resurface, but in the context of the Al Shehhi-led uprising, they presented both an additional opportunity and a challenge for the British and the Sultan. The challenge for the British was that the involvement of British forces would ultimately embarrass the Saudis. On the other hand, it was an opportunity to engage with the Saudis, and possibly exercise some control over the resolution of the territorial disputes.  For Sultan Qaboos, there was the issue of balancing pan-Arabist sympathies against Saudi calculation on which outcome to this rebellion would carry the best circumstance for Saudis to retaining control over the territories and oil in the bigger disputes.  It is in part for that reason that the British pushed to minimize any uncertainty in the geopolitical context and to ensure that Saudis and Emirati emirs would be positioned to negotiate only with Sultan Qaboos ad not any independent tribes or other autonomous entities.

It is for that reason that the British narrative of outreach to the Prime Minister for the authorization of the operation and to various Arab States pushed highly dramatic and unlikely scenarios. The essence of the claim was that this group of 70 had an intention of assassinating the Sultan, possibly presented danger to the life of the Emir of Sharjah, and could lead to prolonged destabilization in the region. The political concerns were significantly less likely to come to fruition than the logistical challenges of intelligence gathering, locating the dissidents, and winning over the rest of the tribe. Part of the plan that was supposed to address both issues included buying off the Sheikh who led the effort, and bring in Psyops and Hearts & Minds forces to take care of the rest of the Al Shehhi population. Why did the British have to pretend to be so concerned about such a small group of people, even taking the difficult terrain into accounting?

First, there was a concern that the rebellion would spread to the rest of the Musandam population and beyond into Sharjah and wherever else the Al Shehhi resided. Second, this would help the British and the Sultan pave way for long-term measures of imposing control following the put down of the uprising.  That's precisely what happened.

The British had moved in to occupy the territory aggressively; a number of Al Shehhi dissidents were killed in the resistance; others were consequently assassinated through suspicious car accidents and in simulated drowning accidents.

The Sultan moved to claim the territory in a harsh and all-encompassing way. These measures included:

  • Erasure of cultural identity of the Al Shehhi through cultural decrees
  • Take over and confiscation of land and buildings to pave way for government structures, 94and future bases by various foreign governments including the US and Iran.
  • Decrees confiscating private property: a list of Shehhi family property owned for extensive periods of time shows dates of confiscations and whether or not any structures ultimately replaced that property. In many cases, nothing was built in the aftermath, and these confiscations were done to make a point of enforcing existing decrees.
  • Destruction of historic Al Shehhi forts to be replaced by government constructed edifices. This served to send a message/teach a lesson and at the same time to signal the power of the central government and to enforce uniform cultural identity.

To that effect, Oman moved to nationalize the following critically important territories:

Bukha: Bukha is a mountainous area along the sea, once known for a castle with a watch tower against raids from neighboring territories.  It also had a number of residential dwellings. All were demolished; Sultan Qaboos ultimately built a military base in that area, denying the Al Shehhi fishers access to the fishing area and undermining local economy. This expropriation took place under the Royal Decree of the Sultanate of Oman # 1958/94, totaling 10 hectares. No compensation was given to the community.

The village of Dara and Tubat were expropriated under the Royal Decree of the Sultanate of Oman # 19/2018, under what amounts to a form of discriminatory eminent domain practice aimed at disenfranchising a particular population as much as at making the land available for some public benefit. In this case, the land was used to build an industrial project, which was of limited utility to the majority of the local population who are farmers and fishers.  Farms and personal dwellings were destroyed or expropriated with no compensation; families lost access to a source of income. Additionally, some of the land was taken through direct seizure, not requiring any decrees, for the purpose of building military installation. Since Musandam is a geopolitically important province, the majority of military installations and bases are hosted there; the other reason, for the build up includes preventing Oman's regional rivals and Al Shehhis from moving in to claim the territory (which arguably could belong just as easily to UAE).

