Israel’s “secret” relationship with the Gulf monarchies is rather open and well-known. Oman is no exception to this rule. While a cursory glance at such a relationship might lead to confusion as to why an Arab state would be “friendly” to Israel, there are several key factors endemic to Oman and, at the same time, a wholesale change to the dynamic between Israel and the Arab Gulf that must be considered.
For the past few years, many observers have noticed this gradual change and how many Gulf states have begun to thaw the ice that had previously characterized Israeli-Khaleeji relationships. In 2018, Muhammad bin Salman shocked the world by expressing support for Israel’s existence, asserting that “there are a lot of interests we [Saudi Arabia] share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the GCC.”1.“Saudi-Israeli relations: The emergence of a new alliance”: Al-Arabiya In the background, intelligence agencies across the Gulf were coordinating and sharing information with their Israeli counterparts.2.“Ex-Saudi intelligence chief reveals secret Israel-Saudi relations”: Middle East Monitor Even key leaders like Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa offered support to Israel over the Palestinians.3.“Arab Gulf Country of Bahrain: Israel Has ‘Right’ to Defend Itself Against Iran”: Haaretz
While these holistic developments may seem recent, there are more historical nuances to the situation. In fact, examining Israel’s relationship with the Gulf can be obfuscated when looked at broadly. It can be more illuminating to examine the dynamics of this relationship on distinct bilateral ties. This is particularly the case of Israeli-Omani relationships, which have a long history and highlight Oman’s divergent foreign policy when compared to the Arab Gulf. Although Sultan Qaboos has claimed before that “it would be erroneous to infer that Oman’s attitude in any way differs from that of its brothers of the GCC,” the historical record presents a different picture.4.“Interview With Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said”: Middle East Policy Council
Little is mentioned of Oman’s relationship, or lack thereof, with Israel until the deposition of Sultan Said bin Taimur in 1970. What is known is that Oman never directly participated in any of the Arab-Israeli wars that dominated the period between 1948-1973.5.Moign Khawaja, “How Oman became a peacekeeper in the Middle East”: RTE This does not mean that Oman went completely against the grain of Arab-Israeli relationships. Oman continues to have no formal diplomatic relationship with Israel and many early statements by Omani officials highlight the country’s symbolic participation in the conflict.6.https://www.france24.com/en/20190702-oman-denies-diplomatic-ties-agreed-with-israel">“Oman denies diplomatic ties agreed with Israel”: France 24 For instance, in 1977, Oman’s permanent representative to the UN General Assembly, Mahmoud abd’ al-Nasser, submitted a letter to Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim over Israel’s settlement policy. In it, al-Nasser claims that “this latest measure in Israel’s persistent policy of expansion and colonization violates the Charter of the United Nations, the Geneva Convention and the numerous resolutions and decisions by the Security Council.”7.“Letter dated 77/07/29 from the Permanent Representative of Oman to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General”: United Nations It is highlighted by scores of official documentation that Oman seemingly maintained an anti-Israeli policy that was in line with its neighbors.
At the same time, such anti-Israeli rhetoric was contrasted by Omani action. CIA analysts in 1981 noted that the Arab boycotts of Israel, which were initiated in 1948 and 1950, faced inconsistencies with enforcement. In fact, Oman is described as being “an unenthusiastic participant in the boycott,” and that the country interprets boycott directives “in a liberal fashion or [ignores] them entirely.”8.“The Arab Boycott of Israel: New Efforts and Old Problems”: Central Intelligence Agency
Perhaps the most blatant allusion to Oman’s more pro-Israeli stance came from its actions during the Camp David Accords of 1978. Under President Anwar al-Sadat, Egypt sought to recover the Sinai Peninsula, territory that was taken by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.9.Gilead Sher, “Israel, Egypt, the Palestinians, and the Legacy of the Camp David Accords, 40 Years Later”: War on the Rocks Under mediation by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egypt and Israel came to a peace agreement that resulted in Egypt formally recognising Israel’s right to exist.10.“Camp David Accords and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process”: U.S Department of State Office of the Historian11.“Camp David Accords”: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs The Arab world immediately responded with harsh criticism, and Egypt was expelled from the Arab League.12.Arthur Goldschmidt Jr., A Concise History of the Middle East, 32413.Christopher S. Wren, “Egypt to Obstruct Arab League’s Shift”: New York Times Shockingly, Oman maintained diplomatic ties with Egypt, contrasting with the mainline policy of the GCC.14.John D. Anthony, “Oman: Girding and Guarding the Gulf”: US-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee While Oman argued that the move was pragmatic, noting that Egypt could not remain a pariah forever, the diplomatic action was also tacit acceptance of peace with Israel.15.Ibid. This understanding was not lost to Oman’s neighbors. A CIA report from 1983 notes that “Oman’s continued support of the Camp David agreements… have also drawn considerable criticism from Arab states and organizations… [and] we cannot rule out the possibility of conflict in the years to come.”16.“Oman: Oil System Vulnerability”: Central Intelligence Agency
