Netanyahu’s Surprise Visit to Oman

In a surprising move, for the first time in over two decades, an Israeli leader visited an Arab Gulf state. On Friday of last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic visit to Oman, where he was hosted by the ruler, Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said. The two leaders, accompanied by numerous government and security officials, held meetings in which they discussed pressing regional issues.

Diplomatic relations between the Sultanate of Oman and the State of Israel were initially established in 1994 but were frozen six years later following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. As of now, the two countries still have no formal diplomatic relations.

Israel currently has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries; Egypt and Jordan. However, it is understood and confirmed by Israeli diplomats, that the state maintains ties behind the scenes with many nations, including those from the Gulf but these have never been publicly or openly acknowledged.

A day after the visit, Oman’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whilst speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2018 summit in Bahrain, publicly called on the Arab nations to accept Israel as part of the region and for Israel to, therefore, be treated as other regional states and bear the same obligations.

The Palestinian issue has long divided Israel and the rest of the Arab world. But recently, the Palestinian cause has been side-lined by the Gulf states as Israel has warmed relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in a bid to come together in the face of a shared enemy, Iran. Israel has consistently decried Iran’s alleged support of groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip (Iran does not in fact support Hamas since Hamas betrayed Iran by opposing Bahar al Assad in Syria) and actual support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and has also vehemently challenged Iran’s nuclear program, viewing the idea of Iran possessing nuclear technology as an ‘existential threat’ to Israel and the greatest threat to the Middle East.

The gradual normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world is not something that is sought to benefit the Palestinians or to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, it is an attempt to create a bloc with a shared interest that challenges the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region. Whilst Oman is a neutral party concerning Iran’s presence and role in the region; this marks the first and open step in recent years towards publicly recognising Israel’s growing relationship with the Gulf states, a relationship which no doubt will continue to grow.

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Discrimination and Intolerance against Women

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 9 “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of gender discrimination in the Arab States urging them to take the necessary steps in order to improve women’s conditions, following the recent example of Bahrain.

The Sultan’s Return

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After eight months of treatment in Germany, Sultan Qaboos bin Said has returned to Oman. His medical treatment was described by state television as a “total success” and the same station showed images of the Sultan walking unaided out of his plane after landing. No details of his illness were given by the royal court but his prolonged absence from the country had led to fears over his long-term health and the potential repercussions if it failed.

Having ruled the country since a bloodless coup in 1970, the 74-year-old’s bad health had raised the spectre of succession. He has no children and no publically designated heir. So, in theory, there could well have been disagreement over who would have succeeded Qaboos, which in turn might have brought instability to the kingdom. When Sultan Qaboos missed his own birthday celebrations on the 18th of November, fears over his health increased.

Omani law dictates that within three days of the Sultan’s death, the royal family council must decide on a successor. If they fail then the Sultan’s own choice – which has been secretly written down and put into a sealed envelope – must be enforced. However, Sultan Qaboos’s 44-year reign as absolute monarch means that it is unlikely the council would do anything other than use the envelope. Oman has rarely showed signs of instability in recent years but there were protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 and the uncertainty of a succession dispute might bring any grievances to the fore again.

Fortunately the Sultan has recovered his health and returned to Oman. His return also appears to convey his popularity: there were celebrations in the streets of Muscat, where people danced and waved flags and there was a huge out-pouring of joy on social media at the news of his return. There was also a boost to the Oman economy, with its stock market hitting a two-month high. So while the eight month illness may have left some uncertainty over the future of Oman and its leader, his return seems to have put it to bed for the moment and, in doing so, emphasised his popular standing.