Khasab area is a mountainous part of Musandam previously known for its farms and residential areas. However, many lands were seized by the government directly for the purpose of building military installations and bases. In the East, they were seized by the Ministry of Defense and in the west they were taken by the Omani Police and the Omani Air Force for the purpose of building a US base.

Jazirat Umm Al Ghanam is an island, historically used as a water well, an ecological reserve, and a grazing place for farmers' sheep. The security confiscated it for the purpose of establishing a military base and facilities for the US forces. The local population is permanently banned from approaching the area, which has weakened the local economy and undermined the economic well being of the families. All of these measures were intended to do exactly that, to prevent the restless population from having the means to challenge the central authority in any way.

Salama Island, one of the islands overlooking the Strait of Hormuz, is a strategic location surrounded by many other islands. It has been confiscated for the purpose of establishing a military base; local approaching it can be shot on sight. As detailed in a recent report on Oman's military and intelligence relationship with Iran, this area was dedicated to Iran and was likely used for various operations at the height of the oil tanker crisis in 2019.

Kebal Area is located 3km north of Lima, 2 km away from Khasab, in the south, is known as a Marine area, used by the local farmers for grazing sheep, fishing, cultivating and for its historic heritage of various ancient dwellings and the embossment. All of that was confiscated by Sultan Qaboos, and used to establish yet another military base, preventing the locals from even approaching the area.

Lima: Baha Lima included many lands privately owned by the Beni Obaid Al Shehhi and Beni Yahil families. These lands were seized by the government to establish a temporary crusher, destroying much of the local environment in the process. Ancient dwellings which belonged to these families were also expropriated; consequently when the government later cracked down on local dissenters in April 2019, two members of the family were arrested (several Al Shehhi members were accused of spying on behalf of UAE and sentenced to life imprisonment after torture).

Jabel Al-Harem is the highest mountain in the region, 2000 meters in altitude. The government built a huge military base there, preventing any residents from approaching; the opposite side of the mountain also contains an air force base. This and other locations are home to secret Iranian bases.

Al Rawda area belonged to the locals but was confiscated without any compensation to develop various military bases in Al-Qadd. Mountain dwellings and other private property were also taken. The government also established a military camp at the entrance of Wadi Baih, further confiscating the land, and evicting the locals from access to their dwellings or any use of the area.

Zighy: per Royal Decree # 84/2006, lands, farms, and private dwellings in this area were confiscated; fishing was banned. The government used the land to build a tourist hotel, evicting the locals and prohibiting them from living or doing business in the area. This measure was economically damaging, but also contributed to the loss of the cultural identity by the Al Shehhi.

The Old Karsha Area: Per Palestinian Decree # 4/2015, the coastal areas were seized for development towards tourist destinations and hotels. Various private property was confiscated, and locals were banned from fishing in the area. The decree also used the seized land to expand the Dibba port, and established security and military points.

The expropriation of 1 million square meters led to the expansion of the military camp in Khab Al Shamsi area, known for valleys, mountains, forest areas, and used for grazing sheep and for agriculture. In addition to the establishment of the army camp, the government used the seized land to build a police station and an internal security agency.

Dibba is a historic center since the pre-Islamic period, known for its market. The archeological market and Sibba Dibba (the castle) used for the laymen and merchants to gather for commercial and cultural reasons.In 1985, the Omanian government demolished the historical market, as well as the castle contributing to the cultural loss for the local community. This happened under the supervision of a CIA-affiliated company hired by Sultan Qaboos to develop the area and to ensure no resistance from the local population.

Royal Decree # 2018/29 was further issued to prohibit ownership of the land by non-Omani citizens in some area. It became an issue for the Emirati members of the Al Shehhi tribe who had historical claims to these lands and private property, and further contributed to dividing the tribe.

Some of the other historic forts and edifices that were demolished included the Al Ras Fort built in 1800 and demolished in 1971 located in the Bukha coast of Musandam, the Al Gharayeez fort built in Dibba in pre-Islamic era, and allowed to deteriorate due to government negligence and disinterest in maintaining any signs of the local heritage, the Soor Shamis gate, and many others.

