Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
The Sultanate of Oman is a long-time U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf; it has allowed U.S. access to
its military facilities for virtually every U.S. military operation in and around the Gulf since 1980.
Partly in appreciation, the United States has forged a free trade agreement (FTA) with Oman.
Sultan Qaboos has been opening the political process slowly while managing an economy lacking
vast oil reserves. This report will be updated.
Introduc tion ............................................................................................................................... 1
Defense and Security Ties.........................................................................................................1
Cooperation With U.S. War Efforts/War on Terrorism.......................................................2
Oman’s Capabilities and U.S. Security Assistance.............................................................2
Democratization and Human Rights.........................................................................................4
Economic and Trade Issues.......................................................................................................6
Table 1. Recent U.S. Aid to Oman..................................................................................................3
Author Contact Information............................................................................................................7
Oman is located along the Arabian Sea, on the southern approaches to the Strait of Hormuz,
across from Iran. Except for a brief period of Persian rule, Omanis have remained independent
since expelling the Portuguese in 1650. The Al Said monarchy began in 1744, extending Omani
influence into Zanzibar and other parts of east Africa until 1861. A long-term rebellion led by the
Imam of Oman, leader of the Ibadhi sect (neither Sunni or Shiite and widely considered
“moderate conservative”) ended in 1959; Oman’s population is 75% Ibadhi. Sultan Qaboos bin
Sa’id Al Said, born in November 1940, is the eighth in the line of the monarchy; he became
Sultan in July 1970 when, with British support, he forced his father to abdicate. He is considered
highly popular, but his brief marriage in the 1970s produced no children and therefore no clear
successor. Succession would be decided by a “Ruling Family Council” of his relatively small Al
Said family (about 50 male members) or, if they fail to reach an agreement, by a succession letter
written by Qaboos prior to his death. The United States signed a treaty of friendship with Oman
in 1833, one of the first of its kind with an Arab state. Oman sent an official envoy to the United
States in 1840. A U.S. consulate was maintained in Muscat during 1880-1915, a U.S. embassy
was opened in 1972, and the first resident U.S. Ambassador arrived in July 1974. Oman opened
its embassy in Washington in 1973.
Sultan Qaboos, who is Sandhurst-educated and is respected as a defense strategist, has long seen
the United States as the key security guarantor of the region, although he also advocates
expanding defense cooperation among the Gulf states. Oman was the first Gulf state to formalize
defense relations with the United States after the Persian Gulf region was shaken by Iran’s 1979
Islamic revolution; Oman signed an agreement to allow U.S. forces access to Omani military
facilities on April 21, 1980. Three days later, the United States used Oman’s Masirah Island air
base to launch the failed attempt to rescue the U.S. embassy hostages in Iran. Oman later served
as an intermediary between the United States and Iran for the return of Iranians captured in
clashes with U.S. naval forces in the Gulf during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Under the access
agreement, which was renewed in 1985, 1990, and 2000 (for ten years), the United States
reportedly can use—with advance notice and for specified purposes—Oman’s military airfields in
Muscat (the capital), Thumrait, and Masirah Island, and some U.S. Air Force equipment, 1
including lethal munitions, are stored at these bases. During the renewal negotiations in 2000,
the United States acceded to Oman’s request that the United States fund a $120 million upgrade 2
of a fourth air base (Khasab) at Musnanah (50 miles from Muscat).
Hajjar, Sami. U.S. Military Presence in the Gulf: Challenges and Prospects. U.S. Army War College, Strategic
Studies Institute. P. 27.
2 Finnegan, Philip. “Oman Seeks U.S. Base Upgrades.” Defense News, April 12, 1999.
Oman’s facilities contributed to recent U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan (Operation
Enduring Freedom, OEF) and, to a lesser extent, Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom, OIF), even
though Omani leaders said that invading Iraq could “incite revenge” against the United States in
the Arab world. According to the Defense Department, during OEF there were about 4,300 U.S.
personnel in Oman, mostly Air Force, and U.S. B-1 bombers, indicating that the Omani facilities
were used extensively for strikes during OEF. The U.S. presence fell slightly to 3,750 during OIF;
other facilities closer to Iraq, such as in Kuwait, were more extensively for OIF. There are now
about 35 U.S. military personnel in Oman, below the pre-September 11, 2001 figure of 200 U.S.
personnel, and Omani facilities are reportedly not being used for air support operations in either
Afghanistan or Iraq. Oman’s views on Iran suggest that Oman might resist allowing the United
States to use facilities in Oman for a strike on Iran, were there a decision to do so.
