Details of case remain murky, but divisions over Iran may have prompted spying
Who exactly was doing the spying or what they were looking for remains a secret, but the arrest of a number of people by Oman on suspicion of spying for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a rare public display of tensions among the Gulf ‘s kingdoms.
The arrests were apparently made by Omani authorities in November, according to bloggers. But the official Oman News Agency only made the news public on Sunday. In a terse statement, it reported that authorities had uncovered a “spy network affiliated to the State Security Service of the United Arab Emirates targeting the government in Oman and the mechanism of the government and military.”
It said the suspects would be tried, but provided no other details. “May the Almighty protect His Majesty the Sultan and our beloved country against all harms,” it added. An unnamed Omani official told Reuters that Omani nationals were among those arrested, including some civil servants.
“The fact that it has been made so public and the almost derogatory accusations is all highly unusual, particularly for this region,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “I don’t recall any occasion on the Arabian Peninsula that an official statement was so blatant.”
Disputes between the two tiny countries are usually confined to mundane issues like border spats and fishing rights. But Oman and the UAE face Iran across the Gulf and occupy a strategic place in the West’s conflict with Tehran over Iranian nuclear ambitions. This, then, may have been the background to the alleged spying.
The UAE was quick to deny any role in the espionage, declaring it was “shocked and surprised” by the news and casting doubts on its veracity. The UAE Foreign Ministry said it was prepared to cooperate with Oman’s investigation but suggested the probe should be directed at “parties that attempt to mar the relations between the two countries.”
Officially, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a six-member grouping of the region’s Arab countries, are all on the same page about their Iranian neighbor, whose nuclear program the West regards as aimed at developing atomic weapons. In December, the GCC leaders at their annual summit backed talks between Tehran and the West and called for a “Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons.”
But, shortly before that, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, by far the biggest of the GCC powers, was exposed in the Wikileaks documents as urging the U.S. to launch a military strike on Iranian facilities to stop it. The UAE appears to share Riyadh’s concerns. Last July, its ambassador to the U.S. said the benefits of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities outweighed the costs.
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“There will be a backlash and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country,” Yousef Al-Otaiba said. “If you are asking me, ‘Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?’ my answer is still the same: ‘We cannot live with a nuclear Iran’.”
But Oman, as well as Qatar, another GCC member, has adopted a friendlier stance toward Iran while maintaining ties with the U.S. Although Qatar agreed to allow the U.S. to use a base on Qatari soil to monitor Iran, and possibly stage a military strike against it, according to the WikiLeaks documents, it has also signed economic and military agreements with Iran in the past year.
Like Qatar, Oman also retains good ties with the U.S. and it served as a go-between in negotiations between Washington and Tehran that led last October to the release of an American held in an Iranian prison for more than a year.
But Oman has signed security and economic accords with Iran and the two sides meet regularly to discuss issues. Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said rarely travel abroad, yet he was the first foreign leader to travel to Iran after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected in a disputed 2009 vote.
"Security and economic cooperation between Iran and Oman affects regional peace and stability" positively, Qaboos said three weeks ago during a meeting with Iran’s foreign minister.
“They don’t see eye to eye with the rest of the GCC. Oman is supportive of the nuclear energy program,” said Karasik.
Agence France Press quoted an unnamed Omani security official saying the spy ring was also trying to gather information on who would succeed the childless, 70-year-old Qaboos. However, Karasik said that was less likely a target because there was much publicly available information of potential successors that it was doubtful a spy agency would invest resources trying to obtain more data.