Israel and the Gulf: Future Prospects for Normalization

Uzi Rabi analyzes the import of the wave of normalization of relations with Israel for Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar. This article is part of "The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel".

Signing the Abraham Accords, September 15, 2020
Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony, September 15, 2020. The White House [public domain]

Following Israel’s signing of the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, there has been much speculation regarding their impact on the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, and the possibility they might fol­low suit. This paper analyzes the import of the wave of normalization of relations with Israel for Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar.

Oman: Practicing the Art of Fence-Sitting

The Sultanate of Oman has frequently been men­tioned as one of the prime candidates to soon fol­low the UAE and Bahrain in formalizing full-fledged ties with Israel. Muscat’s positive reaction to the Abraham Accords was consonant with its long­standing position on normalization. An Omani government statement a month after the signing typified Oman’s careful approach: “…this new stra­tegic path taken by some Arab countries will con­tribute to bringing about a peace based on an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and on establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as capital.”

Since 1970, when Sultan Qabus came to power and inaugurated the Omani nahda (renaissance), the Sultanate has emerged as a moderate Arab state, where tolerance is firmly embedded into the national ethos, based largely on the prevalent Ibadhi sect of Islam. Oman was one of only three Arab League members that refused to take dip­lomatic action against Egypt following the Camp David peace treaty in 1979. Oman has for many years had low-profile, productive relations with Israel, which were illuminated publicly by visits of then Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzchak Rabin in 1994 and Shimon Peres in 1996, and most recently, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October 2018.

Yet, at least thus far, Muscat has refused to join the UAE, Bahrain (and Sudan and Morocco) in further normalizing relations with Israel. Prizing its posi­tion as a reliable diplomatic interlocutor (the hall­mark of its foreign policy and a key component of its political culture), Oman has carefully balanced itself geopolitically between Tehran and Riyadh. For many years, Omani-Iranian ties have been based on mutual respect and trust. These close relations with Tehran began with the aid that the late Shah gave to Sultan Qabus to quell the Dhofar insurgency in the early 1970s. The cordial relations between Muscat and Tehran continued following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and it was in Oman that the initial negotiations between the American and Iranians took place, which lead to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. As a result, formalization of relations with Israel — even if desirable from the standpoints of trade, tourism, and investment — would be premature from an Omani perspective, as it would deeply alienate Iran.

The timing of the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization of relations with Jerusalem was likely connected to the U.S. presidential election and American domes­tic political considerations. Oman, which has been very sensitive about foreign countries interfering in its internal affairs, was keen to avoid taking any side in U.S. domestic politics. It also had its own domestic political considerations to consider. The death in January 2020 of Sultan Qabus and the ascent to power of the new Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, has led to substantial changes in the govern­ment bureaucracy, as he consolidates his rule and builds his own base of support. By holding off on formalizing diplomatic relations with Israel, Sultan Haitham has allowed himself to concentrate on important domestic concerns while, at the same time, maintaining Oman’s careful balancing act between fellow GCC states and the Iranians.

In the near term, Muscat would rather “wait and see” what the policy of the incoming Biden Administration will be, and how the Abraham Accords and the subsequent Sudan-Israel and Morocco-Israel deals will pan out. However, it might change its outlook, as it is facing a dou­ble crisis – public health and economic – with a considerable drop in oil prices brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Out of the three Gulf states under review, Oman seems to be the most likely to normalize relations with Israel.

Kuwait: An Exception to the Rule

Unlike its GCC partners, the Emirate of Kuwait has remained firmly wedded to its traditional position, rejecting normalization with Israel. The Palestinian question has been a key issue in the Emirate ever since Yasser Arafat founded Fatah there in 1959. A Palestinian community esti­mated at 450,000 – only slightly smaller than the local Kuwaiti population – resided there until the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This community paid a heavy price for Arafat’s choice not to con­demn this invasion, being forced into exile with­out hope of return, but Kuwait’s ruling family, National Assembly (Parliament), and civil society have not since wavered in their support for the Palestinian cause.

Forty-one civil society groups and organizations, such as the Bar Association, the Teachers’ Asso­ciation, and the Kuwaiti Economic Association, were vocal in criticizing the Abraham Accords and called upon the National Assembly “to quickly pass a law criminalizing normalization with the Zionist enemy.” The ruling Al-Sabah family, which has always been careful not to alienate its own population – historically the most politicized in the GCC states – judges that vocal opposition to the Abraham Accords would appease domi­nant political currents, both Islamists and nation­alists. Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, who ascended to power on September 30, 2020, is unlikely to change his half-brother Sheikh Sabah’s policy of support for the Palestinians.

