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Leaders In Oman Try To Reduce Tensions Between U.S. And Iran


We take a journey now to the shores of Oman. Look at a satellite map and you see it there on the Arabian Peninsula in a troubled neighborhood - Oman shares a border with war-torn Yemen and with powerful Saudi Arabia. It gives its name to the Gulf of Oman, which is where oil tankers have been attacked in recent days, attacks the United States blames on nearby Iran. Our story today is how Oman tries to keep its balance amid such conflicts. With that satellite map in your mind now, let's zoom in to a single Omani beach, which is where we find NPR's Ruth Sherlock.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Families have gathered here at sunset on the beach in Muscat to splash in the water and enjoy a slight reprieve from the burning summer heat. And in the distance, I can count one, two, three oil tankers. And beyond that is Iran. This region is so heavily contested in this moment with tensions between the U.S. and Iran, attacks on oil tankers in recent weeks. But you wouldn't tell it from here.

ZAKARIYA MUHARAMI: The Omanis, they kept their integrity and independence. And they aparted (ph) themselves from all other influencer in the region.

SHERLOCK: Zakariya Muharami is an Omani writer of history and politics. He says the Omanis pride themselves on a tranquility that they'd like to spread, but quietly.

MUHARAMI: They don't want to present themselves as the one calling people to come to peace. People would like to negotiate, have diplomacy, Oman is there to help and support.

SHERLOCK: This subtle diplomacy helped bring about the Iran deal in 2015, and now some are hoping that Oman can de-escalate tensions between this U.S. administration and Iran. U.S. officials regularly consult with its leaders. Muharami says the tactics the Omani government uses are secret, but he gives me a sense of the strategy.

MUHARAMI: The Omanis first start to listen to both parties, and they would ask both of them to come and discuss only common grounds, and then they start to discuss the differences.

SHERLOCK: To understand how Oman plays this role and stays out of the conflicts around it, you have to look at the history and the culture. Omanis practice Ibadism, a different school of Islam, so they're not so entangled in the Sunni and Shia regional struggle here. And while they're Arabs, there are influences from India and other parts of the world, too, because they're a trading nation on the sea. The ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, is an absolute monarch, and there's a tight rein on expression here. But he tries to set a calm tone, and you feel it everywhere.

Driving around Muscat, you can turn on the radio and hear this.


SHERLOCK: This is the music the sultan loves, and this is the music he wants his people to listen to. Omanis here tell us that they grew up listening to classical music. It's all part of the sultan's vision for this country as a sort of sophisticated, calm and peaceful place.

NASSER ALTAI: His Majesty, he has always paid keen emphasis on music and the arts.

SHERLOCK: Nasser Altai is an adviser to the Royal Opera House, a favorite project for Sultan Qaboos. With high teak wood ceilings and Swarovski chandeliers, this grand building hosts world-class opera performances. Altai believes that understanding the sultan's focus on music is also a way of understanding his domestic and foreign policy.

ALTAI: Since the '70s, since His Majesty took over, he embraced this idea and always stayed on the side of peace.

SHERLOCK: And music is an expression of that.

ALTAI: Exactly - music and culture. Whether it's classical music or our own traditional music, it is the vehicle to bring people together.

SHERLOCK: I met Oman's incoming permanent representative to the United Nations, Mohammed bin Awadh al Hassan. In keeping with his country's quiet diplomacy, Hassan wouldn't let me record. But he tells me that Oman tries to build friendships in every situation, even during a dangerous impasse between the U.S. and Iran. I'm an Omani diplomat, he tells me; I always see chances for peace.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Muscat, Oman. 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.