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What Makes Oman Immune from Terrorist Groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State?

Oman Immune from Terrorist Groups - Motivations behind Oman's "immunity" to religious extremism
Bedouins gather at a beach in the region of al-Sharqiyya, in Oman. Tollerance and integration of other ethnicities and cultures is a unique feature of Oman’s society that has rendered it immune from religious extremism . Photo Hemis Creative and Travel Imagery

The United States launched all-out war on the al-Qaeda terror network in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world following the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. Afterward, many al-Qaeda files and recordings fell into the hands of US intelligence agencies. Such recordings showed al-Qaeda’s success in recruiting fighters, operatives, supporters, and effective members from almost all Arab states and even from outside the Arab world. The exception was one Arab country, the Sultanate of Oman, which remained clean and immune from this organization.

A comprehensive 585-page report was issued by the “9/11 Commission set up by the US Congress to examine the true causes of 11 September attacks.” The report shows that al-Qaeda was penetrating Arab countries, but it refers to Oman only once, on page 75. Here it states that Osama Bin Laden during his stay in Sudan was planning to establish an international organization, the members of which would come from all Arab countries, including Oman. But he failed to enter Oman or recruit any of its citizens.

Oman was immune not only from al-Qaeda penetration; the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria likewise failed to recruit any Omani citizens into its ranks, although IS has fighters and supporters from many Arab (and non-Arab) countries.

What is the secret that has kept Omanis beyond the reach of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, IS and allied organizations, especially those in Yemen, which shares a border with Oman? Why is Oman the only Arab country that has remained free of the sectarian and religious conflicts that are sweeping the Arab world?

Ibadi doctrine and principle of coexistence

According to many researchers, Omanis’ tolerance, coexistence, and invulnerability to extremism is attributable mainly to the Ibadi religious doctrine espoused by the majority of Omanis, which is seen as an orthodox Islam that is very cautious of extremist views and opinions.

The Ibadi doctrine emerged in the first Islamic century, in the Iraqi city of Basra, under scholars and political leaders of Omani descent such as Abdallah Bin Wahb al-Rasibi, Jabir Bin Zaid, Abdallah Bin Ibadi, and others. Jabir Bin Zaid is the spiritual leader of Ibadis and one of the most prominent founders of moderation in Islam, because he promoted a culture of tolerance, coexistence, and renewal amongst his followers and supporters.

Although the tolerance common amongst Omanis originates in the Ibadi doctrine, not all Omanis are followers of that doctrine, as there are also Sunnis, including followers of the Maliki and Shafii schools, and Shiites.

The question is, how did Omanis manage to avoid the religious and sectarian extremism that is sweeping fiercely across most Arab societies?

Modern Education the best way to fight extremism

US writer Nicholas Kristof said in an article that tolerance in Oman is also connected with the modernization policies adopted by Sultan Qaboos Bin Said after he took power in 1970, when Oman was the poorest and most miserable and isolated country in the Arab world. Kristof ascribed tolerance in Oman especially to “modern education,” which endorses no texts inciting extremism or hatred. Before 1970, Oman had only two schools, but modern public education has now become a high priority for Sultan Qaboos. Women had been completely excluded from schools before Qaboos took power and opened the doors wide for women to receive an education. According to Kristof’s article, “the best way to fight extremism is to give everybody full access to education.”

For his part, Saudi columnist Wail al-Qasim cites the important example of Oman as an exception and the ability of this country to stay clear of extremism and terrorism—specifically, as a result of the tolerance preached in the mosques of Oman. He points out that followers of all Islamic sects in Oman pray together in mosques. Each sect prays in its own way, unlike what is happening in several Arab other countries, where Sunnis pray only in Sunni mosques and Shiites only in Shiite mosques.

The Saudi writer also points out that Omani educational institutions teach children to “live in love, tolerance, and peace.” In this context, Oman produced a cartoon movie titled “We Are All Brothers” to teach children at an early age the concepts of coexistence, tolerance, and acceptance of others.

