The official visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to Oman turned the spotlight on this distant principality in the Gulf that is unfamiliar to most Israelis.
Perhaps it will come as a surprise to many, but Israeli ties with Oman are not new; their first encounter was in the early 1970s, after Sultan Qaboos seized power. At that time, Qaboos faced a rebellion in the southern Dufar region on the Yemeni border. The Sultan feared the intrusion of the Soviet Union and Communism from the neighboring People’s Republic of Yemen. Britain, through an army of mercenaries, and Iran the neighbor to the east, helped the Sultan suppress the rebellion. Israel too took part in this effort, although its magnitude was never clarified. However, it seems that Israel’s part included advice, guidance, and possibly even arm supplies. It should be emphasized that in the 1960s Israel also assisted the royalists in northern Yemen in their struggle against Egypt, and therefore it is no surprise that Israel helped Oman as well.
Besides the fact that Israel sought in general allies in the Middle East, Oman’s importance derives from its geographical and strategic location in the Arab Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
Relations with Qaboos continued since the early 1970s. It laid the foundation for the ties that developed between the two countries in the 1990s, and is underlying the moderate position that Oman has demonstrated toward the Arab-Israeli conflict since the end of the 1970s. Oman supported the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and after the signing of the peace treaty in 1979, Oman was one of the three Arab countries (alongside Sudan and Morocco) who did not sever their diplomatic relations with Egypt. This fact is noteworthy especially in view of the resulting delicate position that was imposed on Oman vis-à-vis its Arab neighbors in the Gulf, which have boycotted Egypt. Moreover, the Khomeini revolution in Iran in 1979 tainted the relations between Oman and Iran, which was under the rule of the Shah, an ally of Qaboos. This independent behavior became a feature of Sultan Qaboos’ foreign policy.
Beginning in 1980, Mossad agent Nachik Navot used to meet regularly with Qaboos. The talks dealt with the common interests of the two countries, which included concern about the spread of Soviet influence and armaments in the Middle East, the Iran revolution, and the advancement of the peace process.
After the Madrid Conference, the signing of the Oslo Accords and the peace treaty with Jordan, there was a turning point in Israeli-Omani relations. In February 1994, Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin held a secret meeting with a senior Omani official to discuss relations between the two countries, which led to Oman’s decision to host in Muscat in April 1994 the fifth meeting of the working group on water in the context of the multilateral talks of the Oslo process. The involvement and participation of Oman in the working group on water and environment was not a secret. However, the secret contacts between Beilin and Yusuf bin Alawi, the foreign minister of Oman, prepared the ground for the meeting between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Sultan Qaboos, on 27 December 1994, two months after the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. This was the first official meeting between an Israeli leader and an Arab ruler in the Gulf.
This visit exposed Oman to criticism from within the Arab world. As a result, most interactions continued behind the scenes. Yet, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and his counterpart, Alawi, met in public in Washington in June 1995. The Rabin assassination in November 1995, and the presence of Alawi, who represented the sultanate, in the funeral, led to more overt relations: in January 1996, Israel and Oman signed an agreement to open trade missions. In April 1996 Peres visited Oman (and Qatar). The visit took place at the summer palace of the Sultan in Salalah. He was accompanied by Dan Gillerman, Chairman of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, as well as a number of businessmen in order to promote economic ties. Peres’s advisor Avi Gil insisted that Peres be accepted by a military parade that included the Israeli anthem. In September 1999, Foreign Minister David Levy met with Alawi during the UN General Assembly. However, a year later, Oman closed the Israeli mission as a result of the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada. It was only in 2008 that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with Alawi when she participated in the Doha Forum in Qatar.
The most important project carried out by Israel and Oman was the establishment of the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), inaugurated in 1997. The project was the outcome of the talks in the multilateral working group on water and environment. The center was financed by the United States, the European Union, Japan, Oman and Israel. Oman, an arid country in need of desalinated water, was interested in establishing the center in its territory and using Israeli technology. Within the umbrella of technology cooperation, Oman and Israel could continue to hold covert meetings. Israeli officials could also meet with Arab officials from the Gulf whose countries do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Oman took advantage of having the center in its territory to develop desalination projects and to train local experts. The center continued to be active throughout the Intifada.
Netanyahu’s visit to Oman symbolizes the renewal of an old “romance.” At the same time, Oman’s willingness to reveal the meeting is indicative of boldness and self-confidence, especially against the backdrop of the deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians. In the local press, Qaboos is portrayed as a “man of peace”. In light of his fatal illness, perhaps this is the legacy he wants to leave behind. Yet, more concretely, two reasons may explain the visit’s aims: One, an attempt to offer an Omani mediation to the dormant IsraeliPalestinian peace process. The fact that Mahmoud Abbas visited the Sultanate a few days earlier and that Alawi was sent to Ramallah after the Netanyahu visit may support this thesis. Second, Israel wanted to use the good offices of Oman, which enjoy good relations with Iran and/or Syria. Beyond achieving prestige vis-à-vis the Saudi and Qatari neighbors, Oman can use Israel to reach out to the United States and the West in general. In any event, the visit substantiates once more again that Israel is recognized as an important player in the Arab Middle East.
Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches at the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is currently working on a study dealing with Israel’s secret relations with the countries in the Middle East.