Walking a Tightrope: Oman and Normalization with Israel

As the mechanisms of normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan continue to take shape, other Arab states are pondering whether they too should follow the same route. For a while, Oman appeared to be a natural candidate for this strategic choice, which would inevitably shift its currently neutral foreign policy in a direction that could threaten its regional relations and interests and curb its ability to act as a facilitator of contacts with the Islamic Republic of Iran. But messages from the sultanate over the last few years indicate that in Muscat there is a combination of readiness to join the so-called Abraham Accords and trepidation about the radical change that such a decision might bring to the country’s foreign policy. Indeed, what Oman appears to have so far decided is to maintain whatever informal ties it has with Israel without undertaking official recognition and the opening of embassies, as the UAE and Bahrain both did in 2021.

Signs of Openness to Normalization

The latest signal of Oman’s readiness to fully normalize relations with Israel came just recently, when its Civil Aviation Authority gave Israeli civilian aircraft permission to cross the country’s airspace. While Oman has been a signatory to the Convention on International Civil Aviation since 1973, allowing Israeli airlines to traverse Omani airspace is a clear message that the sultanate is at least amenable to accepting Israel as a state that should be accorded normal treatment. Incidentally, and in similar fashion and under arguably similar circumstances, Saudi Arabia also fully opened its airspace to Israeli aircraft last July, after it had given them limited access to fly to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates following the two states’ normalization with Israel.

Allowing Israeli airlines to traverse Omani airspace is a clear message that the sultanate is amenable to accepting Israel as a state that should be accorded normal treatment.

Oman did not shrink from expressing its support for the Israel normalization drive in 2020. In August of that year, the sultanate approved of the UAE’s establishment of official ties with Israel, and the following September, it supported Bahrain’s doing the same. And in December 2020, it congratulated Morocco on codifying its relations with the Zionist state. But in taking these laudatory positions, Oman still insisted on looking at normalization as a way to arrive at a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace, thus heeding the declared stance of Arab states, including normalizing nations, that the opening of relations with Israel should not be detrimental to the Palestine cause.

But what best illustrates a desire to normalize with Israel was a surprise visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Muscat in 2018, and his cordial reception there by the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. Before Netanyahu, late Prime Minister Shimon Peres made the same trip in 1996. With Netanyahu, it appeared that Qaboos was throwing all caution to the wind by receiving one of the architects of US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, which had occurred just a few months earlier. For decades, Oman had played a facilitating role between Iran and the international community, including in the mediation between the Islamic Republic and the United States that led to the landmark 2015 accord. By meeting with Netanyahu, Qaboos seemed to be sending a message that Oman’s foreign policy was taking a radical detour away its traditional neutrality and toward a realignment with Israel and its supporters in the Trump administration.

Applying the Brakes on Normalization

Despite the recent permission for Israeli aircraft to traverse Omani airspace, there has been a noticeable change in Oman’s position on normalization with Israel after Sultan Qaboos’ passing in 2020. This has become obvious at different levels of decision-making in the sultanate. In June 2021, Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi declared that Oman will not be the third Gulf country to normalize relations with Israel. In a telephone conversation with then Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid—the supposed moderate in Israel’s former cabinet—Albusaidi made clear the link between normalization and addressing the issue of Palestinian rights. Still, the two countries maintain good relations, which means that the current Omani leadership may prefer to keep holding the stick in the middle, lest taking a side land the sultanate in an uncomfortable situation.

On another level, the 86-member Omani Consultative Assembly voted last December to broaden the limits on contacts with Israel and Israelis, and especially with settlers. Although some might reason that the strong position of the Omani executive authority vis-à-vis the legislature may obviate whatever the assembly may legislate in this matter, this substantial expression of popular will against further contact with Israel sends a message that supports the government’s declared position on maintaining the relationship as it presently is. And with the current Israeli government under Netanyahu’s leadership removing all obstacles to maintaining its occupation of the West Bank, it is hard to see what incentive Oman will find to normalize its relations with Israel.

With the current Israeli government under Netanyahu’s leadership, it is hard to see what incentive Oman will find to normalize its relations with Israel.

Moreover, normalizing with Israel does not seem to be a popular proposition in Oman. A recent example can be seen in the negative response that an Omani blogger’s posts about her visit to Israel received from followers and others. And last November, an Omani company, Salam Air, withdrew from the Bahrain International Airshow over the participation of Israeli companies. In these instances and examples, Omani citizens’ attitudes toward Israel were the same as those expressed in a broad public opinion poll carried out by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar. Conducted across 14 Arab countries between June and December 2022, the poll found that 76 percent of respondents believe that the question of Palestine concerns all Arabs, and not only Palestinians, and also found that 84 percent of Arabs oppose the idea of their home country’s normalizing relations with Israel.

