By Sigurd Neubauer and Yoel Guzansky for The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Following his historic address to the U.S.-Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, U.S. President Donald J. Trump held bilateral talks with every Gulf Cooperation Council leader except for Oman’s deputy prime minister, Sayyid Fahd al-Said, who had his meeting cancelled at the last minute with no public explanation. Oman’s unique foreign policy record – which ranges from facilitating the early U.S.-Iranian contact that eventually led to the nuclear agreement, to its active contribution to the Middle East peace process, to more recently supporting the United Nations-sponsored Yemen peace negotiations – was also ignored altogether during the president’s speech, even though he thanked each of the other GCC countries for their respective commitments to fighting extremism and regional terrorist groups.
In fact, it may be that the very nature of Oman’s engagement in efforts to defuse regional conflicts has prompted the Trump administration to view it warily, given Washington’s efforts to restore close relations with Saudi Arabia. In this context, Oman’s established links to both Tehran and the political leadership of Yemen’s Houthi insurgents – clearly valued by the administration of former President Barack Obama – may be seen now as reasons to keep Oman at arm’s length. Further evidence that the U.S.-Omani relationship may be heading toward uncertainty came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cancelled his meeting in Riyadh with his Omani counterpart, Yusuf bin Alawi. This, coupled with the Trump administration’s Budget Blueprint for fiscal year 2018 – which suggests a 35 percent cut in annual military/security assistance to Oman, down from $5.4 million to $3.5 million – further suggests that Washington is revising its approach toward Muscat.
The Sultanate of Oman has been a U.S. strategic ally for nearly two centuries, and was the second Arab country, after Morocco, to establish diplomatic relations with Washington, in 1841. Moreover, Oman is only one of two GCC countries to enjoy a free trade agreement with the United States.
Building on these historic ties, Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, the Arab world’s longest-serving monarch, has skillfully managed throughout his 44-year tenure to serve as a regional intermediary to help defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran, and has at the same time actively contributed to Israeli-Arab dialogue by hosting the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), a Muscat-based organization dedicated to sharing Israeli expertise on desalination technologies and clean fresh water supply.
Given that Trump has pledged to reset U.S.-GCC relations and accelerate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as part of an apparent strategic effort to counter Tehran’s “malign” regional influence, it is also surprising that Qaboos is the only GCC leader that Trump has yet to call, especially considering Oman is the only GCC country to enjoy pragmatic relationships with Iran and Israel.
In recent years, Oman used its channels to Tehran – and to the Houthis in Yemen – to gain the release of a half dozen U.S. citizens who had been detained, efforts that earned Oman public expressions of thanks from Obama.
In addition, “Oman recognizes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an irritant between the U.S. and the Arab world, but – consistent with Qaboos’ philosophy of peaceful coexistence and conflict resolution – he wanted to play a constructive role,” said Richard Schmierer, former U.S. ambassador to Oman, adding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not a top issue on the U.S.-Omani bilateral agenda during his tenure in Muscat.
Nonetheless, in 2010 U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton hailed MEDRC as “a model for Middle East peace making.” A year later, it was revealed that Obama personally called Qaboos to ask him to lead Arab goodwill gestures toward Israel in exchange for a settlement freeze moratorium.
A Long History of Support for Mideast Peace
Following the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Oman was the only GCC member to consistently engage with Israel through a number of informal diplomatic initiatives. Oman was also one of only three Arab League members not to boycott Egypt after its peace treaty with Israel while actively supporting Jordanian-Israeli peace talks in the ensuing years.
Qaboos demonstrated his commitment to reaching a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace treaty by inviting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to visit him in Muscat in 1994. Rabin’s visit came only months after Israel and Jordan signed a comprehensive peace treaty. Although Rabin’s landmark visit was initially conducted in secrecy, it was announced publicly upon his return to Israel.
Though falling short of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic Knesset address in 1977 and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994, Qaboos granted Rabin and the Israeli leadership what it had strived for since the inception of the Jewish state in 1948: recognition and legitimacy. Moreover, Qaboos’ invitation arguably signaled publicly to Rabin, the Israeli public, and the Arab world at large a willingness to distance Oman from the Saudi position by granting Israel de facto recognition.
Following the assassination of Rabin, Qaboos once again displayed his commitment to the peace process by dispatching Oman’s foreign minister to attend Rabin’s funeral. In a subsequent interview with Israeli media, Alawi said, while being hosted by acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres, “Oman will soon have diplomatic relations with Israel, Oman was never in a state of war with Israel so there is no need for a peace agreement.”
The brief relationship between Qaboos, Rabin, and Peres has had concrete and positive outcomes: Oman has maintained a diplomatic channel with Israel since 1996 by hosting MEDRC. MEDRC is the only surviving organization of five regional initiatives included in the Oslo Accords as part of an effort to accelerate the peace process. Through it, participants from Gaza, Jordan, and the West Bank have attended, with Israeli counterparts, a number of courses on desalination and wastewater management in Tel Aviv.
On the surface, Oman’s quiet diplomatic style of doing business appears to be by design: By maintaining a policy of neutrality and noninterference, Oman seeks to preserve its independence and stability by closely aligning with Britain and the United States while balancing relations with its powerful neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Israeli-Palestinian angle, however, does not fit into Oman’s immediate strategic concerns; unlike Iran, with whom it shares the Strait of Hormuz, Israel is a distant power.
Given Trump’s quest to forge a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement, Oman could potentially again play a pivotal role through its MEDRC networks. A White House invitation to Oman’s newly-appointed deputy prime minister for international cooperation, Sayyid Assad bin Tariq al-Said, might provide an opportunity to explore this potential with the man who appears to be in line to become Qaboos’ eventual successor. And, unlikely as it would seem at the moment given Trump’s strident anti-Iran rhetoric, Oman could also reprise its role as a conduit for quiet messaging between Tehran and Washington on regional security issues as part of an effort to mitigate the risk of conflict.
While the last U.S. president to visit Oman was Bill Clinton in 2000, the administration of George W. Bush dispatched vice president Dick Cheney to Muscat in 2002, 2005, and 2006 to discuss Iran and other regional issues. More recently, the Obama administration and its secretary of state, John Kerry, in particular, came to rely on Muscat on a host of regional initiatives ranging from Iran, Syria, and Yemen. In fact, Kerry grew so appreciative of Oman’s effective diplomacy that he attended Oman’s national day celebration in 2016, a most unusual public gesture for a secretary of state. Whether Oman regains this coveted position in the eyes of the current administration remains to be seen, although its unique contributions in support of efforts to resolve some of the Middle East’s most intractable problems would at the very least argue for open channels of communication.
Sigurd Neubauer is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Yoel Guzansky is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, a National Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and a 2016–17 Israel Institute postdoctoral fellow.