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Is Oman repositioning itself as Middle East mediator?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Anyone following global news would quickly conclude that the Middle East is becoming increasingly unstable.

That could have been said about the region at virtually any time since WW2, but at no point since WW2 has there been so many failed states, so many failing states, and such broad and sustained sectarian and ethnic wars being fought across the region.

Today, even relatively stable regimes with deeply entrenched institutional structures seem compelled to keep investing in external regional power plays – with possibly serious medium-term consequences.

But one country which stands out as an island of peace right in the middle of this sea of conflict is Oman. Internally stable, relatively economically solid despite (or perhaps due to) not being solely an oil economy, aloof of the prevailing regional sectarian wars, and respected by all their neighbors.

And not only their neighbors: when the government of Israel needs to establish diplomatic back-channels with arch-enemies like Iran, it seems they also turn to Oman for help.

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This is not a blip, or random happenstance. For a myriad of historical reasons, Oman can be thought of as a middle-eastern equivalent to Switzerland.

Oman has stood its political ground and has prospered historically as a trading nation able to bridge the gap and provide neutral meeting ground between rivals for centuries.

Given its neutrality, its conciliatory political culture and its historically-proven capacity to mediate between others, this can only be a good thing.

That is why the quite gulf coast nation of Oman raised eyebrows earlier this week when it hosted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and offered the view that Arab states should treat Israel like any other Middle Eastern nation.

For Middle East watchers, this should not come as a surprise. Though Oman’s long time leader, Sultan Qaboos, is not a household name in the west, he is a very effective and experienced behind the scenes operator.

When government of Israel needs to establish diplomatic back-channels with arch-enemies like Iran, it seems they also turn to Oman for help

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Iran nuclear deal

For example, little is known of Oman’s critical role in the early stages of the Iran nuclear agreement when Muscat was shuttling messages between the Obama administration and regime in Tehran to lay the foundation for eventual face-to-face negotiations between the long time adversaries.

By hosting the Israeli premier, Sultan Qaboos is likely hoping to pull of another historical coup. One possible explanation is that Oman is opening a back channel to Iran for the Israeli government in the hope that tensions, when running high, never boil into a full scale war in a region where there is no shortage of war.

Another possible explanation is that Oman is looking to become the regional mediator between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership – which interestingly visited Oman just a day earlier.

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For the Israelis, on the other hand, the main motivation is likely to be to turn covert allies into overt ones to stem Iran’s regional expansion. Also, pushing the long-time Israeli ambition of normalizing relations with the entire Middle East one nation at a time.

Netanyahu is probably thus hoping that other nations throughout the Middle East will take notice of the diplomatic goodwill being generated from this trip and also translate their behind the door relation to an open one.

It may not be long before other parties come knocking on Oman’s door. Sultan Qaboos has also maintained good relations with the Houthi rebels in Yemen and has thus potentially positioned himself to be a key intermediary in any future negotiations. Will the Houthi’s be the next to pay the Sultan a visit?

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Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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