Oman, 'Assertive Diplomacy' and the Gaza Crisis

Speaking out: under Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, Oman's diplomacy has taken on a more assertive tone. Image: Sipa US / Alamy

With the Israel–Gaza conflict threatening to escalate tensions across the Middle East, Omani officials are stepping up their rhetoric in favour of peace, capitalising on their country’s reputation as a regional interlocutor.

The unfolding tragedy in Gaza seems to have caused Oman's traditional focus on quiet diplomacy to be pushed to one side in favour of a much more assertive and activist stance. At a speech at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on 15 February 2024, Oman's Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi made a rather unexpected call for action, stating 'events have overtaken me' such that 'we need an emergency international conference charged with agreeing arrangements for Palestinian statehood and establishing mechanisms for its implementation'. This was an unusually bold and very public move. He went on to say that 'we have to deal with the reality we inhabit. And that reality includes Hamas. The international conference will have to include them too'. This point will certainly be hard to swallow for many.

The speech came in the wake of a series of tweets over several months from the foreign minister which have been quite a departure from the usual Omani practice of keeping things as much behind closed doors as possible, with a strong tradition of issuing extremely bland press releases. On 9 December 2023, Sayyid Badr reacted angrily to a failure to deliver for the Palestinians, stating that:

‘The use of the veto at Security Council is a shameful insult to humanitarian norms. I deeply regret that the United States should sacrifice the lives of innocent civilians for the cause of Zionism. Long after we are gone the world will look back on today with shame.’

After a meeting with UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron on 31 December 2023, he tweeted: 'we reject double standards and Israel must not be allowed to continue taking innocent lives with impunity'.

Over the past 15 years, the Omanis have developed a role for themselves in very quietly mediating disputes in the region

And it is not just on Gaza that there has been a shift towards a much more public and assertive diplomacy emanating from Muscat. Sayyid Badr even tweeted forcefully in the wake of the US and UK attacks on the Houthis in Yemen after the escalation of their assault on shipping in the Red Sea. He stated:

‘We are deeply concerned by US/U.K. attack on targets in Yemen. This goes against our advice and will only add fuel to an extremely dangerous situation. I urge all parties to exercise restraint and focus on a ceasefire in Gaza now.’

This very public put-down of London and Washington, complete with a careful distancing of the Sultanate from the move, went rather unnoticed but was highly unusual. Muscat has carefully built networks with the Houthis as part of its attempts to encourage peace in Yemen.

Over the past 15 years, the Omanis have developed a role for themselves in very quietly mediating disputes in the region; indeed, some have even preferred to call this role one of facilitation rather than mediation, but it has also involved a degree of problem solving, especially around prisoner swaps and hostage releases which have also contributed to wider confidence building. As I have argued elsewhere, through this quiet diplomacy, the Omanis have made themselves into an Interlocutor State, a role of increasing importance in the Gulf and beyond.

Returning to the speech of 15 February, despite the headlines it generated – which focused on the call for all states to immediately recognise Palestine – in reality the speech was an impassioned plea for the importance of dialogue, engagement and mutual respect. While it made a firm case for Palestinian statehood, it did so within a framework of a two-state solution and full regional recognition of Israel. In this sense, there was nothing new for Omani foreign policy here.

So why the change to a more assertive tone? There are clearly a number of factors at play, both domestic and international. The Gaza situation and its many ramifications have undoubtedly been a catalyst across the region, stirring up tensions and causing escalation.

If the region goes up in flames Oman will suffer greatly, since its entire foreign policy for decades has been focused on de-escalation

A recent video circulated online among Omanis on WhatsApp and Telegram showed a large group of Omani men on the sablah (plaza) outside the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, one of the country's main tourist attractions, who had gathered to hear a speech by the Hamas military spokesman Abu Obaidah. A gathering like this, calm and peaceful as it was, is still very unusual in such a symbolic place, and is indicative of a quiet but growing anger among Omanis about the situation in Gaza.

This internal dimension is therefore clearly an important factor in driving a change towards a more assertive diplomacy on the issue by Muscat. Even before the 7 October Hamas massacre which triggered the latest Gaza crisis and the humanitarian catastrophe that has ensued, hostility towards Israel had increased considerably in Oman.

Sayyid Badr is not the only Omani official to have been making use of his Twitter account. For almost two years now, Oman's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmad bin Hamad Al-Khalili – the government-approved religious leader – has been regularly publishing statements on Twitter denouncing the occupation, especially during the Israeli operation in Nablus in the summer of 2023; praising pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the streets of London; and even congratulating the Taliban after the US withdrawal in August 2021.

Previously, Sheikh Al-Khalili had been best known for his work on religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. The extent to which he is leading or following public opinion in Oman is up for debate, but there is no doubt that the government has allowed more leeway for expressing these kinds of positions than it would normally, and this probably indicates that he is a useful tool for the state to demonstrate that it is listening to the population and its more conservative elements, despite opening Omani airspace to Israeli commercial flights to Asia last February. There is little doubt that some visible pushback against the US and UK is also domestically helpful.

Sayyid Badr has quickly built a reputation for himself as foreign minister, crafting a much more visible presence and one which brings a desire for action, while still being careful to adhere to Oman's well-established foreign policy stances. One of the reasons why Oman's foreign policy around Gaza has become more assertive might simply be a growing confidence and a realisation that decades of hard work have allowed the country to speak with authority as a pragmatic peacemaker.

Ultimately, though, the main issue is one of regional stability. If the region goes up in flames Oman will suffer greatly, since its entire foreign policy for decades has been focused on de-escalation. Given the seriousness of the situation in Gaza and the potential for escalation across the region, perhaps the world needs the Omanis to be a more assertive voice for peace and to bring their role as an Interlocutor State a little more into public view.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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James Worrall

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