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This article first appeared here on ForeignPolicy.com on November 7, 2018.
A little more than a week ago, the drumbeat of news concerning Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was briefly interrupted by an extraordinary video coming from Oman’s state news agency. The footage showed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being greeted by and meeting with Sultan Qaboos bin Said at his palace in Muscat.
Contact between the Israelis and the countries of the Persian Gulf has taken place for some time, and the Omanis have been particularly “forward-leaning,” as they say in Washington—then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Muscat in late 1994, when peace between Israelis and Palestinians seemed like a real possibility. Even so, the Omanis requested that the meeting be kept secret until its conclusion. Shimon Peres, who succeeded Rabin, hosted the Omani foreign minister in Jerusalem in 1995, and the countries established trade offices in 1996 that were shuttered after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.
Netanyahu’s visit was different, of course, because there is no peace process and the sultan even signaled he was willing to normalize ties with Israel. That goes significantly beyond the sorts of contact between Israel and other Arab states that has picked up in recent years amid their confluence of interests regarding Iran and Islamist extremism. Retired Saudi officials have been willing to sit on the same stage as their retired Israeli counterparts, the Emiratis host what is essentially an Israeli diplomatic outpost in Abu Dhabi under the guise of the International Renewable Energy Agency, and there are persistent whispers of regular meetings among Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Gulf intelligence chiefs. Yet no leader in the Gulf has gone as far as Qaboos by meeting so publicly with Netanyahu.
Why did Qaboos go so far out on a limb? Essentially, he was taking out an insurance policy.
Qaboos has often played the role of quiet regional troubleshooter and exchanger of messages for those who cannot—or prefer not to—speak to each other. It is now well known that much of the groundwork between the United States and Iran on the 2015 nuclear agreement was undertaken through an Omani channel. Over the last year, there was also speculation that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was seeking to use Muscat’s good offices in Tehran to help bring an end to the devastating conflict in Yemen. Thus, speculation was rampant among journalists, analysts, and the Twitterati that the Israeli prime minister and the Omani sultan were discussing either Palestinians or Iran. It was probably both—but that was not the point of the visit, at least for the Omanis.
Ismail Sabri Abdullah, the minister of planning under former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, once neatly, if crudely, articulated the logic behind the Egyptian outreach to Israel in the late 1970s, remarking, “If we wanted a good relationship with Washington, we needed to spend the night in Tel Aviv.” Abdullah, an unreconstructed leftist and anti-Zionist, was either reflecting a boorish and anti-Semitic view that Jews control U.S. foreign policy or was expressing a cleareyed calculation that because of the special relationship between the United States and Israel, Egyptians stood to benefit from coming to terms with the Israelis. Something similar—without the boorishness—is at play behind the Israeli leader’s open visit to Muscat. Even though Oman has been a trusted interlocutor in the past, there are new political and diplomatic pressures on the country that a very public visit with the Israelis can help mitigate or relieve.
The 77-year-old sultan, who took power in a British-backed coup in 1970, does not look well. He is said to be suffering from cancer and looked quite frail sitting next to the robust Netanyahu. Everyone knows he is at the end of his reign, and with no heir, succession is not entirely clear. Oman’s new leader—whoever that may be—will need U.S. political and diplomatic backing when Qaboos dies to bolster the country’s stability at a critical moment. Under ordinary circumstances that support would be forthcoming, but given the conflicts and forces—both internal and external—buffeting the Gulf, there are no guarantees. Oman’s role in the region as discreet interlocutor and broker of deals makes Muscat important beyond its size and resources, but it is also vulnerable. The Omanis sit between Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. If the sultan or his successor cannot maintain the balance among these countries, Oman may well get sucked into conflicts its leadership has sought to avoid.
And there seems to be pressure building on Muscat to choose sides. In particular, because the Omanis have not joined the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen, combined with their ties to Iran, analysts and officials have raised questions whether Muscat is an enabler of Tehran’s bad behavior rather than a neutral interlocutor. There have even been accusations that Oman’s leaders have turned a blind eye to Iranian gunrunning to the Houthi army in Yemen through Omani territory. If this is true, the Omanis might be in for trouble. With a Trump administration made up of Iran hard-liners, including his national security advisor, the secretaries of state and defense, and the president himself, Muscat could be in for rougher treatment from Washington than in the past. Previous presidents have determined that whatever Oman’s transgressions, preserving an “Omani channel” was important to policymakers. It is not at all clear that Trump thinks this way.
In addition, being on the wrong side of one’s more powerful Gulf Cooperation Council allies is not a great place to be. Even if the Qataris have managed fairly well since the Saudi-led blockade began in June 2017, they remain concerned about their sovereignty given the recklessness of the present Saudi leadership. Unlike Qatar, Oman has far fewer resources and does not host one of the largest U.S. military bases outside the United States.
What better way to relieve some of this mounting pressure than to host the Israeli prime minister for tea and television cameras? Qaboos clearly understands some things about the United States and Israel that Ismail Sabri Abdullah did, though one would hope in a more sophisticated way. Israel’s supporters in the United States deeply appreciate Muscat’s outreach with Jerusalem given the importance they and Israel place on widening the circle of peace, a diplomatic achievement, as the prospects for peace with the Palestinians are dim. The same can be said of Congress, which has worked with successive administrations to end Israel’s isolation around the world.
The Omanis can expect the Israelis and their friends to repay the favor in Washington if things get tough for Muscat. After all, among the most effective voices on behalf of the Egyptians inside the Beltway is Israel’s ambassador. The Israelis have also quietly counseled caution on the fate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the Trump administration wrestles with the fallout from Khashoggi’s death.
Having ties with the Israelis does not necessarily mean that they will be helpful to you in Washington—Egypt’s late intelligence chief Omar Suleiman complained bitterly about Israel’s very public campaign in D.C. about Gaza smuggling tunnels—but it does help. And without the resources that his neighbors have to spend lavishly (and ineffectively) on consultants and lobbyists, Qaboos just earned himself enough goodwill that it will not matter.