RealClearWorld Newsletters: Mideast Memo

Switzerland of the Middle East

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The daily headlines readily remind us that the Middle East is falling apart, and that every actor -- be it Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey -- is selfishly working to splinter and stifle its rivals in the region. And since bombs and body counts typically garner the most attention, sincere and selfless acts sometimes go overlooked.

Such was the case this week, when it was reported that the Gulf sultanate of Oman helped negotiate the release of two American hostages -- in addition to three Saudis and one British citizen -- held for months by Shiite rebels in Yemen. Moreover, declining to join the Saudi-led coalition currently waging war against Yemen's Houthi rebels has allowed Muscat to lobby for the release of other hostages, and play an objective role in a war-torn country full of self-interested actors.

Muscat's work in Yemen, coupled with its vital role as host and backchannel during the Iran nuclear negotiations, has earned Oman a rather venerable reputation of neutrality and seriousness in a region often lacking in both. But don't confuse Muscat for a wholly disinterested Samaritan.

"Oman considers itself a vulnerable country because it's a small country which is in the middle of many issues, like Yemen to the south, Pakistan to the north, Iran to the north and Saudi Arabia," said Marc Valeri of Exeter University in an interview with the Associated Press. "This vulnerability means they want to be friendly with all the other parties around."

Oman also shares custody with Iran of the crucial Strait of Hormuz. Muscat has lured billions of dollars in foreign investment to upgrade its SOHAR Port and Freezone, a joint venture between the Omani government and the Port of Rotterdam. The sultanate has invested in air and rail at the facility in the hopes of turning the port into a multimodal transit and shipping hub in the region, and has worked to link the facility to other land, air, and sea routes in the country.

But much of that depends on there being tranquil waters in and around the Persian Gulf, making detente between Washington and Tehran more than mere yeoman's work, but a strategic and economic imperative.

Muscat's motivations cannot be entirely chalked up to commercial demands, however. In addition to its location and limited resources, others have also attributed Oman's conciliatory tone and tactics to its religious roots.

"Oman is the world's only Ibadi-majority country and while the sect has its followers in Zanzibar and the Maghreb, three-quarters of the world's Ibadi Muslims are Omani," writes Giorgio Cafiero, founder of Gulf State Analytics. "Ibadism is frequently described as a conservative yet tolerant sect that emphasizes the ‘rule of the just' and rejects violence as a means to political ends. As Ibadism constitutes a key pillar of Oman's national identity, the sultanate's foreign policy appears to reflect the sect's moderating influence on Omani society."

Whatever the reason, it's refreshing to see someone in the Middle East strive to play the role of Switzerland.

Around the Region

Who's rushing to Tehran? Buried in this interesting Christian Science Monitor story about five Americans set to study in Tehran is an interesting statistic on the nationalities of those studying Farsi (or Persian, if you prefer) in the Iranian capital:

"Statistics released by the language program, which lasts 10 weeks or longer, show that hundreds of Chinese students in recent years made up roughly half the total of all students combined. One American took a single course in 2014, along with several British students.

"But the new influx of US and UK citizens for masters studies is a bigger surprise, since they require two-year resident visas that allow travel across the country."

Who isn't rushing to Tehran? French banks, apparently. The Financial Times has the story:

"The European Union will remove the ban on Iranian entities using the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, the Belgium-based financial communications and clearing system. For three years, 28 Iranian banks have been blocked from Swift's services, preventing companies and individuals from moving money out of or into the country.

But even this is not enough to reassure the major European banks, which analysts expect will wait for clarity on what the continuation of U.S. sanctions on American businesses which remain barred from doing business with Iran would mean for non-U.S. entities."

The Kakais fight to survive. Iraqi academic and journalist Saad Salloum examines the plight of Iraq's Kakai minority:

"Like the Christian and Yazidi minorities before them, the Kakais are forming an armed force to protect themselves. Also called ‘Yarsan' or ‘Ahel al-Haqq,' the Kakais were displaced from the Nineveh Plain area when [ISIS] invaded Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, in the summer of 2014. The Kakai creed dates back to the 14th century in western Iran and contains elements of Zoroastrianism and Shiism. They have been persecuted for their unusual beliefs, driving them to keep a low profile and giving them a reputation for being secretive."

The Kakais, much like other religious minorities from the Nineveh region, have struggled to establish themselves militarily among Kurdish peshmerga forces.

Tea and Atatürk. And finally, Hurriet Daily News columnist Murat Yetkin details a dispute over a statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the Turkish tea town of Rize:

"The row began last week when Re┼čat Kasap, the mayor of the eastern Black Sea town of Rize, said a statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, in the town's main square could be removed.

"His justification was a renovation of the square, and the presence of the Atatürk statue there was blocking traffic during official ceremonies. These ceremonies involved simply saying an oath, singing the national anthem by the protocol, a minute of respect and could take more or less half an hour in total three or four times a year."

The row, Yetkin goes on to explain, may have something to do with hats. Read the rest of the story here.

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