Since September 11, 2001, Oman has cooperated with U.S. legal, intelligence, and financial
efforts against terrorism. According to the State Department report on global terrorism for 2007,
released April 2008, Oman has been “proactive in its implementation of counterterrorism
strategies and its cooperation with neighboring countries to prevent terrorists from moving freely
throughout the Arabian Peninsula.” Among Oman’s steps was a January 2007 law establishing a
National Committee for Combating Terrorism and a December 2006 agreement with Saudi
Arabia to control cross-border transit. Oman has continued its interagency coordination to prevent
money laundering. On November 22, 2005, Oman joined the U.S. “Container Security Initiative,”
agreeing to pre-screening of U.S.-bound cargo from its port of Salalah for illicit trafficking of
nuclear and other materials, and for terrorists. Table 1 includes U.S. aid to Oman ( Non-
Proliferation, Anti-Terrorism and Related Programs funds, NADR) to help it establish effective
export controls and to sustain its counter-terrorism training capabilities.
Oman’s 43,000 person armed force is the third largest of the Gulf Cooperation Council states
(GCC, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar). Its force is widely
considered one of the best trained; its arsenal is being modernized with purchases from the United
States but is not large. Qaboos early on relied on seconded British officers to command Omani
military services, and much of its arsenal is British-made, but British officers are now mostly
advisory, particularly in Oman’s navy.
In an effort to modernize its Air Force, in October 2001, after years of consideration, Oman
purchased (with its own funds) 12 U.S.-made F-16 C/D aircraft from new production. Along with
associated weapons (Harpoon and AIM missiles), a podded reconnaissance system, and training,
the sale was valued at about $825 million; deliveries were completed in 2006. Oman probably
made the purchase to keep pace with its Gulf neighbors, including UAE and Bahrain, that had
bought F-16s. U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF)—recent amounts of which are shown
Section 564 of Title V, Part C of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY1994 and FY1995 (P.L. 103-236)
banned U.S. arms transfers to countries that maintain the Arab boycott of Israel. As applied to the GCC states, this
provision has been waived each year on the grounds that doing so is in the national interest.
below—has been used to help Oman buy U.S.-made coastal patrol boats for anti-narcotics and
anti-smuggling missions, as well as aircraft munitions, night-vision goggles, upgrades to coastal
surveillance systems, communications equipment, and de-mining equipment. The International
Military Education and Training program (IMET) program is used to promote U.S. standards of
human rights and civilian control of military and security forces, as well as to fund English
language instruction, and promote inter-operability with U.S. forces. (The United States phased
out development assistance to Oman in 1996. At the height of that development assistance
program in the 1980s, the United States was giving Oman about $15 million per year in
Economic Support Funds (ESF) in loans and grants, mostly for conservation and management of
Omani fisheries and water resources.)
In July 2006, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), Oman bought the
JAVELIN anti-tank system, at a cost of about $48 million. Some major U.S. sales to Oman are
expected as part of an estimated $20 billion sales package to the Gulf states under the U.S. “Gulf
Security Dialogue” intended to contain Iran, although most of the sales notified thus far are to the
much wealthier Saudi Arabia and UAE. One potential Omani purchase discussed by observers is
the U.S.-made C-17 “Globemaster” transport aircraft.
Oman is eligible for grant U.S. excess defense articles (EDA) under Section 516 of the Foreign
Assistance Act. It received 30 U.S.-made M-60A3 tanks in September 1996 on a “no rent” lease
basis (later receiving title outright). There have been minor EDA grants since 2000, particularly
gear to help Oman monitor its borders and waters and to improve inter-operability with U.S.
forces. In 2004, it turned down a U.S. offer of EDA U.S.-made M1A1 tanks. Some Omani
officers say they need new armor to supplement the 38 British-made Challenger 2 tanks and 80
British-made Piranha armored personnel carriers Oman bought in the mid-1990s.
