Opinion

Why the Late Sultan of Oman Was So Determined to Befriend Israel

Through thick and thin – intifadas, peace agreements, Arab boycotts, protests and Iran - Qaboos Al Said, who died this week, built and deepened ties with the Jewish state

Oman's leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said attends the opening of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Doha December 3, 2007
Fadi Al-Assaad/ REUTERS

With the death of Sultan Qaboos Al Said of Oman, at the age of 79, Israel lost a long-time friend and strategic partner. Over his nearly 50 years on the throne, from 1970-2020, Qaboos not only transformed Oman from a sleepy state on the Arabian periphery into a leading international diplomatic force, but he also ushered in an era of remarkable social and economic progress for his people.

According to a 2010 United Nations Development Program report, examining overall progress made in 135 countries over the past 40 years, Oman ranks first in health, education and income; by comparison, Saudi Arabia pitches in at number five.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56Haaretz

Oman’s steady progress from poverty to a modern nation over Qaboos’ tenure not only stemmed from oil riches but from his breathtaking ability to unify his people and bring Oman’s civil war (the Dhofar rebellion) to an end by building an inclusive and tolerant society (at least, in comparison to other repressive Gulf autocracies) mercifully free of sectarian strife. 

At the time when he resumed power, Oman had only three schools and 10 kilometers of paved road - and they were in the capital Muscat only. Qaboos’ genuine popularity is tied to Oman’s transformation from extreme poverty even if tensions over economic inequality simmer below the surface, which erupted in anti-government protests in 2011 - during the high tide of the "Arab Spring" - when several protestors were killed

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II greets Sultan Qaboos of Oman on the first day of his state visit. British military forces aided Qaboos’ 1970 coup d’etat in which he took control from his father. Mar. 16, 1982
Bob Dear,AP

It was precisely in his quest to develop his nation for the betterment of its people that Qaboos’ relationship with Israel began. As my colleagues at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies recently pointed out, it was Britain which initiated diplomatic ties between Israel and Oman during the 1970s, which at the time was dealing with an invasion from Yemen into the Dhofar region, in the southern part of the country. 

The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and King Hussein of Jordan, along with Israel, were the only regional leaders to support Qaboos during Oman’s existential struggle. Buoyed by British and Iranian military support, Qaboos offered an amnesty to all insurgents, including to its leader, Yusuf Bin Alawi, whom the Sultan appointed to become his foreign minister, a portfolio Alawi holds until today.

Oman's foreign minister visits the Al-Aqsa mosque, February 15, 2018
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Once peace was established at home, Qaboos extended his philosophy of peaceful coexistence, including across geopolitical lines, to Oman’s foreign policy doctrine, centering it on neutrality and non-interference. Oman has never broken off any diplomatic relations with any country.

Following the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, Oman, along with Sudan, became the only Arab League member not to boycott Egypt over normalizing relations with the Jewish state. Similarly, in honor of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994, Qaboos sought to lend support to his friend and mentor, King Hussein, by hosting then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Salalah - the first known trip by an Israeli leader to an Arab Gulf state.

The following year, when Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli right-wing extremist in November 1995, Foreign Minister Alawi came to Jerusalem to attend his funeral.

In April 1996, during the runoffs to the snap Israeli elections called after Rabin’s death, Qaboos invited then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres to inaugurate an Israeli trade office and the Middle East Desalination Research Center in Muscat. The Research Center was established as a research and capacity building institution to share desalination technologies and clean fresh water supply with the people of the Middle East, the most arid region in the world.

But Qaboos’ friendship with Israel also extended to his quest to narrow the differences between Israel and other Gulf states, for example by introducing Peres to his friend Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the then-Emir of Qatar. 

Reuters

Qaboos had recognized the Qatari ruler as a fellow reformer and modernizer, and thus sought to introduce him to Peres to join forces as three visionaries committing themselves to breaking the impasse in Arab-Israeli relations through transforming Gulf-Israel ties. Towards that end, Alawi helped secure what led to a further diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and Qatar. Israel’s trade office in Doha was open from May 1996 through January 2009.

Peres’ back-to-back visits to Oman and Qatar were meant to boost his re-election campaign at home. But Peres, as we know, suffered defeat to Benjamin Netanyahu - who himself then went on to transform Gulf-Israel relations some two decades later, without being predicated by progress in resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

While Qaboos requested that Israel close its trade office shortly after the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, the Middle East Desalination Research Center remained open, and has since served as an alternative multilateral platform for Israel-Oman diplomacy. 

Fast forward, to October 2018, and Sultan Qaboos invited Netanyahu to Muscat in the midst of the prime minister’s re-election campaign – an electioneering opportunity that Netanyahu exploited to the full back home, boasting about his relationships with the Gulf states. Two days before Netanyahu’s visit, Qaboos hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Muscat.

Oman TV coverage of Netanyahu's visit to Muscat in October 2018

Those back-to-back visits by the Palestinian and Israeli leaders were peak Qaboos tactics, designed to demonstrate Muscat’s even-handed support for Arab-Israeli peace making - and for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in particular.

But even though Netanyahu’s 2018 visit to Muscat was controversial among segments of Oman’s population - evident in their social media postings - so too was Qaboos’ decision to establish the Israeli trade office back in 1996.

During its inauguration ceremony, Oman’s Minister of Commerce and Industry refused to resign the bilateral agreement with Israel and resigned in protest. The agreement was signed by a businessman instead. 

But Oman’s friendship with Israel has not only been tied to its support for Israel-Palestinian peace-making. Qaboos also sought to leverage his respective relationships with Tehran and Jerusalem to reduce Israeli-Iranian acrimony. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said listen to the national anthems at Tehran's Saadabad Palace. August 25, 2013
AFP

For instance, during the secret backchannel between Iran and the Obama administration, which eventually lead to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran nuclear deal - Qaboos consistently kept Israel informed about the ensuing diplomatic process – with the full knowledge of both Tehran and Washington. 

Qaboos successor, Sultan Haitham Al Said, has pledged to uphold Oman’s independent and anti-escalation-oriented foreign policy.

The Oman-Israel relationship under Sultan Qaboos set historical precedent for its warmth and strategic character. It was because Qaboos was genuinely popular at home, even if he governed as an absolute monarch, that he was able to so publicly embrace Israel.

That is also why Qaboos never paid any serious domestic political price for his relationship with Israel, even if the day-to-day relationship over the decades was mostly carried out with the necessary discretion.

Sigurd Neubauer is an expert on the Gulf and U.S.-Arab relations. He is a regular commentator on Al Jazeera, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Gulf International Forum.