Modern civic education in Oman, which began 45 years ago, is based on intelligent and well thought-out government plans, and led to Oman’s success in the renunciation of extremism, and freedom from terrorism – according to Global Terrorism Index 2015. There is, however, another characteristic that distinguishes Oman from other Arab countries, especially in the Gulf region – its multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism.

Oman: Multiethnic, multicultural society

Omani society consists of different races, languages, and cultures that have coexisted for hundreds of years. This old coexistence has enabled educational and developmental policymakers today to create a favourable environment that is free of any type of exclusion. In Oman, inhabitants of Arab origin live with Omanis of Indian origin, as well as with fellow citizens of African origin. Omanis use the Arabic language alongside Swahili, Persian, Balochi, Urdu, Kumzai, and al-Shahri, and likewise arts represent the different cultures, such as Arab, African, Indian, and others. This distinctive, diverse structure is what has made this Arab country, located in the far eastern Arabian Peninsula, unique in its political and cultural approach to local components and to global cultural (religious and sectarian) components.

Tolerance inside, diplomacy outside

The coexistence enjoyed by the various segments of Omani society and the spirit of tolerance expressed in the Ibadi doctrine have made Omani foreign policy a special one. Consequently, this helped make Oman a neutral country that is approached by disputing parties in the region for mediation and reaching (peaceful) understandings. There are several examples of such Omani diplomatic efforts defusing tensions.

For instance, when the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) broke out, Oman refused to back Iraq against Iran and remained neutral, unlike most countries of the region. Towards the end of the war, Oman hosted secret talks between the governments of Tehran and Baghdad, culminating in a ceasefire and ending the eight-year war. After the end of the war, Oman also mediated diplomatically between Riyadh and Tehran.

In the Arab context, Oman departed from the position of most Arab countries regarding Egypt signing the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1979 – where most nations isolated and boycotted Egypt, Oman refused. Later, Oman served as a link between Egypt and various other Arab countries in a bid to restore normal relations amongst Arab states.

Likewise, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1991, Oman did not cut off diplomatic ties with Iraq and remained open to talks that may have helped end the crisis and avoid the apparently unavoidable war.

When Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries decided to involve themselves directly in the 2015 Yemeni conflict by forming a military alliance known as Operation Decisive Storm to end the influence of the Houthi Ansarallah group backed by Iran, Oman declined to participate and launched an initiative to resolve the conflict in Yemen instead.

Regarding the conflict in Syria, Oman has been trying to intervene in order to bring the differing views closer to end the five-year bloody conflict.

On the international scene, Oman’s most prominent mediation was its successful role in bringing closer the views of the West and Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear project, which culminated in the G5+1 signing the nuclear agreement in Vienna on 14 July 2015.

Attempts by “Political Islam”

Oman is free of links with al-Qaeda and IS, and the country has maintained the image of strong cohesion and peaceful coexistence amongst the different sects and other components of the Omani society. Nevertheless, there have been attempts in Oman by political Islamic groups to destabilize and penetrate the political landscape through secret organizations aiming to overthrow the regime.

In 1994, the government arrested a group of Sunni Omanis for attempting to overthrow the regime by armed forces. According to government statements, “members of the banned secret organization were influenced by a global one that had branches in Arab countries,” and that the organization had a presence in Gulf countries. This is a clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia at the time.

In 2005, Omani authorities revealed that an armed religious group that adhered to the Ibadi doctrine was planning to overthrow the regime by armed force. Omani security authorities also uncovered military training centres and weapon caches.

The information disclosed about the two attempts raised concerns in Oman about the possibility of destabilizing the country, but the situation has returned to normal, and Oman has managed to overcome the effects of the two brief incidents.

The questions now are, to what extent can Oman and the Omani people steer clear of the crises encircling the Arab region and extending from Libya to Yemen? How long can Oman continue to be a role model and an exception in the region?

The answer is that the Omani government’s policy of distancing itself and refusing to engage in any conflicts or wars in the region, as well as its keenness to play the role of mediator to defuse tensions will keep the country free of conflict and immune from the repercussions of religious and sectarian extremism.

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