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Why the Sultan of Oman Invited Netanyahu

The sultan, who is not likely to pay a domestic price for the Netanyahu's visit, is trying to promote an arrangement that will cool off the Israeli-Palestinian crisis while keeping a distance

Amatzia Baram
Amatzia Baram
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Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat, October 26, 2018.
Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat, October 26, 2018. Credit: HANDOUT/Reuters
Amatzia Baram
Amatzia Baram

In February 2018, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi made his first official visit to the Palestinian Authority and an unofficial visit to Israel. The visit to Israel was defined as a religious pilgrimage to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the media did not report it. But what he said in Ramallah was astonishing, and even more far-reaching than the impressive peace declarations by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan in their time.

About two years ago, I was invited by the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said, to visit his country with a small international group. He is the longest-reigning ruler in the Muslim world and I was told that I was the first person to arrive in Oman with an Israeli passport since the outbreak of the second intifada. Even then there were signs that Oman’s policy toward Israel was changing; the foreign minister’s visit in February merely reinforced them.

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Bin Alawi did not condemn the occupation, nor mention the 1967 borders or right of return, although it is clear that his support for a Palestinian state means some kind of Israeli withdrawal. He did not condemn the United States for moving its embassy to Jerusalem, or demand a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.

What he did say was, “The need to establish a Palestinian state today resembles the urgency that was felt at the time for establishing the State of Israel after the two world wars.” Then, he said, “there was an international desire to establish Israel,” just as today “the establishment of a Palestinian state has become a strategic need for the entire world.” So why did the sultan agree to an official visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two-and-a-half weeks ago?

Oman produces a million barrels of oil a day and an amount of gas that brings in similar income. That’s not a lot, but the modest size of the population (about 3 million citizens and 1.5 million foreign workers living in a land 12 times the size of Israel), the lack of government corruption and prudent economic policies mean that Omanis have a good standard of living. That’s what I heard and saw in Oman, including from the “man on the street” and the security guards at the official guest house where we stayed.

Oman’s stability also stems from its neutrality regarding all the conflicts in the Arab and Muslim world. Almost all Omanis are Muslims, but the vast majority are neither Sunni nor Shi’ite but rather Ibadis, a fascinating incarnation of the extreme Kharijite community from the seventh century.

Today they are among the most moderate Muslim communities. The status of women is relatively good and you can get alcoholic drinks in any hotel. Qaboos has good ties with the Muslim world and acts as a mediator and conciliator. His interest in facilitating reconciliation stems from the prestige this position brings, but also from the fact that a major regional shake-up – a Saudi-Iranian or an Iranian-American conflict – could capsize his own ship, which is now sailing on quiet waters.

The sultan is trying to promote an arrangement that will cool off the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and mediating without direct talks is not mediating. That’s why Abbas visited Oman before Netanyahu’s visit. More broadly, his foreign minister’s mission in February and Netanyahu’s recent visit were aimed at trying to reconcile the PA and the Trump administration.

Oman can help U.S. President Donald Trump precisely because it keeps its distance from the conflict. That’s also why the sultan can discuss options with Abbas that the latter wouldn’t be willing to hear from anyone else.

Helping Trump is important because he can provide Oman with American security guarantees. After all, American-Iranian tensions are escalating; last week the U.S. imposed a new phase of economic sanctions. Due to its economic and political ties with Iran, Oman is exposed to American retaliatory measures. It is therefore important for the sultan to show Trump that Oman can help his administration in the Israeli-Palestinian context. If the sultan is indeed trying to also mediate between the United States-Israel and Iran, as some media have reported, such a move has no chance now and he knows it. But there is value to the offer, which could be useful the moment something changes in the United States, in Iran or both.

The sultan will probably not pay a domestic price for Netanyahu’s visit; my impression when I was there is that his control is absolute or virtually absolute. Iran wasn’t happy about the visit, but it needs Oman. In the Arab world, Qaboos has been castigated by Islamists and extremist intellectuals, but not by the regimes.

The chances of Oman’s mediation advancing the peace process are low, but even if it fails, Qaboos’ move has already helped his country’s security. It is also possible that technological and intelligence cooperation with Israel will help Oman, and in exchange there will be trade relations. The visit improved Netanyahu’s position and eroded Abbas’ status. It will also encourage similar steps by other countries. All this might lower Palestinian expectations, though that may be an unattainable goal.

Dr. Amatzia Baram is a professor emeritus of the University of Haifa.

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