Sultan Qaboos' Consolidation of Power Allowed Iran to Move In

Many of these measures were aimed at developing the relationship with Iran.  The country, once mired in poverty, looked to make income from trade with Iran in the 1980s just, as much as from its GCC neighbors, and from the military and trade relationship with the United States. What started out as a move to consolidate power and to assist in British in securing what they perceived as their overriding interests increasingly shifted towards other relationships. The confiscations which had allowed the United States and other Western countries to make use of Oman's strategic location for intelligence operations were then turned against them when Oman invited the Islamic Republic to move in and build military and intelligence bases, some of them clandestine, in the vicinity of the US bases and camps.

While some would describe the position of inviting the country's former enemies and would-be invaders as maintaining neutrality amidst Iran's tensions with the United States, Iran's expanding location in Oman can compromise the very sensitive operations that were once so advantageous to the United States and others. Furthermore, Sultan Qaboos' willingness to seize the land of the Al Shehhi with no confiscation did not stop at suppressing a minor uprising; it invited a backlash of dissent and criticism that never made it out in the public view until the Sultan began mass round ups and investigations of alleged spy rings in the wake of the Arab SPring.

A renewed wave of confiscations, more closely related to the blossoming relationship with Iran, the investments of which became essential for both parties in the wake of various sanctions imposed against Iran under George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and after withdrawal from the JCPOA, by Donald Trump, and in light of Oman's failure to diversify its economy, has its roots in the October 12, 2008 message sent by the Royal Office. This message # 656500 contained highly classified directives from Sultan Qaboos to the local authorities, ordering them to take immediate action against local lands and mountain houses, declaring them illegal properties, and identifying them by name.

All these properties were inherited from their ancestors by the Al Shehhi tribe. Sultan Qaboos, in that communication, specified that no citizen of the United Arab Emirates (even if a dual citizen with Oman) would have the right to ownership over these property. This naturally precluded many additional members of the tribe, some of whom retained property rights over dwellings and farms not previously seized, and others who are dual citizens. In effect, the Sultan dispossessed a significant segment of the tribe without any legal basis or compensation, clandestinely, before this order could be challenged in public.

Property Claims as a Human Rights Issue at the Center of Geopolitical Tensions between Oman, Iran, and UAE

At that point, UAE still maintained a relatively close relationship with Iran, but both Iran and UAE were mired in a dispute over some islands Iran took over in 1971 (while Sultan Qaboos was in the midst of putting down the Al Shehhi uprising).  The British had assisted Iran in that operation, against the interests of what was then known as the Unated Arab Republic. Given Britain's clandestine role in Oman, the sensitivity over that issue lingered.  The British had the sensitive task of appearing to protect the Emir of Sharjah from the unlikely prospects of assassination by the Al Shehhi rebels, while simultaneously helping Iran seize Emirati islands. The importance of the island, of course, was strategic, as the three islands (Abu Musa, and Greater and Lesser Tunbs) were located in the middle of the Gulf shipping and oil tanker route near the Strait of Hormuz and in close proximity to Oman.

The British had taken control of those islands in the 1920s, by by 1971 the British were supposed to turn them over to Sharjah, since an Arab dynasty had ruled those territories for over two hundred years. Iran had disputed that decision, claiming historic rights to that territory. Britain had brokered a deal that would give Iran and Sharjah joint control over the islands. However, literally the day after the British left the region and two days before UAE was to become an official federation, the Iranian military moved in and took over the islands. Was this not foreseeable by the British? Was this an outgoing parting gift to Iran to ensure that the Arabs would not acquire too much power in the region? Regardless, given Iranian presence in the area and Oman's proximity to those islands, that gave Oman just one more reason to stick closer to Iran.

