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How Oman Is Becoming A Sort Of 'Middle Eastern Switzerland' Between The U.S. And Iran


U.S. headlines don't usually feature the country of Oman, but it's deeply involved in efforts to lessen tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Geography, in part, dictates that it play this role because it sits just across the water from Iran and next door to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. NPR's Ruth Sherlock flew to Oman after Iran shot down a U.S. drone over the Strait of Hormuz, and she joins us now from the capital, Muscat.

And Ruth, first just explain to us why you decided to go to Oman.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, this is an interesting place because it's got this long history of helping to resolve conflicts. And it tries to do that by providing a neutral ground for warring sides to come and meet and talk. So it's a sort of Switzerland of the Middle East. And it's also very calm in a region which has many conflicts. You know, this is an area where there are rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There's a war in Yemen and in Syria. Somehow, Oman has managed not to let itself become engulfed in these conflicts despite being a neighbor to some of these countries. And that's no easy thing. And you know, the country was a key interlocutor in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. So the U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, was just here.

CORNISH: You said somehow. I mean, help us understand the politics, how it manages to avoid getting drawn into conflict.

SHERLOCK: Well, it's all about history, culture and religion. So Omanis practice Ibadism, which is a different school of Islam. And so they're not so entangled in the Sunni and Shiite regional struggle here. Whilst they're Arabs, there are influences from India and other parts of the world, too, because they're a trading nation on the sea. And it's also run by an elderly sultan. He's got a very orderly vision for the country. To understand this better, we spoke with Zakariya Almuharrmi (ph), a known Omani writer and historian, about all this.

ZAKARIYA ALMUHARRMI: The history of Oman, the tradition of Oman, the culture Oman, also the openness of Oman to see all of these factors - they shape the Omani people. So all of this, they merge together to make the new Oman as a peaceful oh-see-us (ph) in all of this area of conflicts.

SHERLOCK: He means oasis there. And you know, they really have. It's a very tranquil place here. It's a tree-lined place, manicured gardens. And most importantly, all citizens are required to be calm. It's really frowned upon to argue in public here. And all of this kind of approach to life feeds into their foreign policy.

CORNISH: It's interesting. You actually met with a key diplomat there who had some advice for the U.S. What did he tell you?

SHERLOCK: Yeah. So we met with Mohammed bin Awadh al Hassan. So he was a senior official in the Omani foreign ministry until recently, and he's now transitioning to be the permanent representative to the U.N. He said, look. The Iranians have a rich history that goes back thousands of years, and they're just not going to accept U.S. intimidation. He says, ultimately, diplomacy should be about trying to seek the positive and the peaceful in each situation.

So he even has a kinder interpretation of President Trump than a lot of people in this region. Some people here see him as being impulsive and dangerous. The Omanis prefer to see him as someone who wants to leave a real legacy. And in that, they see an opportunity to provide him with guidance.

CORNISH: Does Oman think conflict between Iran and the U.S. can be avoided?

SHERLOCK: Well, the Omani representative to the U.N. thinks that sanity is needed. And he says, you know, it's always important, when negotiating these situations, to try to leave something on the table that will entice the other side into dialogue, whereas, you know, for the last few days, we've been hearing very heavy escalating rhetoric from the U.S. and Iran. And European diplomats I've spoken to here are quite gloomy in their predictions for the future. So it was quite refreshing to speak with the Omani representative to the U.N. because when I asked him about prospects for the future, he said I'm an Omani diplomat; I always see chances for peace.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Oman. Ruth, thanks for your reporting.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.