The Underlying Interests Behind Israel & Oman’s Warming Ties
Netanyahu’s surprise visit to the Gulf state could entail economic and security benefits for Oman and political dividends for Israel’s prime minister
The government of Oman addressed criticisms on Saturday over Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s surprise one-day visit to the Gulf nation a day earlier.
To this end, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah made clear that his government acknowledges that “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this. The world is also aware of this fact. Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as other countries] and also bare the same obligations.”
The unusual meeting between the Israeli leader and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos suggests the region could be undergoing a paradigm shift towards greater acceptance of the Jewish state. But given the sharp denunciations—especially from Iran, Muscat’s close ally—analysts are trying to make sense of the underlying factors that led to the public warming of bilateral relations.
Dr. Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of International Relations at Regent’s University in London, contended to The Media Line that Oman is seeking to “demonstrate independence in the way it handles its foreign affairs…[and] that it is not in any one else’s pocket.”
The country’s economic and security interests also have played a vital role in its pivot towards Israel, Dr. Mekelberg explained, adding that these factors have forced the relationship into the public sphere despite the absence of official diplomatic ties.
“For Israel’s part, there is everything to gain. Prime Minister Netanyahu has a lot of domestic issues to sort out, including corruption investigations against him. And with elections looming in the next few months, he will say that ‘whatever you might think about me at home, look, as prime minister I went to a place like Oman and was well received. I am the most popular prime minister in the region.’”
Playing the “big statesman” is exactly what Netanyahu needs at the moment, Dr. Mekelberg concluded. “He is quite desperate to win another election and negotiate a coalition as the investigations into his affairs begin to weigh. He is a very seasoned politician and he plays the cards that he has, and sometimes very well.”
The Israeli premier was accompanied by his wife Sara, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Mossad spy chief Yossi Cohen. The visit was the result of “lengthy contacts between the two countries,” the Prime Minister’s Office revealed in a statement.
Iran, a close ally of Oman and Israel’s arch-enemy, was quick to condemn the development, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Bassam Ghasemi charging that Jerusalem is trying “to create divisions between Muslim countries and obscure 70 years of usurpation, rape and killing of the oppressed Palestinians.”
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar, an expert on Arab political discourse at Bar-Ilan University, conveyed to The Media Line that “in the Arab world to be a mediator means that people recognize you as great man, unlike the mediation culture in Western societies where the [go-between] has no role except for arranging papers.”
He noted that this role for Sultan Qaboos “is an acknowledgment of his power, influence, dignity, and honor,” even though Oman “lives on the margins of the Arab world.”
As far as Israel is concerned, Dr. Kedar elaborated, the government wants to look beyond Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who hopes to block the warming relations with Arab countries.
“But Arab countries are not buying this; they are deciding to go forward with Israel. Furthermore, Netanyahu is apparently taking Oman today as a substitute for Saudi Arabia, because the latter is now viewed as a leper, because of the alleged murder of [Saudi journalist] Jamal Khashoggi.”
Netanyahu’s trip comes ahead of the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran, which many Arab-Sunni states view as an aggressor in the region. Leaders of Arab states also have hinted at the possibility of recognizing Israel if a long-elusive peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians can be forged.
Israel and Oman previously enjoyed relatively stable relations, with former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin having visited the country in 1994 following the signing of the Oslo Accords. At the time, the nations agreed to open up trade representative offices on each other’s soil. However, ties were abruptly severed after the Palestinians launched the Second Intifada in 2000, although under-the-radar communications continued.