Oman: Strategic Surroundings and
Naval Power Projection
By Melissa Rossi,
Researcher at the Brazilian Naval War College and EGIC Steering Committee Member
Oman is strategically located in the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, between the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. It also shares with Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the waters of the Strait of Hormuz thanks to its Musandam Governorate, an Omani exclave that juts into the waters of the Strait, which is arguably one of the most important chokepoints for the global trade of oil and gas. Nonetheless, Oman´s strategic location, combined with its more than 3,000 km coastline, has brought both opportunities and challenges for the Sultanate.
Oman´s geographic position has put it in the path of expanding European powers on their quest for control over trade and land in India. First, the Portuguese arrived in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Sultan bin Saif from the Yarubid dynasty is credited with expelling the last Portuguese from Muscat in 1650 and amassing, for Oman´s security, a powerful navy that chased the Portuguese all the way to its colonies in East Africa, many of which eventually fell under Omani influence. Indeed, Oman is the only state of the Arabian Peninsula that can boast of an empire that once stretched all the way to the island of Zanzibar, which became the capital of the Sultanate for a period during the 19th Century.
The British consolidated their influence in the 19th Century, offering protection in exchange for political leverage, which led some areas, such as Oman´s northern territories, to enter into agreements which effectively turned them into protectorates as they seized the opportunity to gradually gain more autonomy from Muscat under this system. These northern territories became officially known as the Trucial States in 1820 and eventually, once the British began withdrawing from the region, became the Emirati federation widely known as the UAE in 1971.
Going back to Oman´s connection to the sea, strategic position and some present maritime challenges. As mentioned, Oman has two important geographic features: the Musandam Peninsula that faces the Strait of Hormuz, which at its narrowest point is about 21 miles wide, and its extensive coast that stretches from the Gulf of Oman to the Arabian Sea. Facing the Strait not only gives Oman the responsibility of ensuring the maritime security of huge oil tankers moving into and out of the Arabian Gulf, as these tankers also navigate through Omani territorial waters in 2-mile-wide maritime lanes known as Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS), it also shares the boundaries of its territorial waters with the territorial waters of Iran. Though Oman holds a position of neutrality in its foreign policy, maintaining peaceful relations with its neighbors, recent tensions in the region triggered by the increase of international sanctions against Iran puts Oman in a delicate balancing act as Iran has responded to international pressure by seizing oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, thus threatening maritime safety and security in the region.
Besides, Oman´s 3,000-kilometer coast, faces other complex maritime security challenges. From threats related to drugs and weapons smuggling to the danger of pirate attacks that have arrived all the way from the coast of Somalia, Omani maritime security is crucial not only for the country, but also for international trade. Though piracy is effectively under control in the Gulf of Aden, Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea thanks to the massive mobilization of naval international task-forces to overcome the threat, a resurgence of piracy is always possible given the dire socio-economic conditions and lack of state territorial control in Somalia.
As such, the Royal Navy of Oman (RNO) also relies on partner nations to help ensure its peaceful maritime surroundings, participating in coalitions and exercises to bolster its power. For instance, Oman is a Member of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a multinational naval coalition of 38 states, led by the United States (US), with its headquarters in Manama, Bahrain. The RNO contributes to CMF by having a National Liaison Officer (NLO) present in Bahrain, who also acts a Regional Advisor for CMF´s anti-piracy task-force (CTF-151)*.
Oman also hosts naval exercises with international partners such as the US, the United Kingdom (UK), France, India, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), among others. Recently, in May 2023, Oman led an annual 5-day countermine naval exercise known as Khunjar Hadd (Sharp Dagger) with the US, UK and France. The exercise focuses on several trainings, from mine countermeasures, interdictions and other seamanship trainings. Furthermore, it cooperates with EUNAVFOR Somalia (Operation Atalanta), the European Union´s (EU) naval mission to fight piracy in the region.
Finally, Oman has been massively developing its ports, having officially inaugurate the Duqm Port last year (though already operating since 2012), located between Muscat and Salalah. The UK already has a Joint Logistics Support Base at Duqm, a deep-water port that can host massive aircraft carriers.
All in all, Oman´s strategic position in the Arabian Peninsula has given it the opportunity to look outward into the waters of the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, Strait of Hormuz and beyond. However, its unique geographic location also comes with great maritime challenges and responsibility. It acts effectively as a naval security partner together with important allies helping to tackle the several maritime security threats that affect the region, while also maintaining important peaceful relations with all of its neighbors.
Finding itself once again at an important crossroads in history, Oman can be credited with being a central bastion for maintaining peace and security in the Arabian Peninsula and surroundings.
*Interview with Brazilian Senior National Representative (SNR) stationed at CMF headquarters.