Another dimension comes from Oman’s ties with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). While Oman gave outward support towards the group, the reality was less clear. From 1962-1976, Oman faced an existential crisis with the Dhofar Rebellion.17.Imran Shamsunahar, “The Dhofar War and the Myth of ‘Localized’ Conflicts”: Real Clear Defense Despite the rebellion put down, there remained significant tensions. In fact, just a year after 1976, some analysts noted that “Dhofar remains, however, a potential flashpoint for the political disputes and military confrontations that threaten the stability of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.”18.Thomas W. Lippman, “Dhofar’s Bitter Rebellion Is Over, But Tension Remains”: Washington Post One particular group from the rebellion was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO), an organisation that received substantial support from Iraq and was deeply related to George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).19.John K. Cooley, “Israel and the Arabs: Iran, the Palestinians and the Gulf”: Foreign Affairs20.“Intelligence Memorandum: Cooperation and Conflict Among the Gulf States”: Central Intelligence Agency In fact, a speech given by the PFLO on February 12, 1975 correlated Oman’s presence in Dhofar to that of the Israeli presence in the West Bank, claiming that:
Peoples of the region will not be safe from the evil of imperialism… we express our absolute faith in the armed struggle waged by… the heroic Palestinian people, against imperialism, Zionism, and reaction.21.“PFLO’s Meeting with Iranian Revolutionaries”: Arab Gulf Digital Archives
From 1977-1979, the PFLO continued to stir tension across Dhofar and the surrounding region, and some feared that “the result could be the most immediate threat of trouble in the area, with the potential of spreading, through radical Palestinian links.”22.John K. Cooley, “Israel and the Arabs: Iran, the Palestinians and the Gulf”: Foreign Affairs While on the surface, the relationship remained congenial, there grew a tense relationship between Oman and the PFLP, and by extension the PLO as a whole.
Yitzhak Rabin and Qaboos bin Said
This context is especially helpful in understanding why in December 1994, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin flew to Muscat to meet with Sultan Qaboos.23.Joel Greenberg, “Rabin Visits Oman, Taking Step To Widen Link to Gulf Region”: New York Times24.“Yitzhak visits Oman”: Washington Post This was the first official meeting between an Israeli prime minister and a Gulf head of state. However, cursory meetings with business leaders of both countries occurred as early as October of that year.25.“Rabin makes secret visit to Oman”: UPI According to Rabin, the Omani Sultan invited him to:
Stress that he does it in encouragement of the continuing peace process to achieve a comprehensive peace with all the partners to the peace negotiations started at the Madrid conference.26.“Oman: Yitzhak Rabin Press Conference”: AP Archives
At the time, the Oslo Accords were signed, and it seemed that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was at hand. Noting this, Omani policy jumped at the opportunity to formally open relationships with Israel, and officials on both sides discussed the possibilities of opening consulates with one another.27.Ibid. Later that year, Oman officially declared that it would only enforce the first of the two Israeli boycotts.28.Martin A. Weiss, “Arab League Boycott of Israel”: Congressional Research Service
Despite Rabin’s assassination in 1995, this gradual warming continued, and in 1996 two key developments emerged. In January, Oman and Israel concluded a bilateral trade agreement, the only GCC country to do such.29.“Peres Gets Red Carpet Welcome in Oman on First Visit”: Associated Press30.“Israel-Oman Agree to Open Trade Offices”: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs The agreement enabled the two countries to open trade representative offices, an act that Omani officials believed to be the path to “continued progress in the peace process and increased stability in the region.”31.“Foreign Ministry Statement on Israel-Oman Agreement, 28 January 1996”: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs This was then followed by Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s visit to Oman in April.32.Ibid. Although Peres’s meeting with Qaboos was designed for continued talks on trade and economic policy, many viewed this discussion as part of a broader phenomenon. It seemed that Israel would soon be able to add another Arab state to its list of friendly neighbors.
