There are four issues of interest concerning the Sultanate of Oman’s efforts to push through a new measure that is similar to the law passed by Iraq earlier in 2022 – an amendment of the existing boycott law against Israel. The amendment was sent back to the legal and legislative committees after discussion in the Shura Council reportedly seeking to expand the law prohibiting any contact with entities or individuals in Israel. This means that Omanis or dual nationals residing in Oman could face criminal penalties not only for attempting to do business with Israel, but even for exchanging private conversations. The questions arising from this effort have to do with the reason, the timing, the regional trends and context, and the likely impact.
While the Israeli media outlets covering this story speculate that the bill is being pushed in response to Israeli efforts to secure Oman overflight passage, there is likely more to the story.
Oman is a minor player in the region. Under pressure from Saudi Arabia, which in theory has agreed to such flights, it would have likely agreed to some arrangement, or at the very least not caused additional problems. Whether or not, the overflight discussion is a real reason, it is certainly an excuse to stymie the expansion of the Abraham Accords. It points to a likelihood that Saudi Arabia may be losing influence within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and that other players, including Iran, are gaining influence.
While there was social outrage concerning the late Sultan Qaboos’ meetings with Binyamin Netanyahu in 2018, at the end of the day foreign policy decisions are made by the sovereign and not by the Shura Council representatives, and the current bill would not be considered, much less be in the process of approval, without a royal nod. This means that, contrary to expectations of the Middle East commentators and experts at the peak of the Abraham Accords wave, Oman likely never had any serious intention of joining and, rather, was looking to gain the most PR and US support from the diplomatic flurry at the least possible cost.
The country itself is not pro-Israel, as evident by the popular reaction; there was no effort to change education, media reporting, or other soft power coverage of Oman’s relations with Israel and there was no sign of preparation for any major business or defense deals between the two countries. The brouhaha was all for show. Even that would not have been possible without support from Riyadh.
Is Saudi Arabia really in favor of expanding pro-Israel regional dynamics? That depends on only one factor – the will of the king in Saudi Arabia. The signals from Riyadh have been mixed at best. On the one hand, there is clearly an interest in maintaining defense ties vis-a-vis Iran; Israeli businesspeople with dual citizenships have been doing business in the kingdom for some time; and former White House senior advisor Jared Kushner openly spoke of the Abraham Accords during his last visit. On the other hand, in political circles the subject of normalization with Israel is still very much taboo, and anything related to Israel-Saudi relations outside of security matters, particularly after US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia this summer, has largely left the Saudi media.
That in itself is a message. Furthermore, other members of the GCC have been openly trying to challenge Riyadh’s foreign policy primacy. Neither the leader of Abu Dhabi nor Dubai has showed up for the China-GCC summit, reportedly hoping to host a separate UAE gathering instead. Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup was an attempt to wrest attention and soft power influence from its neighbor. This public defiance, despite the concluded Al Ula agreement normalizing ties between Doha and Riyadh, has been increasingly out in the open. The bribery scandal in the European Parliament, which included advisers to various parties lobbying for anti-Saudi language, is but one sign of these internal GCC tensions. No less important is Iran’s growing influence throughout the region, however.
This effort has so far passed largely under the radar outside of Israel, thanks to the fact that most of the Western world is on break for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The last thing Muscat wants or needs is negative attention from the United States or the United Kingdom, its primary interlocutor ever since colonial days. The US has traditionally praised Oman’s role as a key ally in securing freedom of navigation and as a host of the US Navy on multiple Omani bases through the Oman Facilities Access Agreement. This has allowed US naval ships to engage in naval exercises with other regional allies; to seize contraband headed to Yemen; and to provide security to the trade vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz to the Red Sea en route to the Horn of Africa. Most recently President Biden praised Oman’s energy and climate policies in light of his administration’s vision and other forms of cooperation. But there is more to the story than trying to sneak in this measure behind the backs of the US Congress and the UK Parliament.
Due to its close ties to Iran and to the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, Oman has played the role of a diplomatic intermediary on assorted regional issues, including the war in Yemen and the effort to revitalize nuclear deal policies with Iran. Just a few days ago, Oman sent a delegation to Sanaa to present the Saudi truce proposal to the Houthi leadership.
