*Oman believes that the UK is still a global power and despite the unprecedented internal challenges it is facing, it will remain a global power.
*The Palestinians’ right to an internationally recognized independent state will serve as the core to any peace deal.
*Israel and Palestine lie on the same geographical location; consequently, both sides can establish a mutually beneficial partnership that works for both of them
*We have normalized relations with Israel in this interconnected world and Netanyahu is not the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Oman
*It is now clear to the Arab world that the preservation of Israel’s existence is necessary for the stability of the region.
On May 22, 2019, the United Kingdom and the Sultanate of Oman signed a Comprehensive Agreement which aims to improve the bilateral relations between the two states as well as develop their political, economic, scientific, and cultural ties. The Omani Minister for Foreign Affairs, His Excellency Yousef bin Alawi; and the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Jeremy Hunt, signed the agreement in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. During the signing ceremony, Hunt noted that Oman is a key regional ally, as it is playing a role in establishing peace in Yemen and preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear arsenal. The signing came two months after both states signed the Joint Declaration on Enduring Friendship in Muscat.
Yousef bin Alawi, who has been serving as Oman's foreign affairs minister since 1997, spoke to Majalla about some of the region’s most important issues, including peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis and Muscat’s own role in pushing for peace in the region. The minister also spoke of Oman’s stance on the rising tensions between the US and Iran as he called on the international community to collectively find a peaceful solution to the crisis, one that prevents military conflict in the Gulf.
Q: The Sultanate of Oman and the United Kingdom have a deep relationship that has lasted centuries. What new aspects of the Omani-British relationship does the “Comprehensive Agreement” address?
A: Our relationship with the UK is entrenched in history, and the agreement officially codifies the well-established friendship between Muscat and London. The agreement also seeks to develop the ties that bind us. As such, the agreement aims to support economic growth and increased investment by developing a strong and mutually beneficial partnership. The partnership we are reaching for is one that allows for a strong, open, and competitive economic environment between both states. The agreement covers many fields — be they political, economic, scientific, cultural, or technological — as it aims to launch a new phase of bilateral relations as continuing our already established friendship.
Q: During your talks with Jeremy Hunt, did you discuss regional issues such as the state of peace efforts between the Palestinians and Israelis and the U.S.’s anticipated announcement of a new peace plan? Did the rising tensions between Washington and Tehran come up during the talks? What about the war in Yemen?
A: We have indeed discussed all these issues; we have also talked about the importance of promoting peace and security at both the regional and global levels. We spoke of the challenges the region is facing, such as the current U.S.-Iran tensions in the Gulf, the Palestinian issue, and other conflicts in the region. The Sultanate of Oman believes that the UK is still a global power and that despite the unprecedented internal challenges it is facing, it will remain a global power. Britain’s power will endure not because it’s a permanent member of the UN Security Council, but because it’s still a big player in global conflict resolution. The UK has long been our partner in resolving conflicts in the Middle East, and I believe that this relationship helps both sides find solutions to all the underlying issues in the Gulf and the region as a whole.
Q: Last October, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited Muscat and met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. Has this visit produced any new developments regarding the quest for a peace deal, and has it expanded Omani-Israeli relations?
A: We have normalized relations with Israel in this interconnected world, and Netanyahu is not the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Oman, since Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and other Israeli officials have visited us during times of increased tensions in the region. The visit came after the Prime Minister made an official request, which we agreed to, and after President Mahmoud Abbas’s official visit to Oman. We listened to the Prime Minister’s views and we told him our own views, which emphasize the Palestinians’ right to an internationally recognized independent state, as this will serve as the core to any peace deal. This will not be easy, but Israel and Palestine lie within the same geographical location, and consequently, both sides can establish a mutually beneficial partnership that works for each of them. Israel is currently a developed state, but it is occupying Palestinian lands in the West Bank and the Gaza strip….in time both sides will have to cooperate and establish relations. Despite their economic, technological and scientific prowess, Israelis don’t feel safe or secure in the region and they cannot move forward as a nation without such a sense of security. The Palestinians have the power to provide this security for themselves and the Israelis, but no side has made that critical first step in establishing good political relations. These last 40 years of Israel's occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank have taught Israelis that Palestinians are determined to gain their right to a state, while Palestinians have learned what it is that the Israelis seek. As a result, both sides are clear on each of their demands. All that’s needed now is political reconciliation.
Q: Three weeks ago, Majalla published an interview with Jason Greenblatt, an Assistant to President Donald J. Trump and the White House’s Special Representative for International Negotiations. He, together with Jared Kushner, has prepared the Trump Administration’s proposed Middle East Peace Plan. During the interview, Greenblatt called on the Palestinians not to reject the plan before all its details are revealed, and said that the Palestinian Authority will be judged harshly for passing up prosperity and peace. What’s your opinion on this statement?
