Oman, Gaza and the Red Sea: Why Omanis are turning against the West

By Joe Gill

The mood in Muscat these days, as encountered on a recent visit, is decidedly anti-western. The US- and UK-backed war of Israel against Palestinians in Gaza has, as in other Arab countries, turned popular opinion against the Gulf sultanate’s western allies.

“The problem with the western countries is they paint an image of Arabs and Muslims as bad people. This is not fair,” said Qassim, a car repair workshop owner from Muscat, who also blamed the US for arming Israel in its war on Palestinians.

Lina Shehadeh, a Palestinian living in Oman who wears her keffiya proudly over her right shoulder, says: “Palestine is deeply rooted in Omanis, it’s not a fad that just started today. When you talk to Omanis, all of them say that’s what we learnt in kindergarten, the Palestinian map and flag is imprinted, they teach them that – you see pictures of kids drawing the flag [at school].” 

In November, videos circulated of a private school in Muscat, where boys took part in military drills wearing the green uniform and world-famous headband of Hamas’ military wing Al Qassam brigades, with dozens of staff watching reverently. The boys each carried a wooden replica assault rifle as they stood in lines and marched in the school yard.

The most outspoken senior figure voicing popular views about the war in Gaza is Oman’s grand mufti, Sheikh Ahmad bin Hamad al-Khalili. In November he welcomed the Houthis’ seizure of a cargo ship in the Red Sea. 

Khalili said in a post on X that he supports the Houthis’ struggle and called on “the entire brotherly Yemeni people to rally around this great religious principle in support of the oppressed and persecuted among our brothers [in Palestine].”

This is not the Omani government position, which as a western-backed Gulf state maintains unofficial but longstanding ties with Israel. But the mufti is one of the most popular figures in the country, and his pronouncements on the Gaza war and the Houthi blockade of the Red Sea are aligned with large segments of popular opinion.

The power dynamic between the new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, who came to power on the death of Sultan Qaboos bin Sayid in 2020, and the mufti, who has been in position for decades, gives the latter a degree of independence from the government, observers say. His strong pro-resistance statements have also gained popularity outside Oman. I approached the oman foreign ministry and the grand mufti’s office in Muscat for comment, but they declined.

A consumer economic boycott of western goods is popular and widespread in Oman, hitting the likes of Starbucks, Carrefour and McDonald’s. At the business level, the head of the Muscat stock exchange recently announced an investigation of listed companies for ties with Israel saying any that are found to have them will be banned from the exchange, he announced on X.

Oman’s rulers’ balancing act between maintaining its relationship with the West while giving vent to popular anger over the Gaza war has been reflected in a recent speech in Oxford by Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr al-Buseidi.

Al-Buseidi said that like its neighbours, Oman was suffering the consequences of the crisis in Gaza, and a ceasefire was a humanitarian and strategic necessity, while calling for an emergency international conference to recognise a Palestinian state.

He said Hamas cannot be eradicated – as Israel has been discovering in five months of bombing Gaza to rubble: “Movements of national liberation like Hamas are too deeply rooted in their communities. Their cause will be kept alive however many militants die. So, if there is ever to be peace, the peacemakers have to find a way to talk to them. And to listen.”

The comments were clearly directed at Oman’s US and UK allies, which have proscribed Hamas and backed Israel’s war to eliminate the group from Gaza, which has failed to achieve its objective while killing more than 38,000 people according to Euro Med human rights monitor, mostly women and children.

Maintaining the UK alliance

On the surface relationships between the UK, the former colonial power, and Oman remain strong, with the UK building a new training base near Oman’s port of Duqm and expanding its naval base there. Next to the British base is the commercial container port, mostly being built with Chinese money.

While Oman has called for an end to Israel’s war in Gaza and opposed air strikes on the Yemeni Houthis, the country remains a key node in UK and US military presence in the Gulf.
Since 2021, the UK’s naval base in Duqm officially became the principal facility for vessels of the British Indo-Pacific task group, following a £23m upgrade of the facility first announced in 2020. A base in the nearby desert became the home of a UK training facility that was moved from Canada, and is now called the United Kingdom Joint Logistics Support Base (UKJLSB).

The UK remains the top investor in Oman, although this is predominantly in the oil and gas sector, where the UK has long enjoyed preferential rights for exploration and export oil and gas, thanks to its historic colonial influence in Muscat. 

By contrast, in trade terms, China is number one, with Oman exporting 80 percent of its oil and gas to China. Remarkably, the UK is no longer in the top 20 of trade partners with Muscat, according to Oman’s customs office trade figures from 2021, seen by this author.

