MUSCAT, Oman — Despite years of geopolitical wrangling between the United States and Iran over security in the Persian Gulf, the Sultanate of Oman has defined itself through neutrality.
The Sultanate's "friend to all" diplomatic approach has been a bedrock policy of Oman’s absolute monarch, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said, who overthrew his father in a palace coup in 1970 and has presided for more than 40 years over the rapid oil-funded transformation of his country into a prosperous modern state.
But in spite of his policy of neutrality, the white-bearded 72-year-old sultan has been arming his country to the teeth.
And no wonder. The stakes of his security calculations are extraordinarily high. Oman's territorial waters encompass the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most significant oil choke point. Twenty percent of all oil traded worldwide passes through this 21-mile-wide channel between the Sultanate and Iran. In the past, Iran has threatened to block the strait in the event of conflict.
Oman launched a military buildup in 2001 with a huge 38 percent hike in military spending, that same year buying British-made Super Lynx 300 military helicopters. By 2005, Oman's military spending was a staggering 44 percent of its GDP. The country's military hardware procurements jumped again in 2011 with an order for 12 late-model F-16 fighter jets, for a total of $600 million, doubling the country's existing fleet of the planes. And just last year, the sultan ordered 12 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets and eight Hawk 128 training aircraft from Britain's BAE Systems, for a total of $3.8 billion.
Even among heavy-spending Middle Eastern states, Oman stands out. Last year, the largest percentage increase in military spending worldwide was by Oman (a 51 percent rise). It made the country the second-highest spender in the world when it came to military spending as a proportion of GDP (after Saudi Arabia, among countries for which data is available), according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Some find these expenditures surprising for a country of fewer than 3 million people. By comparison, Egypt — with 82 million people, a border with Israel and control of the crucial Suez Canal — spent just $4.3 billion, or 1.7 percent of GDP, in 2012.
The newest purchase, set to be finalized this year, is an estimated $2.1 billion AMRAAM missile defense system, manufactured by Massachusetts-based weapons giant Raytheon. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the deal during a visit to Muscat in May.
In recent years, the United States has sold tens of billions of dollars in military hardware and related services to Arab nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman). Those arms deals include the biggest weapons deal in American history: the 2010 sale of $60 billion in U.S.-made fighter jets and helicopters to Saudi Arabia.
Oman's weapon buys are more puzzling than sales to the other GCC countries. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, Oman enjoys good relations with both Iran and the United States. According to a secret U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 published by Wikileaks, "Iranians and Omanis invite one another to observe each other's military exercises; Iranian naval vessels have been allowed to make port calls in Muscat."
In fact, Oman plays a quiet but important role as an intermediary between the United States and Iran, for example brokering negotiations over the three American hikers detained by Iran in 2010, and, according to one U.S. official with knowledge of the matter, relaying messages regarding the international negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
The same diplomatic cable says, "Omani leaders remain persuaded that Iran would not attack GCC countries with missiles in response to a military strike staged in the Gulf. They see asymmetrical, terrorist operations conducted by Iran against Gulf states, including U.S. targets in these countries, as a greater danger."
"Consequently," the cable says, "the Omanis have little appetite for high price-tag Patriot missiles."
But Oman is now buying AMRAAMs, which, while also bearing a high price tag, represent a more limited form of missile defense, potentially providing coverage for specific military sites, but not entire cities, as Patriots might.
These arms deals represent a paradox. On the one hand, experts say, the arms buildup is part of preparations for the possibility, however remote, of conflict with Iran.
At the same time, no serious observer expects Oman to be militarily prepared to face Iran on its own, regardless of the number of weapons the sultan buys.
Ultimately, Oman's arms buildup is a subplot of America's relationship with the Gulf Arab monarchies. In the event of any conflict with Iran, it is widely understood that the GCC states would depend on the U.S. military, and the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy, to protect them. In 2012, when Iran threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey confirmed that Iran would be capable of doing so, but the United States, not Oman, would "take action and reopen the strait."
Thus the arms sales by the United States to Oman have as much to do with the politics of U.S. hegemony in the Gulf as they do with security.
"The U.S. is the most powerful and important security actor in the Gulf,'' says Toby Jones, a historian of the Middle East at Rutgers University. "The regional states are powerless to protect themselves. Weapon sales are not really about defense and are almost always about moving pieces of technology for cash."
A European former advisor to governments in the region agrees: "Implicit in that security guarantee that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the others get from the U.S. is, 'You buy stuff so you can say that you can pretend to be able to defend yourself, and then we get something out of this business of standing by you.'"
"I think at a senior political level they see it as paying their bills. They know they're not really going to fight with anybody," says the former advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. "I think deep down…they're thinking, 'We're paying the rent for our protectors.'"
The State Department routinely lobbies foreign governments to buy American products and services, including weapons. The Obama administration, moreover, has presided over a massive expansion in U.S. arms exports, easing export controls and directing officials to push hard for such sales. At a congressional hearing in April, State Department official Tom Kelly said top government officials were promoting U.S. arms exports "every day, basically [on] every continent in the world."
Oman's billions in arms purchases may also play a small role in fueling some Omanis' discontent with the government.
In 2011, when uprisings swept the Arab world, hundreds of Omanis also staged demonstrations demanding political reform and relief for the country’s unemployed (24 percent of Omani citizens in 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund). At least two people were killed in a confrontation with police after demonstrators in the city of Sohar blocked roads to the port and set a supermarket on fire.
In response to those protests, Sultan Qaboos increased government spending, including military spending, in a bid to create jobs. And while the sultan also introduced some political reforms, freedom of expression remains limited at best. Human Rights Watch recently criticized the administration for prosecuting one key reform activist for the crime of “undermining the status and prestige of the state."
Meanwhile, with oil a finite resource and the country now running a small budget deficit, many Omanis may be left wondering about the government’s priorities when they hear about $2 billion missile defense systems.
"Among the middle classes I have heard quite a bit of pushback on these things that... 'I really hope we don't spend a couple of billion dollars on these things because, what do we really get out of it? We're not going to go to war with anyone," says the European former advisor to regional governments.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. Raytheon spokeswoman Faith Jennings referred inquiries to the State Department. Omani officials also did not respond to requests for comment.