Iran’s influence in Oman is substantial. It is one of the top trading partners and investors in the struggling Omani economy, and a supporter of Oman’s role as home to the Shia Muslim-adjacent religious minority, the Ibadi. Oman reportedly hosts secret Iranian intelligence and military bases, and turns a blind eye to Houthi arms smuggling into Yemen.
This boycott bill may be Iran’s message to the international community and to Israel, especially in response to the recent diplomatic measures against it, which include a wide array of sanctions and its ousting from the United Nations Women’s Rights Commission. More than just a tit-for-tat, however, Iran’s manipulation of its regional proxies may be aiming to disrupt the Abraham Accords in general.
Regional Trends and Context
While Israel has been struggling to finalize terms with additional Abraham Accords partners or, for that matter, with some of the existing partners, Iran has been working hard to expand the Axis of Resistance. Its success, in part, is due to the continuous push by the Biden administration and the European Union for a new nuclear pact. For instance, the United Arab Emirates has normalized relations with Iran for the first time since 2016 and, seemingly, was rewarded with President Biden’s invitation to a White House visit extended to the UAE president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, during the GCC summit in Riyadh over the summer. Security and defense relations with Israel have been key to making the Abraham Accords work, but the regional defense pact fell apart along with the US-UAE F-35 deal, which made the air defense alliance logistically impracticable. Most recently, the US National Security Council struck out against the UAE once again, accusing it of illegal lobbying as per an unsubstantiated Washington Post article referencing an unpublicized intelligence report. Iran has been taking advantage of these faux pas to push its own regional strategy politically, even as it is struggling with the impact of the domestic unrest.
Sending a message of further isolating Israel and using this sort of propaganda to rally its proxies and regional support behind it may give Iran the geopolitical leverage it needs. The message to the West here is essentially “back off with the pressure as we have many ways of hitting back.” Oman is a great choice for Iran because US maritime security strategy is heavily dependent on that partnership – and Israel is caught in the crosshairs. Moreover, Oman is not the first to take this step. In May 2022, Iraq passed a similar measure criminalizing contacts and communications with Israel under penalty of life imprisonment or capital punishment, largely in response to a conference in Erbil, which Baghdad has accused of being used to push normalization.
Qatar flatly rejected any expansion of ties with Israel outside of short-term arrangements during the World Cup, and showed open hostility to Israel in various ways, including rejecting participation in US-led military exercises involving Israel – even after being designated a major non-NATO ally by the US. But it was actually Kuwait – which has strong Iranian and Muslim Brotherhood influences outside the royal family – which was the first to pass such a bill in 2021, likewise banning and penalizing dealings with Israel.
The effect of these steps is to split and weaken the GCC vis-a-vis Iran, benefiting Tehran at a time of relative weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Oman’s BDS move also throws a lifeline to the struggling Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements in the region. In Saudi Arabia, under the crown prince’s leadership, Muslim Brotherhood ideology was largely on its way out – but with the conclusion of the Al Ula agreement, which invited Qatar’s diplomatic, intelligence and financial presence into the country, and with President Biden’s openness to Iran and to various Islamists domestically and internationally, these movements have resurfaced. Specifically, the 2022 State Department Religious Freedom Report points to the reported imprisonment of the Saudi hate preacher Salman Al-Oudeh and other pro-violence Islamist activists and clerics as a matter of religious freedom restrictions in the kingdom.
Such steps have strengthened the voices of revolutionary and anti-Israeli activism throughout the Middle East. By contrast, the relative silence on Oman’s mistreatment of its own religious minorities and specific tribes has received little support or attention from US institutions. Oman is not a big power player or an important potential trading partner for Israel, but any BDS moves, particularly in furtherance of greater threats, are destabilizing and will benefit international propaganda campaigns against Israel. The US and UK governments should not stay silent in light of these clear efforts to disrupt the strategy to integrate Israel into the region and to bring Middle Eastern countries together against common threats but rather exercise their leverage to get Oman to drop this measure and to move out from under the protectorate of Iran.