More worryingly for the UK, Omanis I spoke to in Muscat said that British support for the Israelis’ destruction of Gaza since October has made “the UK one of the most hated countries in the world” among ordinary Omanis, alongside the US.

The number of mutual visits between Oman and the UK, by al-Buseidi to London, his counterpart David Cameron to Muscat, and then a “private” visit by Sultan Haitham to the UK in late February are a sign that both sides wish to ensure that tensions over the UK support for Israel’s war and its strikes on Yemen do not negatively impact this historic relationship. 

The mufti is not the only senior Omani figure who has spoken up about geopolitical shifts and criticised the West. At a meeting in Moscow between Oman’s de facto crown prince, Theyazin bin Haitham al Said, and Vladimir Putin in December, the prince, son of the sultan, said: “I share all your [Putin’s] assessments of the current international situation, primarily with regard to the need to end the current unfair world order and the dominance of the West, as well as to build a new fair world order, economic relations without double standards.” This was hardly reported in western media.

On 12 January when the US and UK launched their first air strikes on Yemen, Oman declared a no-fly zone for all western military aircraft en route to Yemen, Al Jazeera reported.

Oman’s role in Red Sea crisis

The Red Sea crisis places Oman in a special position regards maritime trade through the key shipping route along its coast and up through the Bab al Mandab strait into the Red Sea.

With western shipping, especially vessels from the US and UK, being targeted by Yemen’s Ansar Allah government, western-bound container ships are docking in Salalah, run by Danish firm Maersk, which has been using the southern Omani port to redirect a lot of its cargo. Shehadeh, who is vice president of communications at Oman ports company Asyad, says, “We know that a lot of ships, even if they don’t have direct ties with the US or other western nations, are stopping [in Salalah], they have a lot of trepidations to go through the Red Sea.”

In normal times ships would stop at Jeddah on their way up the Saudi Red Sea coast, but due to the crisis, Salalah is reportedly at full capacity and there is a lot of congestion at the port.“There are using Salalah for trans-shipment instead of stopping in Jeddah, it’s safer not to stop in the Red Sea …or to stop in Salalah or Sohar.” 

“Also there’s a lot of due diligence at least from a commercial side, that we look at which ships are stopping at Salalah… Any ships that are redirected to Salalah, we need to know.” 

Ships can go under flags of convenience in an attempt to hide ownership, as has been shown with Iran’s evasion of US sanctions for its oil exports.

Oman’s relationship with Ansar Allah in Sanaa is longstanding and so its shipping will not be targeted.

Omani officials hosted talks between the Houthis and Saudis helping to end the war in Yemen, accompanying the first public Saudi delegation to Sanaa in April 2023 and the first public Houthi delegation to Riyadh in September.

These days, unlike in the recent past, Oman and Saudi Arabia are in greater alignment over their regional positions, as in Yemen, where the Saudis reached a truce agreement with Ansar Allah in 2023 after eight years of war, and where Riyadh also sees eastern Yemen as a gateway for oil pipelines into the Indian Ocean.

Oman does not align with the UAE vision of controlling south Yemen through the separatist, Sunni forces in Aden, an Omani analyst explained. “They want it to be unified, and they don’t want a separatist group in the south.” Oman faced its own separatist uprising in Dhofar just over the border half a century ago.

Since their blockade of the Red Sea for all Israeli-, US- and UK-linked shipping and the US-UK air strikes against them, Ansar Allah in the north have become the most popular leaders in the Arab world, the Omani analyst explained.

How do young Omanis see the future, and how do they view the West in light of the Gaza war, US-UK air strikes on Yemen, and clashes in the Red Sea? The feeling that you can’t change things peacefully, that there is no justice, was created by the inaction of Arab governments, and the role of the US in supporting Israel’s brutal war, says the analyst. “It will have consequences, even in a country like Oman,” they said.

“Because official Arab governments do not do anything, and this is very dangerous…[The war in Gaza is] creating an atmosphere where you are making it very convincing that the only way to change this current unjust situation is to have a movement like the Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas – if you are not violent enough then no one will respect you, if you just try to be peaceful, there is no way that you will change anything.”

According to a January survey of Arab opinion on the war, most people in the region want their governments to boycott Israel and provide aid to Gaza. Moreover, most respondents (59 percent) are certain there is no possibility of peace with Israel.

That means war. “The same rhetoric that was spreading during the invasion of Iraq is coming back, it’s the same atmosphere where Isis became popular, where Hezbollah become popular in 2006 and after that all these figures … benefited from that atmosphere, which was created by these corrupted and weak governments, and by the support of the US, the feeling that you can’t change things peacefully.

“The whole world should be concerned about this situation, because it will have an aftermath and consequences.”

Joe Gill is a journalist Middle East Eye

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