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.
This article is part of The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel.
For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file, here.