Oman’s Sultan Puts Himself Back in the Driver’s Seat

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I couldn’t be in Oman this weekend for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s groundbreaking visit, but I was in the next best place: in Manama, Bahrain, at a regional security conference hosted by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. With hundreds of top government officials and military brass in attendance — representing almost every Arab nation, and most of the major Western countries — it was the perfect place to gauge reactions to the surprising events in Muscat.

The astonishment was palpable in the conference center, where the news quickly dominated discussions on the sidelines, even overtaking speculation about the price Saudi Arabia would pay for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. By happy coincidence, Oman’s minister in charge of foreign affairs, Yousef bin Alawi, was due to participate in a panel discussion, and eyebrows climbed even higher when he offered the once-heretical view that Arab states ought to treat Israel like any other nation in the Middle East.

Arab delegates were divided over the official explanation for Netanyahu’s visit: that he wanted to discuss a peace deal for the Palestinians. Ahmed Abo El Gheith, secretary general of the League of Arab States, said it was “too soon” after the latest Israeli bombing in Gaza for Oman to show Netanyahu such hospitality. Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, Bahrain’s minister of foreign affairs, was more diplomatic: “We must never, ever question the wisdom and far-sightedness” of longtime Omani leader Sultan Qaboos bin Saad.

In private conversations, some delegates complained that Oman should have forced Netanyahu to make at least a symbolic concession to the Palestinians before agreeing to host him. Others shrugged it off as a small step forward from the 2008 visit by Tzipi Livni, then Israel’s foreign minister. One official from the United Arab Emirates grumbled good-naturedly that Netanyahu’s Muscat trip overshadowed a visit to Abu Dhabi by Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev. “The Omanis have stolen our thunder,” he joked.

Among the non-Arab delegates, the consensus was that the visit was a welcome development, part of what David Petraeus, former head of U.S. Central Command and director of the CIA, described as a “general realignment” in a region where the perceived threat from Iran is changing some Arab perceptions of Israel. (Iran, not represented in Manama, condemned the visit as an attempt to “create rifts among the Islamic countries.”)

Opinion is mixed on whether the visit will actually move the needle on Middle East peace; the Omani minister said he expected the U.S. to do the heavy lifting, citing the Trump administration’s promise of a “deal of the century.” But there seemed to be a general consensus that Netanyahu’s trip marked a return to the Arab centerstage for Oman. As Petraeus told me, “The Sultan’s put himself back in the mix.”

The sultanate has been sidelined by a series of events in recent years, from President Donald Trump’s rescinding of the Iran nuclear deal (Oman had been a go-between for early negotiations between Barack Obama’s administration and the regime in Tehran), to the Saudi-led war in Yemen (Oman refused to join the coalition). The sultan, who has ruled since 1970, is thought to be gravely ill, leading to speculation about paralyzing succession intrigues. The Omani economy has weakened, shrinking for the first time in 2017. As a result, Oman has been notably absent from discussions of Arab affairs, recently dominated by two crown princes, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, known as MBS and MBZ.

But the welcome given to Netanyahu is a timely reminder that Qaboos has a seat at the high table, where he has often played a subtler game than the young princes, keeping his country outside the Gulf Arab consensus. He maintains contact with Iran, as Netanyahu is surely aware. And he continues to do business with Qatar, defying the blockade imposed on the tiny emirate by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and some other Arab nations.

When time comes to end the embargo, MBS and MBZ may well need Qaboos to play the go-between. Because Oman also remains in contact with the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the sultan could be a key figure in any future deal to end the quagmire the crown princes have created for themselves there.

Qaboos is, as Petraeus put it, “in the mix” of some of the region’s key power plays. If the Arab elite had forgotten that, Netanyahu just jogged their collective memory.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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