Photo: National Interest

Published on June 7, 2023 by the National Interest.

Situated between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are not threatening one another for the moment, Oman tries hard to remain neutral, walking a fine line, not overtly taking sides. The country’s foreign policy is to be a friend to all, an enemy to none. To that end, Muscat bends over backward to avoid any provocative actions or diplomatic initiatives that can get them into political hot water.

Yet this foreign policy approach has some inconsistencies, to the detriment of not just Oman but others as well. Consider, for example, that last week Oman signed a new “Strategic Document for Enhanced Bilateral Cooperation” with Iran, trying to appease their neighbor while advancing its economic interests. Muscat is particularly keen on maintaining good relations with the Islamic Republic, which is almost in view from its coast in the Persian Gulf. This new agreement, unfortunately, supports Iran’s resistance economy against American sanctions, which also benefits China and Russia, who have filled the American-created vacuum in the Middle East. One could argue that for a nation that doesn’t take sides, this could be interpreted to be such a case.

Such views don’t hold up, however, because Oman also maintains warm relations with the United States and its allies. Most notably, like many of the Arab states before they joined the Abraham Accords, Muscat is (discretely) conducting business with Israel, Washington’s premier partner in the Middle East.

This is where recent developments come into play. Unlike the nations that joined the Accords—the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, which have all seen dramatic growth in trade with Israel, benefiting their economies and their people—Oman has opted to stay on the sidelines. This is despite the fact that Oman needs the economic investment and joint projects that Israel could offer. More broadly, the Gulf region would benefit from Oman serving as a trusted mediator between both sides. For the sake of such, both Washington and Jerusalem have an interest in facilitating the normalization of relations between Oman and Israel.

Explaining Omani Hesitancy

Ultimately, what truly matters to every Arab nation is what economic benefit they will derive from doing business with Israel. Secretly, Israel has done business with many Arab countries, often having to do with what the latter need most: expertise in water management, agriculture, technology, and security. In the Gulf today, over twelve hundred Israeli companies are doing business. Even the Qataris, whose government supports the anti-Israel Al Jazeera media empire, have an Israeli anti-drone system installed around Doha airport. A Qatari major-general [and] military and security advisor for defense affairs confirmed this to me.

So why did Oman, which would stand to benefit greatly, not join the Abraham Accords in 2020?

One reason was then Sultan Qaboos was dying, and the new sultan had yet to consolidate his power base. Oman under Qaboos was known to be, if not friendly, then politely neutral with Israel. During his reign, the sultan hosted not one but two Israeli prime ministers—Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 and Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018. Having recently been in the country now that the new sultan has established himself, I took the opportunity to meet with various Omani officials and believe they hold no hostility towards Jews or Israel. But given who their neighbor across the Gulf is, they are not in a position to join the Abraham Accords until the Saudis go first.

Another potential reason is that, like the Qataris and Saudis, the Omanis are sensitive to the Palestinian plight. According to Minister of Information Abdulla al Harrasi, who I met in Muscat, “ We hear the suffering of daily Palestinian indignations, but Israel doesn’t show any willingness to show good signs.” He said Oman won’t get involved until Israelis and Palestinians make the first gestures toward each other. Yet he also mentioned that the previous Omani minister of foreign affairs said, “We, the Arab world, must make Israel feel secure.” Unfortunately, he is personally in favor of a one-state solution, which means, in effect, no Israel.

Although Oman is proud to claim it talks to all sides, when I asked how it could not speak to Israel, the other party in the dispute, they danced around the subject, saying the time is not right. The Head of the Omani Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs told me, “Knowledge is not enough, we must get to know the other person, but not Israelis yet.” He said this not with animus but with a level of respect for Jewish people, if not the Jewish nation.

Moving Toward Normalization

The path for Omani normalization with Israel, which would greatly benefit them, is one of the small steps to lay the groundwork for further cooperation and diplomatic initiatives. The path to ruffle the least feathers is for Oman to champion trilateral projects between Oman, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel on issues that transcend politics, like water-related issues. Oman has a research center on desalination, while Israel is the world’s desalination expert.

A common complaint of the Palestinians is that they don’t have sufficient water resources for the future. This could be a way to help Palestinians on the ground and allow Oman to host Israelis and Palestinians to talk face-to-face with one another.

An additional option is for Oman to be actively involved in the Negev Forum of Arab nations and Israel, putting forward projects at the conference that would benefit them and could be financed by the United States and the more prosperous Gulf nations. The latter don’t trust the Palestinians as fiduciary stewards of their philanthropy. If Oman is more directly involved in monitoring the money, those nations may feel more confident that their resources don’t end up in the Palestinian kleptocracy.

The Omanis, Israelis, and the rest of the Gulf states know that trust is needed before friendship and normalization begin. This is where Washington’s assistance in shepherding new relationships is required. Unlike other Gulf nations, the Omanis practice a version of Islam that is neither Shiite nor Sunni but Ibadi, a moderate sect that holds freedom of religion dear.

A combined U.S.-Saudi initiative to cover Omani cooperation with Israel is in the interests of all the nations involved, as well as the Palestinian people. But that will take political capital to happen. Perhaps, if America cannot convince Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman to normalize relations with Israel at this time, involving the Omanis could be an intermediary step—Washington could provide economic incentives and security guarantees to alleviate Omani worries. This would be in America’s and its Gulf allies’ interests, as anything that stabilizes the region is a benefit for all.

By mepin