One of the calmest cities in the Middle East has been very busy of late, acting as a hall of odd fellows.
In recent weeks, Muscat, the capital of the tiny Arab state of Oman, has hosted Israel’s prime minister, Iran’s foreign minister for special political affairs, the Palestinian president, and the United Nations envoy for the Yemen conflict.
Each visit was held in secret, of course, which befits Oman’s historic role as a trusted go-between in the region. Yet three possible outcomes now seem to be in the open.
One, Oman’s minister for foreign affairs said “maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same” as other states in the Middle East. The suggestion was not widely disputed by most Arab states, not even Saudi Arabia, which is in the midst of ongoing global criticism for its role in killing of a prominent Saudi dissident.
Two, both the Defense secretary and secretary of State for the United States have called for a swift cease-fire in the war in Yemen and peace talks to take place next month. The four-year-old war has killed some 10,000 and left more than a third of the population in a humanitarian crisis. “It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Three, the Israeli sports minister, Miri Regev, was able to visit Abu Dhabi, sing her country’s national anthem at a sports event in the heart of the Arab world, and visit the third largest mosque in the world.
As retired Gen. David Petraeus said at a recent conference in the region, the Middle East is in the midst of a “realignment” of power. Events are shifting the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US may soon propose a new peace process for the Israel-Palestinian standoff. And while the war in Syria winds down, the war in Yemen has escalated.
Oman, as it has done in the past, is playing a crucial role as a mediator in many of these shifts. It is friendly to Iran, its fellow Arab states, and the West. It can talk to both sides in the Yemen conflict, even brokering the release of Western hostages in Yemen. And it has been a back channel during the Syrian war and an intra-Arab dispute over Qatar.
What gives it this influence?
Oman seeks to live a peaceful existence as a neutral player between the bigger powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yet its monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has been in power since 1970, also has a guiding philosophy on how to build trust and mutual respect.
The country’s diplomacy focuses on understanding the interests of other countries rather than trying to maximize its own gains, explains Sayyid Badr bin Hamad al-Busaidi, secretary-general of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It relies on seeing them as “though we were as them, to see the world through their eyes.”
“Is there some solution to this problem that neither of us have yet thought of that might turn out to work better for both of us?” says Mr. Busaidi.
This approach allows Oman to keep an open invitation to countries seeking to negotiate a way out of a difficult situation. And as the recent visits of foreign diplomats to Muscat shows, Oman’s honest listening and genuine concern for others may be helping produce results.