Saudi Arabia beacon of ‘light’ – Gulf ‘pillar’ of stability – ‘Russia cannot replace US’

MUSCAT: Oman’s Sultan Qaboos meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the latter’s unannounced visit to the Gulf country on Friday. – AFP

MANAMA: Oman described Israel as an accepted Middle East state yesterday, a day after hosting a surprise visit by its prime minister that Washington said could help regional peace efforts. Oman is offering ideas to help Israel and the Palestinians to come together but is not acting as mediator, Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, the sultanate’s minister responsible for foreign affairs, told a security summit in Bahrain. “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this,” bin Alawi said. “The world is also aware of this fact. Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as others states] and also bear the same obligations.”

His comments followed a rare visit to Oman by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, which came days after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas paid a three-day visit to the Gulf country. Both leaders met with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos. “We are not saying that the road is now easy and paved with flowers, but our priority is to put an end to the conflict and move to a new world,” bin Alawi told the summit. Oman is relying on the United States and efforts by President Donald Trump in working towards the “deal of the century” (Middle East peace), he added.

Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa voiced support for Oman over the sultanate’s role in trying to secure Israeli-Palestinian peace, while Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir said the kingdom believes the key to normalizing relations with Israel was the peace process. The three-day summit was attended by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and his counterparts in Italy and Germany also participated, but Jordan’s King Abdullah cancelled his appearance after a flood that hit the Dead Sea region killed 21 people.

Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt welcomed the “warming ties & growing cooperation between our regional friends” in a tweet late on Friday. “This is a helpful step for our peace efforts & essential to create an atmosphere of stability, security & prosperity between Israelis, Palestinians & their neighbors. Looking forward to seeing more meetings like this!” Greenblatt said.

Israel and some Gulf states share an interest in curbing Iran’s influence in the region. Oman has long been to the Middle East what neutral Switzerland is to global diplomacy. The country helped to mediate secret US-Iran talks in 2013 that led to the historic nuclear deal signed in Geneva two years later. Earlier this year, bin Alawi visited Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and Netanyahu has on several occasions hinted at warmer ties with Gulf states. He told Israel’s parliament last week that due to fears of a nuclear threat from Iran, “Israel and other Arab countries are closer than they ever were before.”

Though uncommon, Israeli leaders have previously visited the Gulf state. In 1996, the late Shimon Peres went to Oman and Qatar when he was prime minister and opened Israel trade representative offices in both Gulf countries. His predecessor, the late Yitzhak Rabin, made the first trip to Oman in 1994. On his visit on Friday, Netanyahu was accompanied by his wife Sara and his delegation included Mossad intelligence chief Yossi Cohen and National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat. The visit came at the invitation of Sultan Qaboos and followed “lengthy contacts between the two countries”, an Israeli statement said. Oman’s state broadcaster showed Netanyahu and his delegation walking alongside Sultan Qaboos – who has rarely been seen in recent pictures – and other Omani officials in traditional garb.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and key ally Bahrain said yesterday that Gulf states are playing a critical role in maintaining stability in the Middle East by combating Iran’s “vision of darkness”, as Riyadh faces its worst political crisis in decades. Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of a US-backed regional bloc against growing Iranian influence in the Middle East but the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2 has prompted a global outcry and strained Riyadh’s ties with the West.

“We are now dealing with two visions in the Middle East. One is a (Saudi) vision of light … One is a (Iranian) vision of darkness which seeks to spread sectarianism throughout the region,” Jubeir told the security summit in Bahrain. “History tells us that light always wins out against the dark … The question is how do we defeat them.” Jubeir said ties between Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and the United States are “ironclad” and praised what he described as the “rational, realistic” foreign policy of the current US administration.

Sheikh Khalid Al-Khalifa told the conference the Gulf bloc would remain a “pillar” of regional security and that a proposed security alliance grouping the United States, Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt would be activated next year. The Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) is meant to serve as a bulwark against Iran and extremism, Washington says. But there has been uncertainty about how it can get off the ground given a protracted dispute between Qatar and four Arab states led by Saudi Arabia who launched a boycott of Doha in 2017.

Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut off travel and trade ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of backing their archrival, Iran, and supporting terrorism. Qatar denies the charges and says the boycott impinges on its sovereignty. Mattis said that it was important to end the 16-month-old Arab dispute with Qatar that analysts say has weakened regional coordination against Iran.

Jubeir said recent discussions in Saudi Arabia about a framework for MESA included Qatari officials and that the proposed alliance would not be affected by the diplomatic row. “It (MESA) is an alliance for security and prosperity for the region and will be open to those who accept its principles,” Sheikh Khalid said, adding that the alliance would also cooperate on economic issues.

Mattis told the regional security conference that Russia is no replacement for the US in the Middle East following Moscow’s military intervention in Syria. “Russia’s presence in the region cannot replace the longstanding, enduring, and transparent US commitment to the Middle East,” Mattis said. Russia supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, while Turkey backs some rebel groups seeking to oust the Syrian leader.

Mattis told the Manama Dialogue that Moscow’s “opportunism and willingness to overlook Assad’s criminal activities against his own people evidences its lack of sincere commitment to essential moral principles”. Iran’s support for the Syrian regime “coupled with Russia’s repeated vetoes of UN Security Council Resolutions, is the leading reason Assad remains in power,” he said. “We are deeply aware of the sacrifices many of our partners have made, and continue to make, in dealing with the effects of Assad’s violence against his own people,” Mattis said.

He vowed the US-led coalition in Syria would “continue to root out” militant groups “and expand space for our diplomats to negotiate for long-term peace in that war-torn country”. “We stand with our partners who favour stability over chaos, and we support unity of effort among our nations’ militaries in response to shared threats and challenges,” Mattis added. – Agencies