A: We need to take into consideration that there will be a heated debate on the U.S.’s proposed peace plan. The Sultanate of Oman has not seen the plan, but the Palestinians cannot miss their opportunity to establish a state for themselves. We cannot accept the prospect of Israel having its own state, while Palestinians are sleeping in tents. We have told the U.S. this and have emphasized the need to help Palestinians in the occupied lands and in the diaspora. Israel needs to be a friendly state towards the Palestinians and it needs to be a partner rather than an occupying force. If the U.S.’s proposed plan doesn’t have these terms, then it will be a deficient one.
Q: If the U.S.’s plan works, will you call on the states within the region to stop boycotting Israel and to establish full, normal relations between the Arab states and Israel?
A: Arabs are split over the prospect of peace with Israel, but if the Palestinians agree to the plan and they get their own state, then everything else can be settled. The ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict has caused generations of Arabs to harbor negative feelings toward Israel, and such feelings will not go away overnight. It should also be noted that most major events that have taken place in the region over recent years have been due to the Palestinian issue. The conflict in Afghanistan was because of Palestine and the Iranian Revolution was because of Palestine, more recently terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and IS have used the Palestinian issue as a rallying call. For years the West, Russia, China, Japan, and various African states have given us promises to help us resolve the issue, but they have yet to provide any concrete solutions. It is now clear to the Arab world that the preservation of Israel’s existence is necessary for the stability of the region, provided, of course, that a state for the Palestinians is established.
People need to let go of the past and think of how economic development can reap shared benefits, peace and reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israelis. Just think what could happen if both sides share Jerusalem as a touristic city which receives millions of Jewish, Christian and Muslim visitors per year. The city would gain substantial investment for shopping centers, hospitals, and hotels. Both sides would earn billions from this holy city teeming with sacred treasures. If civilians receive accommodation, a state, and other such benefits, then they will forget all the other problems.
Q: Do you believe, however, that Hamas would ever accept such a civil approach toward resolving the conflict?
A: Hamas would accept the situation if an internationally recognized Palestinian state is established, I don’t believe Hamas is a “fan” of this continued fighting. Nevertheless, Palestinians from all sides will not accept anything less than their own state.
Q: Do you think media outlets, educational curricula, and religious discourse have played a role in planting seeds of intolerance among the peoples of the region, particularly between Israelis and Arabs? And has the Sultanate of Oman started to reform these three elements?
A: All three elements have played a role in increasing intolerance, and reforming these institutions will take a long time. It is necessary that we defeat such discourses before introducing new ones. Unfortunately, desensitizing those who were born and raised on such doctrine will not happen in a short period of time. Rather, changing people’s thinking will need to happen over multiple stages. The extremist doctrine will not end overnight, but it is necessary to resist it by building on moderate religious teachings. Oman does not have a problem of religious fanaticism, as our nation has always had a reputation for moderation and tolerance. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the broader region, as many states are currently struggling against intolerance and fundamentalism. This fight will be a long one and may take up to 20 years, but we must not let Palestine fall victim to religious and Islamic conflicts in the coming years.
Q: Bahrain is set to host the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop on June 25; will Oman take part in the workshop?
A: Oman will likely participate in the workshop, but it should be noted that such conventions are a traditional American way of garnering support for deals and Arabs aren’t accustomed to such methods of deal-making.
Q: On your way to London, you stopped by Tehran to meet with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. During your visit, did you get the sense that Iran is willing to start negotiating with the U.S., and would Oman be an intermediary between both sides?
A: I attentively listened to what the Iranians had to say on the increasing tensions between them and the U.S. They do not wish to go to war, and I think both sides know the implications such a conflict would have on global security. Moreover, Oman is doing all it can to prevent the risks of such a devastating war. The crisis is near a breaking point and it is necessary that a coordinated international effort do all it can to prevent both parties from entering into conflict. Oman cannot mediate between both states alone, and the international community must do all it can to stop a war from breaking out in the Gulf. Once the tensions simmer, we can restart negotiating the disputes that started the conflict in the first place.
Q: What’s your opinion on the situation in Yemen and Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels, who are posing a threat to Gulf security, particularly the security of Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
A: First, I ask both sides to accommodate Martin Griffiths, the UN’s Special Envoy for Yemen, and work closely with him in order to find a solution as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the Houthis have adopted Shiite revolutionary discourse, something they have never done in the past, and this ideology is part of the reason for the prolonged conflict. The conflict has lasted too long and all sides need to show willingness for reconciliation.
Q: Finally, FIFA has offered Oman the opportunity to co-host the 2022 World Cup, will you accept it?
A: FIFA has asked us to co-host the next World Cup with Qatar because it planned to expand the number of finalists from 32 teams to 48. I told them that Oman wasn’t initially part of the hosting plans and we do not have any intentions to co-host the World Cup now, as such, we declined the offer while giving FIFA other suggestions to better accommodate more teams.