Analysis

The Sultan’s New Friend: Just Why Did Netanyahu Visit Oman?

If we let our imagination run wild, Trump might now encourage the Saudi prince to promote an agreement with Israel to cleanse himself of the Khashoggi affair, with Israel’s visit to Oman part of the process

Benjamin Netanyahu with Sultan Qaboos of Oman; the two met in Muscat on October 26, 2018.
GPO via Reuters

Sultan Qaboos of Oman is a very secretive leader. He’s minister of defense, finance, foreign affairs and intelligence, and heads the central bank. In Oman there are no democratic institutions and the ruler appoints the judges. Leaks are unlikely to come out of Muscat to shed light on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit.

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But that doesn’t diminish the importance of the trip, which cracks the wall of no public meetings between Arab leaders and Israel’s prime minister.

Netanyahu had good reason not to visit Oman and one excellent reason to do so. Oman is the close ally of Iran and Qatar. One is Israel’s great enemy and one has been defined by Israel as supporting terror because of its assistance to Hamas and its alliance with Iran and Turkey.

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Oman recently announced that it opposes sanctions on Iran and that it intends to build a gas pipeline connecting it to Iran. It helped Iranian smugglers do business during the previous period of sanctions and it opposes Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian policy.

Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s absolute ruler, is the most veteran Arab leader; he came to power in a coup against his father in 1970. He opposes the Saudi war in Yemen, though he decided late to join the Arab coalition, and has even threatened to withdraw from the Gulf Cooperation Council due to his opposition to Saudi hegemony in the Gulf. When three Gulf states imposed an embargo on Qatar more than a year ago, Oman and Kuwait didn’t join this dramatic move and Oman even allowed Qatar free use of its ports to get around the blockade, setting a collision course with Saudi Arabia.

Ostensibly Oman should have incurred Saudi sanctions no less than Qatar did, and Saudi Arabia might even have penalized Oman if not for American pressure and the desire to avoid a greater rift among the Gulf states.

The visit by an Israeli prime minister to Oman contradicts not only Israel’s policy toward Iran, it sticks a toothpick in the eye of the Saudi kingdom. And yet, no condemnation has been heard from Riyadh or other Arab countries. Only Iran responded to the surprise visit with an interpretation that once again Israel and the United States are trying to drive a wedge into the Muslim world.

This is relatively moderate verbiage that didn’t touch on the initiator of the visit, Sultan Qaboos, who is Tehran’s ally. Iran can’t criticize Qaboos because back in 2013 it agreed to hold talks in Oman with U.S. officials on laying the groundwork for the nuclear agreement, and then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry subsequently met with Iranian officials for discussions that led to the nuclear talks.

And here we have Oman, on whose soil was born what President Donald Trump called “the worst agreement ever,” hosting with pomp and circumstance the Israeli prime minister, his wife and his entourage, and no less importantly, the Mossad chief. It’s not superfluous to ask why the Mossad head of all people joined the visit, and it wouldn’t be baseless to assume that the Mossad had a hand not only in planning the trip but also in assisting Qaboos in his rule for years.

For years, the sultan’s power relied on the British intelligence services to protect his little country of 2.9 million citizens, and another 2 million foreign workers or so. In any case, it’s possible to conclude that the visit to Oman is the fulfilment of a promise Netanyahu made to forge ties with Arab countries that haven’t signed peace agreements with Israel. Thus the visit is very important politically to Netanyahu, but it’s still too early to say whether the visit will lead to full diplomatic relations, with other Arab countries following suit.

In the same breath one might wonder what led Qaboos, Iran’s ally, to invite an Israeli prime minister and thus raise a wave of speculation about the possibility of talks between Iran and Israel. We don’t have to get excited about talks with Iran. The 76-year-old Qaboos, who three years ago fell ill with cancer, is a realistic leader who knows very well the limitations of the conflicts in the region. He certainly received a long lecture from Netanyahu and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen about the Iranian threat and Israel’s desire for Oman to distance itself from Israel’s enemy and join the U.S. sanctions.

Qaboos certainly politely explained to his visitors that he has no intention of changing his taste for Iran. There’s nothing new about Israelis visiting his country, considering that an Israeli representation operated in Muscat until 2000, but that was Israel’s status in Morocco and Qatar as well.

Qaboos may have understood from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who visited the sultan’s palace shortly before Netanyahu, that there is a chance for renewal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But it is unlikely that this was the reason that Qaboos invitated Netanyahu, especially when on the horizon the Trump administration is threatening to announce its deal of the century.

If there's someone who should and can persuade Netanyahu to renew the talks, he's sitting in the White House, not on the Persian Gulf coast. If we let our imagination run wild, Trump might now encourage the Saudi crown prince to promote an agreement with Israel to cleanse himself of the Khashoggi affair, with the Israeli visit to Oman, to the expert go-between, being part of the process. But you have to exercise great caution when you let your imagination speak.