The Muscat intersection

Ahmed Mustafa, Tuesday 28 Feb 2023

By opening its airspace to Israeli flights, hosting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and mediating between Tehran and Washington all at the same time, Oman is the meeting point for the region’s adversaries, writes Ahmed Mustafa

The Muscat intersection


Sultan Haitham bin Tarek Al Said plans to visit Tehran in the next few days. The media describes the visit as a new effort to mediate between Iran and the US. It is taking place within days of Muscat announcing opening its airspace to Israeli flights, facilitating the corridor opened last year by Saudi Arabia. In the last few days, the Omani sultan received Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on one of his rare trips abroad since the turmoil in Syria began in 2011.

Some analysts describe such moves as a reclamation of Oman’s traditional position as the “Switzerland of the Region”. Traditional foreign policy, laid out by the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, was based on maintaining positive relations with everyone in the region and beyond. Since his death early in 2020, all eyes were on the new sultan who vowed to follow the same principles.

Recent announcements about allowing Israeli planes to use Omani airspace did not mention Israel by name, but essentially stated simply that “all flights” may pass. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen called the decision “historic”. The Israelis also thanked the US administration, which is understood to have facilitated the decision.

On his last visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel last summer American President Joe Biden managed to prompt a similar decision on the part of Riyadh, which allowed Israeli planes to fly directly across Saudi air space to Abu Dhabi and Manama – the two countries that normalised relations with the Jewish state in what is known as the Abraham Accords. But for Israeli planes to fully use Saudi airspace flying to destinations in Asia, this required Oman to open its own airspace to complete the corridor.

The Israeli media says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received word from the late Sultan Qaboos about opening Omani airspace to Israeli flights. That was during his previous premiership, when he visited Muscat in 2018. It was anticipated that Oman would be the Gulf country to join the Abraham Accords, after the UAE and Bahrain. But Sultan Haitham took a cautious approach.

Actually, Oman’s lower house of parliament voted late last year to expand its Israel boycott law. According to Assembly vice chair Yaaqoub Al-Harethi the amendment will “expand the criminalisation and expand the boycott” of Israel. Muscat is siding with the Saudi position not to rush into normalisation, as some commentators note, and the fact is not lost on the Israeli media, which does not expect an imminent change in Omani policy on Israel.

It is also not clear if the Omani decision is more of a quid pro quo with the Americans as Muscat starts a new mission of mediation with Iran on the stalled nuclear deal negotiations. Initial mediation to reach the 2015 nuclear deal was mainly Omani, and Muscat was the venue of the secret talks that led to the agreement. That was under  the previous Democratic president Barack Obama. Republican president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, and the Biden administration started negotiations to rejoin the deal after taking office in 2021.

Contrary to some analysts’ views that the new Omani Sultan “prefers to sit on the fence”, Muscat is becoming more proactive in regional diplomacy. It is true that internal economic challenges are a priority for Omani leadership, but foreign policy is not completely ignored. In fact, regional cooperation is sought as a means to face economic challenges through joint projects with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others. Sultan Haitham bin Tarek has been taking part in regional meetings more often, the last being a summit  hosted by the UAE president in Abu Dhabi that brought together the Bahraini king, Jordanian king, Egyptian president and Qatari emir.

The second visit to an Arab country in more than a decade by the Syrian president was to Muscat last week. The first was to Abu Dhabi last year. Though it is Algeria that is leading Arab efforts to bring Syria back into the Arab fold, the Gulf countries are divided on the matter. The UAE and Oman are for Damascus’ return to the Arab League, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are somewhat hesitant to accept President Bashar Al-Assad.

Muscat looks to be in a better position to lead the efforts of normalisation with Syria. Though it withdrew its ambassadors from Damascus in 2012, as part of a concerted Gulf effort to isolate Syria, Oman maintained uninterrupted contact with Syria. Muscat resisted American pressure to cut relations with Syria, and it was the first Gulf capital to reinstate an ambassador in Damascus in 2020.

Quietly, Sultan Haitham bin Tarek is putting Oman back on track as the trusted mediator among regional adversaries. Traditionally, the Gulf power centre is Riyadh. Positions on issues like relations with Iran, the stand on Syria or even normalisation with Israel are heavily influenced by the kingdom’s decision. Yet the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is not in a hurry to change tracks for now. While the UAE might be pushing for a Gulf foreign policy repositioning, its bold approach might not suit all Gulf leaders. The Omani sultan is presenting himself as the man who can keep the balance till the time is ripe for change.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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