Add to that that the Ibadi-majority Omanians frequently preferred dealings with other regional minorities such as Shi'a, Oman's relationship with Iran had more legs than with the UAE which hosted a constituency of the Al Shehhi, which the SUltan found domestically problematic. From that perspective, siding with Iran meant ensuring an ally against not only UAE's own ambitions but any incursions and challenges in Musandam. Sharjah, on the other hand, maintained that the British essentially forced them to sign the memorandum of understanding under duress, that the agreement was invalid, and that the UAE ultimately had full rights to that territory (especially since Iran appeared to have violated the terms of agreement focused on joint control, rather than takeover by one party).

Although Iran secretly transferred over the control of two of the three islands some years later, the dispute was never fully resolved. The territorial proximity to Oman, which had frequently played the role of a negotiator, while also being similarly concerned about a potential invasion by Iran or UAE, made the situation particularly sensitive.  Was Oman already showing a more open sign of taking sides with Iran by taking this step and limiting the rights of Emirati citizens within Oman's borders? Whether or not that was the intention, that certainly was ultimately the effect. By contrast, meetings with Iranian officials were in Musandam were expanding, and Oman was increasingly turning a blind eye to Iranian smuggling operations in the area.

In 2008, Iran rejected Russian mediation and international arbitration over this issue as requested by UAE. The tensions were rising, but the countries, which were still friendly at the time still saw this as a problem that could be solved diplomatically. Meanwhile, Oman and UAE were dealing with their own dispute over strategic borderlands, which ultimately was not resolved and continues to benefit Iran. Ten years after the initial message sent to these local authorities, Sultan Qaboos issued a Royal Decree banning non-Omani citizens from owning agricultural land and real estate properties in strategic border areas. Of course, the Emiratis most affected by that decree are the Al Shehhi tribe. The greater geopolitical context here is that Iran has both direct and indirect access to Musandam and Dhofar, as well as various heritage sites. Over time, Al Shehhi and other Emiratis have purchased various additional lands in Musandam and Northern Oman. Part of the Mahra region in those areas was allegedly used by Iran to smuggle missiles to the Houthis in Yemen, further angering the Emiratis who are part of the Arab Coalition against the Iran-backed separatists. The same route had been used to smuggle anti-tank guided weapons.

Why Oman Views the Al Shehhi Tribes as a Weapon of UAE's Intelligence Agencies

In addition to trying to prevent Emiratis from acquiring new land, however, Sultan Qaboos had systematically worked to undermine Al Shehhi presence in the past ten years, essentially positioning the tribe to the rest of the population as an Emirati fifth column. In 2008, as part of the message, he moved to confiscate and destroy 400 mountain houses in the area, which had belonged to the Al Shehhi families for generations. The destruction of these dwelling was documented by Amnesty International in a report issue on 05/24/2019.  In the course of these confiscation over the following ten years after the issuance of reports, the government used force against the owners. For example, on 12/19/2016, the Omani authorities attacked some of the residents of the area, using tear gas to force them to evacuate the area. The concern was that otherwise, they would document the demolition of the houses and send the evidence to international human rights organizations.

Nevertheless, some of the locals managed to record what happened, so four individuals from the Al Shehhi were arrested, tried, and sentenced to several years' imprisonment. Consequently, and in part to send a message to the Emirati governments, the Omani authorities confiscated the property of additional families and demolished some old traditional houses built of rocks in the Jaradiya area of Madha near the borders of Fujairah and Sharjah. That is the area where Iranian smugglers are thought to pass their weapons and other contraband to the Houthis. However, this area is also important for other reasons. During the summer of 2019, several oil tankers were attacked by an unknown force thought to be an Iranian proxy or IRGC boats near Fujairah. These attacks or any other operations in the waters would have been in plain view from that strategic location. If Omanis were cooperating with Iran (and some of the tankers attacked were Emirati and Saudi), having the Al Shehhi tribe members as witnesses for what transpired was the last thing the Sultan wanted or needed. Following that incident, the Omani authorities engaged in a settlement with the Emirate of Sharjah that would cede the area to Oman in exchange for another area near Al-Madam area of Sharjah.

