Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Oman was the latest indication of growing ties between Israel and the Arab states, but relations between Jerusalem and Muscat may be unique, even among the Gulf countries.
While there have been hints of potential collaboration between Israel and the Gulf states before, the theory behind the potential cooperation with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, was that they shared a common enemy in Iran. Yet Oman has remained neutral in the Saudi-Iranian dispute, which may grant Israel a different kind of opportunity than its developing relationships with the other GCC countries present. Rather than provide another avenue to isolate Tehran, Oman may provide Israel a back channel to Iran, allowing for Israeli concerns to be addressed in a prospective security crisis.
Unlike its fellow GCC members, Oman has an independent foreign policy of maintaining friendly relations with all its neighbors, including with the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies. This was most recently demonstrated during the breakdown between Qatar and other Sunni Arab states. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and a handful of Muslim African countries severed ties with Qatar, citing the country’s alleged support for terrorism throughout the region and its close relations with Iran. Though Qatar was the primary target during the crisis, it was clearly part of the Saudi-led coalition’s broader strategy to isolate Iran by cutting off its allies. However, Oman was one of only two members of the GCC (the other being Kuwait) that did not downgrade its relations with Qatar, continued to allow shipment of goods, and likely participated in Kuwaiti-led mediation to bring the members of the GCC back together. Moreover, Oman sought to strengthen its relations with Iran during the crisis. Shortly after the Saudi coalition severed ties with Qatar, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, where they pledged to “deepen ties” between their nations amidst the Gulf crisis.
What this means for Israel is that it should not expect Oman to participate in an Israeli-Arab Gulf coalition that would place pressure on or isolate Iran. However, it also means that Oman may provide Israel with a back channel to Iran during a time of crisis. Because it is one of the few countries in the region that has preserved relations with Tehran, Oman has served as a diplomatic outlet for Iran’s rivals elsewhere. Muscat helped initiate the nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran that would eventually lead to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (better known as the Iran nuclear deal). Leaving aside whether one thinks the nuclear accord was a good deal or not, it nonetheless revealed how Oman can be a viable third party interlocutor between two enemy governments, and Israel may find itself in a situation when it has to pass along a message to the Islamic Republic.
Israel has already broken the taboo of speaking to the Islamic Republic before, by conveying messages through Russia to prevent escalation in the north. Israel has also negotiated with other enemies like Hamas. Israel has talked to the Palestinian militant group behind the scenes for prisoner exchanges, such as the release of Gilad Shalit, and to restore calm at the Gaza border. Israel may come across a similar dilemma with Iran’s growing military presence in Lebanon and Syria. If the IDF clashes with Iranian forces and its proxies within or around the borders with Lebanon and Syria, having a back channel in Oman may be useful for Israel in the same way Russia is, allowing Jerusalem to reach Tehran to broker a ceasefire when they want to bring calm to the borders and region.
Israel and a number of Arab states have been growing closer over the years, but Oman provides a special opportunity for Jerusalem. Oman can serve not only as an intermediary between the Jewish state and the Islamic Republic of Iran, but can even be an outlet for further engagement with other GCC states. Ultimately, by working with one of the more neutral countries in the Middle East, Israel can better integrate with its neighbors and enhance its security.