by Sigurd Neubauer
Sultan Qaboos Al-Said seemingly took the world by surprise when he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat last week. The British-educated Qaboos, who is also the Arab world’s longest serving monarch, has played an indispensible role since assuming power in 1970 to narrow differences between Washington and Teheran and between Israel and the Arab states.
For instance, amid rumors of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran in 2011, Qaboos helped the Obama administration with facilitating a secret backchannel with Iran, which led to the Interim Agreement of 2013, the precursor of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015.
Although Netanyahu staunchly opposed the JCPOA and actively lobbied the Trump administration to scrap it altogether, his visit to Muscat was closely coordinated with the White House—and with the blessings of President Donald Trump’s son in-law Jared Kusher in particular—to help lend Arab support for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
By inviting Netanyahu, Oman demonstrated significant diplomatic bravery by seeking to accommodate two regional powers—Israel and Iran—that its fellow Gulf Arab states do not accept.
The Khashoggi Affair
The preparations for Netanyahu’s visit most likely began last February when Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem where he called for the need to establish a Palestinian state. But the timing of the Israeli leader’s talks in Muscat coincides with mounting international outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
From an Omani perspective, the Khashoggi affair, which is pitting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) in a high-stakes zero-sum game, is further contributing to instability in the volatile Middle East.
Muscat believes that Israel is a stabilizing force in the Middle East, particularly now amid Saudi Turkish tensions, and thus seeks to strengthen regional stability by supporting the U.S.-led peace process by publicly engaging Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
But Oman also recognizes that the Arab public opinion is squarely in favor of the Palestinian cause, which explains why Qaboos sent a personal letter to Abbas immediately after meeting with Netanyahu in which he expressed his support for a Palestinian state. The letter sought to signal to Abbas that Oman has not abandoned the Palestinian cause as Arab and Palestinian criticism of Netanyahu’s high-profile visit was inevitable. Qaboos also hosted Abbas two days before Netanyahu’s arrival.
Following Netanyahu’s visit, Foreign Minister Alawi stressed that Oman does not seek to “mediate” between Israel and Palestine but seeks to bring the parties together. He added, “Our major role in the peace process between Israel and Palestine complies with the U.S. administration. Establishing a Palestinian state is a strategic necessity and without it there will be no stability in the region.”
The Oman-Israel Relationship
Although Oman and Israel presently don’t enjoy formal diplomatic relations, the two countries prior to Netanyahu’s arrival maintained low-grade ties through the Middle East Research and Desalination Center, a Muscat-based organization dedicated to convene Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab scientists to cooperate on water security. The organization is the only surviving entity of the Oslo Accords.
But Qaboos’s support for Arab-Israeli peacemaking stretches back 1979 when Oman became the only Gulf Arab country not to boycott Egypt after its president, Anwar El-Sadat, made peace with Israel. Similarly, in 1994, during the immediate aftermath of the Jordan-Israeli peace treaty, Qaboos sought to honor his friend and mentor, King Hussein of Jordan, by inviting then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the southern Omani city of Salalah. When Rabin was killed, Qaboos dispatched Alawi to the funeral.
Of all the Arab monarchies, Oman maintains the friendliest relations with Iran, which explains why it was able to help facilitate the secret backchannel between Tehran and the Obama-administration. Iran’s criticism of Qaboos’s decision to host Netanyahu was at a bare minimum, as it did not include any statements from either President Hassan Rouhani or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Had Netanyahu visited any other Gulf country, Iran would likely have expressed extreme outrage. Arab and Palestinian condemnation of Netanyahu’s visit was similarly muted.
Dealing with the Saudis
Even though Oman has suggested that it does not seek to mediate between Israel and Palestine but only provide “ideas” and “suggestions” on how to break the logjam, Muscat understands that no comprehensive peace treaty between the two parties can be made without the support of Saudi Arabia. Toward that end, Qaboos appears to be triangulating among Trump, Netanyahu, and MbS as the Saudi Crown Prince is slated to visit Muscat soon as part of Muscat’s quest to defuse regional tensions exacerbated by the Khashoggi affair.
By coming to the aid of the embattled MbS, Qaboos seeks to rally Arab support for Oman’s powerful neighbor, Saudi Arabia, while at the same time using the Israeli/Palestinian issue to strengthen the nexus of Washington, Riyadh, and Jerusalem in order to restore stability to the broader Middle East by establishing a Palestinian state.
As part of that effort, Netanyahu appears to have flown over Saudi airspace to and from Oman, a move that would have to be cleared with the Saudi authorities in advance. In the present geopolitical environment, in which Washington is balancing between pressuring Riyadh to hold those accountable for killing Khashoggi with preserving the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership, it is plausible that the White House pressured MbS to grant Netanyahu such permission.
Because Qaboos is close to Iran, which Netanyahu considers to be Israel’s arch enemy, the sultan is also setting himself up as a potential interlocker between Tehran and Washington and between Tehran and Jerusalem as part of his quest to defuse regional tensions. In light of Trump’s decision to scrap the JCPOA and inability to re-engage Tehran, Qaboos may be betting that by engaging Netanyahu directly on Iran, the route to U.S.-Iran detente may be via Jerusalem. In the process, Oman may help to defuse Israel-Iran tensions, including over Syria.
Just like Qaboos intervened in 2011 to prevent a war between Israel and Iran by assisting Washington with a backchannel, the sultan may have intervened again by inviting Netanyahu to help defuse U.S.-Saudi tensions through accelerating the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. By inviting Netanyahu, Qaboos’s gesture may prove to be as significant for Arab-Israeli peacemaking as Sadat’s historic address before the Knesset.
Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @SigiMideast.