Under these circumstances, Kuwait does not seem ripe for decision on the highly sensitive issue of normalization, as it would probably put the Emirate under tremendous internal pressure, especially from Islamists with ties to the Mus­lim Brotherhood, who are aligned with Turkey’s position. Kuwait seems in this to benefit from the position of its larger neighbor, Saudi Ara­bia, which has so far linked normalization with Israel to progress in the peace process in accor­dance with the Arab Peace Initiative that Riyadh proposed in 2002, and that was approved as an Arab framework for a solution to the Palestin­ian-Israeli conflict. The battle for normalization in Kuwait is far from over, even if it is the Gulf state least expected to normalize relations with Israel.

Qatar: Keeping All Channels of Communication Open

The small, wealthy Emirate wedged between Iran and Saudi Arabia has always sought to have an independent foreign policy, outside Riyadh’s orbit, which would allow it greater diplomatic flexibility and influence. Keeping all channels of communication open has dictated a careful nur­turing of links with Turkey and Iran, while at the same time maintaining its special ties with the U.S.: Qatar hosts the largest U.S. base in the Mid­dle East. From the Turkish perspective, Qatari support and financial largesse provide them with a base from which to expand outreach in the Arab world, and the Gulf in particular; for Qatar’s part, Turkey affords it the protection of a signif­icant regional power. Qatar’s ties with Iran are practical as well as geopolitical, as Doha shares with Tehran ownership of the South Pars/North Dome Gas Field, which is the largest gas field in the world.

This geopolitical orientation, as well as its active support of the Muslim Brotherhood, makes it an outlier among the Gulf States. This led to strong tensions between it and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi since 2011, culminating in June 2017 in a state of open – though not violent – conflict, with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt breaking off dip­lomatic relations, and organizing an air, land, and sea embargo of Qatar. In January 2021, however – contemporaneously with the change of admin­istrations in the United States and with the nor­malization process (and apparently affected by both these processes) – the embargo was lifted and bilateral relations renewed. Many underlying issues and tensions between the sides persist, however; significantly, Qatar does not seem to have dramatically changed its positions regard­ing Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Iran. The potential for another severe flare-up between Qatar and its GCC partners, therefore, still exists.

The Qatari balancing act is also evident in the relations with Israel. Qatar was the first Gulf state (together with Oman) to establish direct trade relations with Israel by establishing trade offices in their capitals in 1996. The second Inti­fada in 2000 brought these diplomatic rela­tions to a halt, but behind the scenes, Qatar has continued to play a useful role for Israel. Doha has used its support for Hamas, the Palestin­ian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and for the Palestinian issue in general, as an important item in its diplomatic toolbox. Qatar’s support for Hamas has also brought it into close coopera­tion with Israeli interlocutors, who frequently use Doha as an intermediary to reach understand­ings with the Hamas leadership in Gaza, and who rely on Qatari financial assistance to shore up the governmental apparatus in Gaza and stave off humanitarian crises.

Qatar, despite its ties with Turkey and Iran, and its non-conformist stance on many regional issues, is nevertheless often mentioned as a tar­get for Israel’s efforts to normalize with the Arab world. Israel has a significant interest in proac­tive engagement with Qatar, beyond the Palestin­ian sphere. While Doha has always assiduously guarded its freedom to maneuver and would probably balk at being brought into formal, wider geopolitical alignment that would see them closely tied to Riyadh, the restored relations with the conservative Arab axis could eventually lead to the attenuation of the Ankara-Doha partner­ship. If Israel could capitalize on a prospective weakening of the Qatar and Turkey relationship through greater diplomatic engagement with Qatar, this would be a sound policy for Israel that could lead to normalization and friendlier bilat­eral ties. It is important to note, however, that in any case the potential for normalization will con­tinue to be bounded by Qatar’s cordial and nec­essary relations with Iran, to which any change could have severe potential economic repercus­sions for the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas.

Qatar has refrained from official criticism of the normalization process, while declaring that it would not normalize relations with Israel until there is a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians, in line with the 2002 Arab Peace Ini­tiative. While Qatar might be open to re-normal­ization with Israel, especially in the context of the intra-Gulf reconciliation, its willingness to do so will be to a large extent a function of its need to balance future developments in its relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Hamas.