Then, relations suddenly cooled once more. The two Palestinian Intifadas resulted in a resurged wave of support by the Arab states. The Second Intifada in particular resulted in major changes to Israeli-Arab relations. Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar, and Oman all closed off any ties they had with Israel.33.Frank Gardner, “Arab rules cool on Intifada”: BBC Trade relations effectively collapsed and Omani participation in anti-Israeli initiatives at the United Nations increased.34.“Illegal Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory : resolution / adopted by the General Assembly”: United Nations35.“Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People : draft resolution”: United Nations However, analysts have noted that despite these overtly anti-Israeli sentiments, Oman continued to maintain more secret channels of communications with the Israelis.36.Yoel Guvansky, “Oman after Qaboos: Challenges Facing the Sultanate”: Institute for National Security Studies
The Present Development
Today, Oman’s relationship with Israel continues at an accelerated pace. Meetings have been occurring between various officials throughout the last several years and more are expected to come.37.“Israeli minister in Oman to attend transport conference”: al-Jazeera In February 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Yousuf bin Alawi, Oman’s de facto foreign minister, in Warsaw.38.“Netanyahu meets Omani foreign minister , hints other Arab states warming to Israel”: Reuters Then in April at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, bin Alawi drew controversy by stating that “we Arabs must be able to look into this issue and try to ease those fears that Israel has through initiatives and real deals.”39.“Oman calls on Arabs to ease Israel’s ‘fears for its future’”: al-Jazeera July saw new developments emerge as Israel declared that it would be opening a diplomatic mission in Oman.40.“Israel to open diplomatic mission in Oman, Mossad chief claims”: Middle East Monitor In relation to this, Yossi Cohen, head of Israel’s Mossad, revealed that:
We do not yet have with [Oman] official peace treaties but there is already a communality of interests, broad cooperation and open channels of communication.”41.“Mossad chief declares Israel renewing Oman ties; Foreign Ministry won’t comment”: Times of Israel
It is clear that Israeli-Omani relations have a long history, but the question that emerges is why. What Cohen expresses is incredibly interesting. Of particular note is this idea of a “communality of interests.”42.Ibid. Although Oman has been successful in cultivating regional allies in order to maintain its sovereignty, history has shown that these allies and political dynamics are always subject to change. The fall of the Pahlavi Shah forced Oman to cultivate ties with Iraq, and when it became clear that Iraq was failing in its conflict with Khomeini’s Iran, Oman then shifted its focus on garnering support from the Ayatollah.
Today, Oman continues to face geopolitical issues despite its allies. It has faced tensions with Saudi Arabia, who have accused the country of aiding the Houthis in Yemen.43.Samuel Ramani, “Oman’s rising diplomatic role in Yemen met with mixed reaction in GCC”: al-Monitor At the same time, Oman remains wary of the anti-establishment policies exported by Iran.44.“Oman: Politics, Security, and U.S. Policy”: Congressional Research Service This balancing act is tenuous. As Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to ramp up in belligerence, Oman must secure other avenues of defense and security. In addition, the United States has begun to retreat from the Middle East, which reduces Oman’s security tool belt.45.Peter Zeihan, “Goodbye to the Middle East”: Zeihan on Geopolitics By establishing ties with Israel, Oman can have another card to use should geopolitical tensions flare up.46.Amatzia Baram, “Why the Sultan of Oman invited Netanyahu”: Haaretz Although no one should expect Israel to suddenly defend Oman from, for instance, an Iranian aggressive strike, there is a level of deterrence that emerges when these types of relations emerge.47.Steven A. Cook, “Oman Just Bought Israeli Insurance”: Foreign Policy
Although Omani-Israeli relations have seemed to be on a hiatus since summer discussions (potentially as a result of political instability in Israel due to recent election struggles), the groundwork for further collaboration has been set. At the same time, Oman’s relationships with other countries continue onward. Even with these discussions between Omani and Israeli leadership, Oman’s working relations with Iran do not seemed to be deterred.48.Seth J. Frantzman, “Iran is making a play for new Gulf outreach with Oman and Qatar”: The Jerusalem Post At the end of the day, Oman and its leadership are focused on a single goal, one that has been emphasized over and over throughout the years. The country has attempted to promote itself as a defender of peace, stability, and free trade. It has worked with a multiplicity of bilateral ties and shifting alliances. These international developments have followed the line of a single, security-minded foreign policy. By recognising the country’s weaknesses, Oman has attempted to use alliances and strategic agreements to bolster its defenses and maintain its sovereignty. Oman is a country that has engaged in the liberal order as a shield against its realist threats.