Outside Factors Kept in Balance

Maintaining Oman’s middle-of-the-road approach to normalization with Israel is happening as the sultanate manages other regional and international factors, none of which is easy to fully challenge or accommodate. Importantly, Muscat has no incentive to jump into the fray of normalization as long as Riyadh holds the line on refusing to open relations with Israel. Both countries may send positive signals about the issue, as they did in allowing Israeli overflight rights. They may also participate in US-led-and-organized military initiatives in the region, in which Israel takes part, as happened in March of last year when military officers met to address Iran’s threats. But thus far, they are unlikely—as are Qatar or Kuwait—to follow the UAE’s headlong plunge into economic, social, military, and other relations with Israel.

As things stand today in the Gulf, Muscat may not feel that it will gain much from changing its position of neutrality in intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) matters, especially regarding the ongoing competition between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Whatever the UAE’s gains from striking out on its own—whether in relations with Israel, changes in oil policy, Yemen, or strategic expansion around the region—Oman still believes that Saudi Arabia is the anchor of the GCC and must not be disregarded, challenged, or, indeed, disrespected. Besides, the sultanate cannot accept the UAE’s full-throttle embrace of Israel just as Netanyahu’s far-right government promises to further dispossess Palestinians and make a mockery of even minimal Arab demands regarding Palestinian rights. Oman still touts its support of the general Arab position on Palestine as affirmed in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for Israel’s withdrawal from the land it occupied in 1967 and for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

The sultanate cannot accept the UAE’s full-throttle embrace of Israel just as Netanyahu’s far-right government promises to further dispossess Palestinians.

After its initial enthusiasm, Oman has now had the opportunity to examine the dismal results normalization has had for Palestinians. It has surely noticed that Israel cannot even adhere to agreements it has signed, as happened when Israeli officials agreed to temporarily halt settlement building in the occupied territories at a recent meeting in Aqaba, Jordan. Immediately after the meeting, Netanyahu and a far-right minister in his cabinet walked that agreement back. Upon announcing the formation of his cabinet last December, Netanyahu pledged that Israel will never stop building settlements in what he considers to be the entire land of Israel, thus killing any hope for a Palestinian state. Barely two days after the Aqaba meeting, Israeli settlers conducted a pogrom in the West Bank town of Huwwara, killing one Palestinian, injuring scores of others, and torching cars and homes, all while Israeli soldiers stood guard. Muscat knows that this is but one small proof that Israel is not interested in allowing the realization of Palestinian rights and that normalization is not likely to improve their lives any time soon.

Another regional factor that calls for caution in Omani foreign policy, especially on the issue of normalization with Israel, is its relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In addition to heeding Saudi wishes and refraining from behavior that could indicate full independence from Saudi policies, Oman is in no mood to add tension to cross-water ties with Iran. This is all the more urgent since normalization deals between Israel and the Gulf countries of the UAE and Bahrain have raised serious objections and concerns in Iran, which credibly fears that the effort is directed against it. As things stand today, Oman enjoys burgeoning relations with Iran. Last year, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Muscat and was received by Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said and welcomed with a 21-gun salute. Last January, Oman’s ambassador in Tehran delivered a message from the sultan urging a strengthening of bilateral relations between the two countries.

Oman has to contend with the American effort to not only market normalization with Israel but to also push the issue of regional integration.

However, Oman has to contend with the American effort to not only market normalization with Israel but to also push the issue of regional integration, which is aimed specifically at integrating Israel into the Arab world’s political, economic, social, and military affairs. The United States is indeed embracing the Negev Forum as the new venue for said integration, with a declared interest in helping the Palestinians economically, but without committing to work toward a just and fair addressing of Palestinian national rights. Additionally, the possibility is obviously there for the United States to use the newly inaugurated US-Oman Strategic Dialogue to try to convince Oman to open diplomatic relations with Israel for the purpose of assisting this regional integration.

Keeping Things Where They Are

It is obvious that over the last couple of years, Oman has put the brakes on official normalization with and recognition of Israel. It appears that Sultan Qaboos’s heirs have decided to change the path he charted toward such a foreign policy decision, which for all intents and purposes would have altered the sultanate’s neutrality in regional affairs. It is also obvious that Oman will, for the time being, maintain business as usual with Israel without granting it full diplomatic relations.

But maintaining this position in the future will be contingent on the sultanate’s ability to manage its regional and international relations. On the one hand, it is hard to see Oman offering Israel what it wants if the latter does not give Palestinians at least a modicum of what the sultanate and the Arab world are requesting. It is just as hard to envision Oman recognizing Israel so long as Saudi Arabia continues to resist doing the same and Iran counts on it not becoming another venue for anti-Iran planning and activities. On the other hand, Oman will continue to be the subject of American pressure to become another state that allows Israel to integrate in the region without having to offer any concessions on Palestinian rights. Oman will indeed continue to hold the stick in the middle, maintaining lukewarm relations with Israel while also maneuvering to preserve as much of its regional neutrality as it possibly can.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: The White House