According to the terms of that agreement, the citizens of the two countries have the right to own their inherited homes; however, the Omani government has violated the agreement by preventing the inhabitants of the mountainous areas from claiming ownership and exercising dominion and control under the pretext that they would have a hard time reaching these homes given the rugged geography, that they could endanger their lives, and make it difficult for rescue missions to reach them. These are all Al Shehhi homes that have been in the families for centuries and are traditional dwellings; the owners have not had any problem reaching their homes in the past.

In November 2018, when Sultan Qaboos issued the Royal Decree # 29/2018, this decree largely overrode the terms of the agreement, with one of its articles prohibiting any person holding Emirati citizenship from owning property in Musandam, except if that person transferred ownership of that property to someone with Omani citizenship and holding an Omani passport. Of course, that had a devastating effect on the Al Shehhi tribe members because they had inherited their property and it had been passed down the generation; none of that property was transferred through a sale. In general, Omani authorities interpret the decree as prohibiting the purchase of any property in Musandam by any non-Omani passport holders. To that effect, there is a push to confiscate the property of the UAE citizens who are originally from Musandam but who migrated to UAE after 1971, as was the case with many after the British occupation. All of these people have deeds issued by the Omani government, through an official authority of the Ministry of Housing. Despite this clear evidence of ownership, the Omani government insists that since these individuals have relinquished their citizenship, or have obtained Emirati citizenship these documents are in essence null and void. They are forcing the the deed holders to transfer ownership to individuals with Omani passport or else have the property sold at public auctions, at low, below the market value, prices.

The number of these properties exceeds forty thousand ownership deeds distributed in Dibba, Khasab, Bukha Lima, Kamzar, Al-Rawda and all mountainous areas on the borders with the UAE. It is distributed between houses, farms, commercial buildings and rest houses, the price of which varies between two hundred thousand dollars, and some amount to more than ten million US dollars. These decrees and forced dispossession run counter to international law and rights of properties and inheritance. The relevant laws are the Convention of 1 August 1989 on the Law Applicable to Succession to the Estates of Deceased Persons, which is applicable even to non-contracting States. Under customary international law, private property, even of "aliens" cannot be taken without adequate compensation, whether it is done for the sake of some public benefit or not. Such protections are in place particularly if the state's actions are in contravention of the international law.

And as per Article 17 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property." Although this decree was supposedly issued in reaction to an alleged spy operation where four Emiratis (members of the Al Shehhi tribe) reportedly recruited an Omani, and the ban on property ownership was supposed to protect Omani interests against Emirati incursion, in practice it unjustly deprived innocent individuals of their rights without any proof of risk to Omani security and without due compensation. At the time, Oman pressured UAE to reveal names and identities of the Al Shehhi family members, threatening to publicize its findings otherwise and raising the possibility of an international scandal. Reportedly, Abu Dhabi had been concerned about the development of two ports in Duqm and Sohar, and had offered large sums of money to local Omani officials, via these alleged agents, in return for obstructing the completion of these ports.

Did the UAE Use the Al Shehhi Tribe to Spy on Oman?

The Duqm port consequently became of interest to the United States which had negotiated the rights to host aircraft carriers there as a way of pressuring Iran. It could also be expanded to host additional carriers and could give the US a leg up in its competition with China. In addition to everything else, China has invested heavily in Duqm, but as with all its other projects globally, and in furtherance of the BRI, China's "gifts" come at a cost of potentially trapping the host country in debt, which is exactly what happened with Sri Lanka and others. WHile Sri Lanka is looking for a way out of that arrangement, Oman perhaps could find its salvation in attracting the US as a rival investor. That too, could potentially hurt Emirati interests, as it is looking to expands its partnerships and attract investors having suffered through some challenging years economically, and having lost revenue from Saudi tourists and others who, in light of the reforms taking place inside the Kingdom, are more inclined to stay home.

The port is one of the two locations US had negotiated that gives it access to a strategic waterway. Given that these negotiations were ongoing at the time of the alleged spy operation, and that US presence in Duqm could only be advantageous to Abu Dhabi, which has taken a hard line on Iran, the story, as revealed by the regional press, hardly seems plausible.  Furthermore, obstructions of two strategic ports could only take the UAE so far, as these ports would be completed sooner or later. If anything, this deal threatened Iran-Oman relations, which is exactly what UAE would be hoping for. Still, if Oman's regional goals are to continue as a neutral mediator, and to attract assorted rivals: US, Iran, China, and India, for instance, among others, this diplomatic coup for Muscat could very well undermine UAE interests for the same reason Qatar's investment in the US lobby and eventual closeness with the Trump administration was an unpleasant development for the ATQ.  Prior to this deal, the White House downplayed the ongoing relationship with Oman, as it was perceived to be too close to Tehran; however, giving the US a way to pressure Iran helped Oman recover its perception as a neutral arbiter and was seen as a sign of good faith by the Trump administration.

At the same time, US has faced some minor challenges in its relationship with the UAE: first, over the concerns that some entities in Dubai have been engaging in unsanctioned trade with Iran, and second over UAE/Saudi tensions in Yemen, as well as UAE's role in the Gulf Crisis with Qatar, which US perceived as undermining the GCC integrity, and thus its value as an ally to the US against Iranian aggression in the region. In other words, while any increased US presence in the region is ultimately beneficial to UAE's concern about Iran, US choice to expand its relationship with Oman was a troubling signal to UAE that US was likewise willing to play all sides just so long as it got an opportunity to advance its agenda with Iran, so in addition to facilitating Oman's economic challenge to UAE, it also, through its renewed friendship, gave cover to Oman's ulterior motives in this stratagem, and shielded Muscat from scrutiny over the Houthis, increasing trade with Iran, and possible involvement in the attacks on tankers and other targets in the region.  The optics of this situation ultimately benefited Oman, who found leverage to pressure UAE over the Al Shehhi human rights activists, and even managed to secure the release of one of the accused spies into its custody under some neutral-sounding GCC-friendly pretext.

At the same time, however, Oman's overarching goal with the port was to become a regional rival to UAE, both militarily and as a gathering place for international place, which could help diversity its economy.  Allegedly, Oman took its inspiration from Singapore in that regard, and sought to challenge UAE's dominance over the shipping field.  If, as Oman alleges, Abu Dhabi wanted to interfere with the construction of the ports, this would be largely out of economic rivalry. But would American presence outweigh the costs of the local competition?  Duqm would provide easy access to Asia, Europe, and Africa. Furthermore, other countries, including the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia could derive the political benefit of pressuring Iran.

The spy ring accusations were ultimately just another foreign policy tool to bring negative publicity to the UAE and to pressure it by turning several Emirati citizens into political hostages. But clearly Sultan Qaboos was concerned enough that he would risk endangering the relations with UAE over continuing Al Shehhi presence and ownership near the strategic areas. The political fallout from the Royal Decree could have been substantial. Among other things, this decision likely also infringed upon any relevant commercial or property-related treaties between the two countries and opened up Omani citizens living in UAE to possible reciprocal deprivations of rights. In reality, Sultan Qaboos revealed his concern about the possibility of Emiratis learning bout the extent of the military cooperation between Oman and Iran, in the relevant border areas, or else, that Al Shehhi relationship with UAE could compromise sensitive intelligence operations involving Houthis and Iran. Therefore, the concern was not so much about the compromise of Oman's national security interests as about the possibility of public revelation of Oman's lesser known clandestine efforts that benefit Iran and likely harm UAE security interests, and quite possibly that of other states in the region.

