• Toby Irwin

UK-Oman Strategic Relations

On the 10th of January 2020, Qaboos bin Said al Said, the Sultan of Oman, passed away. Qaboos oversaw the opening up of Oman akin to the Soviet Petestroika policy, alongside modernisation and development. A key trend under his rule has been the state's relationship to the UK. It seems that this is something that is not just interesting to reflect back upon, but also to consider with regard to the future.


Following an education at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England, Qaboos returned to Oman. It was there that, with the backing of the UK, he orchestrated a coup d'etat against his own father in 1970. Alongside Saudi Arabia, Oman has come to represent a significant strategic ally for the UK in the Middle East. Indeed, while the absolute strength of the UK's hard powers have diminished in recent decades, its relative capabilities have been largely maintained. This has been made possible largely by leveraging alliance structures to help maintain a presence in a region which arguably is becoming harder to project to.


This marriage of convenience has led to a number of defence partnerships. Should one glance at the SIPRI database, one finds Oman to be one of the largest importer of armaments from the UK, despite its relatively small defence budget. Figures (measured in SIPRI's own Trend Indicator Values, in millions) place Oman at 1204. For comparison, India, with a budget almost ten times larger than Oman's, stands at 1063. As a side note, this could be either a result of Oman's disproportionate budget as percentage of GDP (~8.2%) or rather it might be because India favours other exporters.


Among such projects is the British Challenger 2 tank, in which Oman represents the only export destination. More generally, Oman stands as one of the UK's "priority markets". One might suggest that the relationship between the personal affinity of the former head of state to the UK and arms imports is a product of the Sultan also being both the prime minister and head of the Omani Ministry of Defence. If it it is true that the relationship is a reflection of the personal dispensation of the former Sultan to the UK, then this might indicate that future relationships will depend also on the attitude of the next sultan, Haitham bin Tariq al Said. Imports will likely invariably continue not just out of 'tradition' but also from necessity. Oman still exists in a relatively volatile region, and the persistence of terrorist groups will continue to pose a threat. Future amicable relations to the UK are symbolised through a recent agreement. Indeed, with the onset of the UK's new carrier capability, the securing of British use at Oman's Duqm port is of great importance for the UK's aspiring 'East of Suez' policy. The Ministry of Defence commented:

"The Agreement will ensure that these facilities are available for use long into the future, allowing the UK to maintain a presence in the Region."


https://www.caat.org.uk/resources/countries/oman

https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/uk-secures-naval-base-in-oman

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-and-oman-sign-historic-joint-defence-agreement

https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2016/06/03/bae-industry-partners-team-up-for-challenger-2-race/

SIPRI Export Database 1988-2018: UK Export Locations

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.

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