Table 1. Recent U.S. Aid to Oman
(In millions of dollars)
FY2003 FY2004 FY2005 FY2006 FY2007 FY2008 (est.) FY2009 (request)
IMET 0.75 0.83 1.14 1.14 1.11 1.43 1.45
FMF 80.0 24.85 19.84 13.86 13.49 4.712 12.0
NADR .40 0.554 0.4 1.28 2.089 0.95
Note: IMET is International Military Education and Training; FMF is Foreign Military Financing; NADR is
Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, De-Mining and Related Programs, and includes ATA (Anti-Terrorism Assistance);
EXBS (Export Control and Related Border Security); and TIP (Terrorism Interdiction Program).
Oman, which has a population of 2.6 million (including about 550,000 foreigners), remains a
monarchy in which decision-making still is largely concentrated with Sultan Qaboos. Believing
that Omanis would ultimately demand political reform, in the 1980s, Qaboos embarked on
gradual political liberalization. In November 1991, he appointed a 59-seat Consultative Council
(expanded to its current size of 84 seats in 1993), replacing a ten-year old advisory council. In a
move toward a popular selection process, in 1994 and 1997 “notables” in each of Oman’s districts
chose up to three nominees, with Qaboos making a final selection. The first direct elections to the
Consultative Council were held in September 2000 (three year term), but the electorate was
limited (25% of all citizens over 21 years old). In November 2002, Qaboos extended voting rights
to all citizens, male and female, over 21 years of age and the October 4, 2003 Council elections—
in which 195,000 Omanis voted (74% turnout)—resulted in a Council similar to that elected in
2000, including the election of the same two women as in the previous election (out of 15 women
As in the other Gulf states, formal political parties are not allowed. Unlike Bahrain or Kuwait,
there are no evident groupings or factions within the Consultative Council, and Qaboos has
constrained the Council’s authority to mostly public works and social benefits issues. It does not
draft legislation, lacks binding legislative powers, and some Omanis say the Council’s influence
over policy has diminished over time—to the point where many experts now say Oman lags the
other Gulf states on political reform. Qaboos appoints the Council president (he appointed a new
president in September 2007, replacing a sixteen year incumbent), although the Council chooses
two vice presidents. In the October 27, 2007 election, Qaboos allowed, for the first time, public
campaigning. Turnout among 388,000 registered voters was 63%, including enthusiastic
participation by women, but none of the 21 female candidates (out of 631 candidates) won. In a
1996 “Basic Law,” Qaboos made the “legislature” bicameral by appointing a “State Council” to
serve, in part, as a check and balance on the elected Consultative Council. Together, the two
bodies constitute the “Oman Council.” The State Council now has 70 seats, up from the original
53 seats. The State Council appointed following the 2007 election has fourteen women, up from
Qaboos has given major speeches on the equality of women and their importance in national
development, and they now constitute about 30% of the work force. In March 2003, he named a
woman to the rank of minister, giving that rank to a woman in charge of the national authority for
industrial craftsmanship. In 2004, he added three female ministers—of higher education, of
tourism, and of social development—and these ministries remain headed by women. In April
However, allegations of spousal abuse and domestic violence are fairly common, with women
finding protection primarily through their families. Omani women also continue to face social
discrimination often as a result of the interpretation of Islamic law.
Information in this section is from several State Department reports: The Human Rights report for 2007 (March 11,
2008); the International Religious Freedom Report for 2007 (September 19, 2008); and the Trafficking in Persons
Report for 2008 (June 4, 2008). See also: Carpenter, J. Scott and Simon Henderson. Democracy in Slow Motion: Oman
Goes to the Polls. Washington Institute for Near East Policy, PolicyWatch 1298. October 26, 2007.
The 1996 Basic Law affirmed Islam as the state religion, and the State Department’s religious
freedom report for 2008 notes no change from the previous year on restrictions on religious
rights. Non-Muslims are free to worship at temples and churches built on land donated by the
Sultan, but there are some limitations on non-Muslims’ proselytizing and on religious gatherings
in other than government-approved houses of worship. Members of all religions and sects are free
to maintain links with coreligionists abroad and travel outside Oman for religious purposes. On
related human rights issues, press criticism of the government is tolerated, but criticism of the
Sultan is not. In December 2004, the government arrested 31 Ibadhi Muslims on suspicion of
conspiring to establish a religious state, but Qaboos pardoned them in June 2005. Private
ownership of radio and television stations is prohibited, but the availability of satellite dishes has
made foreign broadcasts accessible to the public. The State Department notes improving workers’
rights, in conjunction with the U.S.-Oman FTA.