Oman's Human Rights Abuses Against the Al Shehhi Undercuts GCC Integrity

While Oman may very well claim that all the steps it has taken are nothing more than the protection of its own interests against external third parties such as the UAE, ultimately, its heavy handed tactics and wholesale discrimination against Emiratis and all members of the Al Shehhi tribe is overbroad and unjustifiable.  Presenting nothing more than foreign policy differences and political tensions with the UAE as "evidence" of subterfuge has become an excuse for Oman's own aggressive courting of Iranian influence, which far outweighs whatever advantage US has gained out of gaining access to the waterways. As recent events have shown, the administration, even with that leverage, is reluctant to engage in anything more than defensive and intelligence gathering maneuvers against Iran, even as it has engaged in aggressive attacks against members of GCC, including, more directly, Saudi Arabia.

Whether that access is ultimately of value when Iran may be planning additional such attacks right under the nose of the US forces in the nearby military bases remains an open question; furthermore, many of the US concerns about Iran's growing threat would have been put to rest without the necessity of having to increase its presence and invest into Oman's ports if Oman had been willing to secure its borders against Iran and to work closely with the UNited States to protect against smuggling of sophisticated weapons to the Houthis. If in the 1970s and 80s, Oman could use the excuse of the threat of invasion by Iran to explain away this dubious cooperation, with numerous US bases and copious Western intelligence in the vicinity, this excuse no longer has any validity. Oman is creating the very headache it then wants the US to cure.

Ultimately, if the United States wants to see a strong united GCC, Oman's actions are not the way to achieve that goal. Oman has undermined and undercut both the strategic goals of the coalition by providing Iran with access to clandestine bases and lying or covering up these developments to every member of the ATQ, and by playing an aggressive role in undercutting individual member states, which makes running a coalition effectively nearly impossible. While Muscat diplomats may claim that their pinpricks to the UAE are nothing more than a limited deterrence measure against the violations of Oman's national sovereignty and territorial integrity, the reality is UAE, while reluctant to admit in public, has every same such concern with respect to its own sovereignty and integrity after the HOuthis had threatened to attack its territory and UAE was pressured by Iran to minimize its role in the Arab Coalition. And Oman appears to be facilitating the forces that threaten UAE.  Muscat's duplicitous claims then hardly withstand scrutiny. If it wants to have a mutually respectful relationship with other GCC members, and if it wants to enjoy the trust and protection of the United States, it should stop engaging in actions that threaten the regional stability and security, take a stand with the rest of the GCC against Iran, and use whatever leverage it may have on Iran to pressure it to abstain from further aggression and to rethink its regional agenda.

If Iran runs out of proxies and facilitators, it will have no meaningful choice but to retreat from harassing and invading other countries. While Houthis continue to threaten UAE and Saudi Arabia, Oman not only stays silent but allows safe passage of Houthi leaders to Iran, and essentially gives a nod to the aggression against its neighbors. Whose side is it really on? Only Iran benefits from Oman's "neutrality". Only Iran makes gains when Oman allows smuggling. Only Iran increases in power when Oman legitimizes its actions by staying silent when it attacks Saudi and Emirati tankers, or uses proxies to attack civilian airports in KSA. GCC members states are obliged to stay silent and cannot openly admit to, much less, rebuke Oman for its shameful, inconsistent, and unfriendly role, while Oman uses this silence from GCC members to gain legitimacy with the United States. None of that benefits anybody except Iran, and if the United States, wants to see GCC succeed as a concept, it must do what the ATQ members cannot and either pressure Oman to return to the fold, or work with the rest of the coalition to restructure within the context of a new reality, that shines the light of the new reality: that Oman has been with Iran the entire time, and has been a member of GCC only for its own advantage, and to use this members as cudgel to silence its regional critics.

About the Author(s)

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security lawyer and analyst, who has written extensively for a variety of domestic and international publications on strategy, geopolitics, and security in the MENA region. Her work has been translated to many languages, including Arabic, and she has been interviewed and cited in a variety of Arabic-language media. Follow Irina on Twitter @irinatsukerman.



Thu, 04/27/2023 - 4:37pm

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