Barely an eyebrow was raised when Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, voyaged to Muscat for a tête-à-tête with the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said (who passed away at the beginning of 2020). Oman has, historically, maintained a less rigid posture towards Israel than others in the neighbourhood and Sultan Qaboos was widely regarded as innovative and tolerant. It is noteworthy that Oman never participated in any of the violent episodes that characterised Arab-Israeli relations (neither did the other Gulf states) Arab states, and Israel and is one of the only three Arab League members that refused to take diplomatic action against Egypt following the Camp David peace treaty in 1979. Unlike other Gulf Arab states, the Sultanate always respected Egypt’s right to normalise relations with Israel and established its own links with Tel Aviv. In 1994, Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was the first Israeli statesman to visit Oman, paving the way for the establishment of a dialogue which led, in January 1996 (two months after the assassination of Rabin by a Jewish terrorist), to the agreement on the reciprocal opening of trade representative offices. These relations were formally frozen in October 2000, as pressure mounted with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, however the dialogue continued: their ministers’ of foreign affairs publicly met in in Qatar in 2008 and, a decade later, Netanyahu visited Oman. This latest visit prodded Foreign Minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, to describe Israel as an ‘accepted Middle East state,’ adding that ‘maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same and also bear the same obligations’ as other countries of the region. Oman thus affirmed the right of Israel to be recognised but also to accept the duty to cooperate towards stabilising the region and, crucially, to work towards a peaceful, long-term solution for Palestine.
Given the longevity of Oman-Israel relations why was Muscat not among the first wave of Abraham Accord signatories? Has Oman changed its strategy from being a frontline in the dialogue with Israel to a reluctant partner?
Not at all.
Oman is reinforcing its bridge building role in the region: Oman is a key portal for Palestine’s leaders and will preserve that role. And, more importantly, Oman effectively keeps diplomatic ties between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran alive. Under Qaboos, Oman heavily invested in peaceful relations between all the powers around it and managed to do so through its long, intense, partnership with the United States and their military assistance, but also thanks to its commitment to regional neutrality. Tehran considers the Abraham Accords a threat to Iran’s national security, as well as a disruptive change in the Middle East economic, social and political equilibria for the future. The Iranian regime is obviously aware of the hidden and unofficial relation between Muscat and Tel Aviv and accepts it, while an official Israel-Oman agreement would deepen Iranian concerns without any significant advantage for Oman.
Two other factors could be usefully tied into the equation as well: first, Oman continues to deal with a transition of power after the death of its longest serving ruler and the appointment of his cousin Haitham bin Tariq al Said as successor and second, with the election of Joe Biden in Washington, it is prudent to wait for the new US Administration to implement its Middle East policy before taking further steps in the normalisation process.
Oman’s leadership is clearly aware that it cannot watch as its neighbours develop their economic ties with Israel, enter the Israeli marketplace or attract Israeli investment, while the Sultanate loses precious economic opportunities. The need to diversify all Gulf economies, including Oman’s, may be a powerful accelerator for Arab-Israeli normalisation, especially in the coming years. After all, Oman is one of the most solid, diverse and promising economies of the region and Israel looks at the Sultanate as a natural partner for its post-Covid strategy.
This is why at EGIC we consider that the process of normalisation of the Oman-Israel relationship is not a matter of if but of when and how. A pragmatic approach towards normalisation may take the form of a trade agreement, instead of a political initiative, focused on the reduction of trade barriers for mutual investments and commerce. This is how Oman and Israel could first engage to jump-start a “normalisation-by-doing,” instead of a more challenging immediate recognition that would make the waters in the Sea of Makran (the gulf between the coast of Oman and that of Iran) rougher.
12 February 2021