Oman Recognizes Israel: Can the Switzerland of the Middle East Play Peacemaker?
On Thursday, October 15, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Sultan Qaboos in Oman. This marked the first time an Israeli leader visited the Gulf state since Shimon Peres in 1996. 
by Hussein Noureldin
For those who are unfamiliar with the Sultanate, Oman is a nation that has undergone drastic and revolutionary change since the start of Sultan Qaboos’ tenure. Like the other GCC states, Oman is an absolute monarchy with little room for democratic practice. Despite concerns over self-government from Omani youth during the Arab Spring’s movement for democratization, he is revered by many in the Sultanate as a hero. After overthrowing his father in a coup d’état in 1970, Qaboos assumed power and immediately laid out his plan for the new foundations of the country. Tolerance, neutrality, and peace – morals derived from Ibhadi Islam, the dominant sect in the country – became some of the core values of Oman as well as a reflection of its foreign policy. Qaboos made major strides by building up an entirely new infrastructure, of which there was almost none prior to his rule, creating numerous social institutions, and ultimately lifting Oman out of isolation and stagnation . His plans worked to great effect as Oman transitioned into a modernized leader and example to the Middle East.
The Sultan continues to set precedent as he hosted Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet members in the capital of Muscat on Friday, October 26 . This was followed by Oman’s recognition of Israel’s position in the region, suggesting that the Sultanate may be ready to influence the stability of the Middle East . This recognition, coupled with its neutral foreign policy, suggests that Oman is prepared to take on the role of peacemaker in the Middle East, a prospect that could prove vital to settling the region’s many disputes.
One of the main facets of Muscat’s foreign affairs that makes Oman an ideal mediator in the region is its ties to controversial actors such as Iran, the Houthi rebels of Yemen, Qatar, and, most recently, Israel. Iran has been considered a threat to the peace and stability of the Middle East by many countries, including several Gulf states in addition to Israel and the US. The presence of Oman, which maintains normal diplomatic relations with Iran, enabled the US to rely on the Sultanate as a liaison prior to negotiations of the Iran Deal under the Obama administration . Israel has a common enemy in Iran with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, so Oman may also act as a mediator in the case of rising tensions . Oman is also in communication with representatives from the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who have been engaged in war with the Yemeni government and Saudi-led coalition. The Sultanate demonstrated its diplomatic prowess by brokering the release of Western hostages held by the Yemeni faction in 2015 . Qatar is another state Oman maintains relations with, despite the boycott imposed on it by several GCC states including Saudi Arabia and the UAE . All these factors, coupled with strengthening relations with Israel, make it a reliable ally for the US as Trump looks to negotiate his “deal of the century” for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. US diplomat Jason Greenblatt praised the warming ties between Oman and Israel, suggesting that better relations between Arab states and Israel is vital to the peace process . Additionally, Oman’s pragmatic foreign policy in many cases could align with some of the Trump administration’s policies . Given Oman’s historical policy of non-interference, however, the extent of a potential peacemaking role remains to be seen .
There have also been encouraging signs that Oman could have a fairly important role in resolution. Despite downplaying suggestions of a mediator role in the conflict, Oman’s foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi asserted that “it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as other states] and also bare the same obligations.”
To make any significant progress in the quest for peace in the Middle East, it is essential that Arab states start to embrace Oman’s neutral foreign policy. Moreover, it would be naïve of them to be concerned about discussion with the likes of Israel or Iran; Oman does not even have full diplomatic relations with the premier. The increased dialogue with Israel should not be alarming especially given that the purpose of Oman’s outreach is to settle ongoing issues concerning Arab states. This should alleviate Palestinian concerns that Arab-Israeli negotiations will lead jeopardize their vision for a resolution . For example, the Sultanate’s relations with Iran could be used as leverage to compel Israel to returning occupied territory in Gaza and the West Bank.
The power of diplomacy could well be the key to stability, and there are few better prepared to take on this role in the Middle East than Oman. Despite ambiguity over the country’s leadership after Qaboos, the fact that Oman has made such major strides in Arab-Israeli relations shows the Sultanate’s great initiative to project its values of peace and coexistence in the region .
“To understand Oman’s foreign policy is to understand how skilled diplomacy works”, wrote expert Joseph Kechichian in 1995. This quote rings true to this day as Oman remains an anomaly in today’s volatile, conflict-ridden Arab world. It is crucial that major powers continue to look to Oman for assistance as its invaluable diplomatic relations could be the answer to the many issues that plague the Middle East.
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13. Joseph A. Kechichian. “A Unique Foreign Policy Produces a Key Player in Middle Eastern and Global Diplomacy”, 1995.