On November 17, 2008, Oman set up its first human rights commission as an “autonomous body”
attached to the State Council (upper body of the legislature). The move came one month after
President Bush determined (P.D. 2009-5) that Oman be moved from “Tier 3” on trafficking in
persons(worst level, assessed in the June 4, 2008 State Department report on that issue), to “Tier
2/Watch List.” The determination was based on Oman’s commitment to make significant efforts
to comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. U.S. funds from the Middle
East Partnership Initiative have been used to fund civil society and political process
strengthening, judicial reform, election management, media independence, and women’s
Qaboos has often pursued foreign policies outside an Arab or Gulf consensus. Oman is not as
wary of Iran as are the other GCC states; Oman has no sizable Shiite community with which Iran
could meddle in Oman, and it still appreciates the military help the Shah of Iran provided in
helping end a leftist revolt in Oman’s Dhofar Province during 1964 - 1975. Oman, as do the other
GCC states, publicly opposes any U.S. attack on Iran. On Iraq, and generally in line with other
GCC states, Omani officials say that the Omani government and population are dismayed at the
Shiite Islamist domination of post-Saddam Iraq and its pro-Iranian tilt, and at the inability of the
United States to prevent substantial civilian deaths. Yet, despite moves by other GCC states to
open relations with Iraq, Oman has not remitted $3 million it pledged in 2004 for Iraq
reconstruction nor has it appointed an ambassador in Baghdad.
On the Arab-Israeli dispute, Oman was the one of the few Arab countries not to break relations
with Egypt after the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979. All the GCC states
participated in the multilateral peace talks established by the U.S.-sponsored Madrid peace
process, but only Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar hosted working group sessions of the multilaterals.
Oman hosted an April 1994 session of the working group on water and, as a result of those talks,
a Middle East Desalination Research Center was established in Oman. In September 1994, Oman
and the other GCC states renounced the secondary and tertiary Arab boycott of Israel. In
December 1994, it became the first Gulf state to officially host a visit by an Israeli Prime Minister
(Yitzhak Rabin), and it hosted then Prime Minister Shimon Peres in April 1996. In October 1995,
Oman exchanged trade offices with Israel, essentially renouncing the primary boycott of Israel.
However, the trade offices have been closed since the September 2000 Palestinian uprising. In an
April 2008 meeting, Omani Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah informed
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that the Israeli trade office in Oman would remain closed
until agreement was reached on a Palestinian state, although the meeting itself represented a level
of diplomatic outreach by Oman to Israel.
Despite Omani efforts to diversify its economy, oil exports generated 62% of government
revenues in 2007. Oman has a relatively small 5.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, enough
for about 15 years, and some energy development firms say that production at some Omani fields 6
is declining. Oman exports about 222 million barrels per year of oil (less than 3% of
internationally traded oil), of which about 11.5 million are imported by the United States. (The
United States is Oman’s fourth largest trading partner.) Oman is not a member of the Organization
of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Recognizing that its crude oil fields are aging, Oman
is trying to privatize its economy, diversify its sources of revenue, and develop its liquid natural
gas (LNG) sector, for which Oman has identified large markets in Asia and elsewhere. Oman has
about 30 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves, and in November 2008 it signed a 20-year
agreement with Occidental Petroleum to develop existing gas fields and explore for new ones.
Oman is part of the “Dolphin project,” under which Qatar is exporting natural gas to UAE (by
replacing Omani gas supplies, at 135 million cubic feet per day, to the UAE). Oman was admitted
to the WTO in September 2000. The U.S.-Oman FTA was signed on January 19, 2006, and
ratified by Congress (P.L. 109-283, signed September 26, 2006). Oman recently set back Gulf
state plans to form a monetary union by 2010 by saying it would not join it.
For more information on Oman’s economy and U.S.-Oman trade, see CRS Report RL33328, U.S.-Oman Free Trade
Agreement, by Mary Jane Bolle.
6 Gerth, Jeff and Stephen Labaton. “Oman’s Oil Yield Long in Decline, Shell Data Show.” New York Times, April 8,
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs