Prior to the wave of Middle East unrest that began in 2011, the United States had consistently praised the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Sa’id Al Said, for gradually opening the political process without evident public pressure to do so. The liberalization has, to date, allowed Omanis a measure of representation but has not significantly limited Qaboos’ role as paramount decision- maker. The modest reforms apparently did not satisfy some Omani civil society leaders, youths, and others, because protests broke out in several Omani cities for much of 2011. The domestic popularity of Qaboos, some additional economic and political reform measures, and repression of protest actions, caused the unrest to subside by early 2012. High turnout in the October 15, 2011, elections for the lower house of Oman’s legislative body suggested that unrest—and the accelerated reforms launched in response—were producing a new public sense of activism, although with public recognition that reform will continue to be gradual. The first-ever municipal elections in Oman on December 22, 2012 furthered the sense of political empowerment among the electorate.
Perhaps because of Oman’s long-time commitment to an alliance with the United States, the Obama Administration did not alter policy toward Oman even though some of the 2011-2012 protests were suppressed and activists were arrested. Oman was the first Persian Gulf state to formally allow the U.S. military to use its military facilities, despite the sensitivities in Oman about a visible U.S. military presence there. It hosted U.S. forces during every U.S. military operation in and around the Gulf since 1980 and has become a significant buyer of U.S. military equipment, moving away from its prior reliance on British military advice and equipment. Oman is also a partner in U.S. efforts to counter the movement of terrorists and pirates in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. It has consistently supported U.S. efforts to achieve a Middle East peace by publicly endorsing peace treaties reached and by occasionally meeting with Israeli leaders in or outside Oman. It was partly in appreciation for this alliance that the United States entered into a free trade agreement (FTA) with Oman, which is also intended to help Oman diversify its economy to compensate for its relatively small reserves of crude oil.
The one significant difference between the United States and Oman on regional issues is Iran. Unlike most of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, Oman does not perceive a major potential threat from Iran. Sultan Qaboos has consistently maintained ties to Iran’s leaders, despite the widespread international criticism of Iran’s nuclear program and foreign policy. However, successive U.S. Administrations have generally refrained from criticizing the Iran-Oman relationship, perhaps in part because Oman has sometimes been useful as an intermediary between the United States and Iran. An August 2013 visit to Iran by Qaboos, which followed months and possibly years of quiet U.S.-Iran diplomacy brokered by Oman, may have paved the way for the November 24, 2013, interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the international community. Oman played the role of broker between Iran and the United States in the September 2011 release of two U.S. hikers from Iran after two years in jail there, and it reportedly is involved in efforts to obtain the release of other U.S. citizens imprisoned in Iran or in territory under Iran’s control. For further information on regional dynamics that affect Oman, see CRS Report RL32048, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses, by Kenneth Katzman.