MUSCAT, Oman — Syria and the United States are exchanging messages with the help of Oman over the fate of missing American journalist Austin Tice, the Gulf country's chief diplomat told Al-Monitor.   

Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi discussed the US engagement with Syria on Tice's case during a wide-ranging interview in the Omani capital on June 14. The conversation also touched on the Arab Gulf country’s relations with China and Israel, its peace efforts in Yemen and its longtime role as a regional mediator. 

“Our neutrality is not passive," Albusaidi said. "It's constructive, it's positive, it's proactive."

“We really stick to the principle of, how do we create a sustainable environment of peace and security and stability so that our people and our generations can prosper," he said. 

'Process has started' on US-Syria hostage talks  

Lebanese news outlet Al-Modon first reported in April that US and Syrian officials had met in the Omani capital of Muscat to discuss Tice, a freelance journalist who disappeared more than a decade ago covering Syria's civil war. Albusaidi did not confirm that his country hosted such talks, but said there has been an exchange of messages between Washington and Damascus "partly" with Oman's help. 

“We know at least there are messages going back and forth,” Albusaidi said. “I can't tell you that they are closer to finding a way out yet. But the process has started, and I hope it continues.”

The Biden administration has previously acknowledged its direct engagement with the Syrians over Tice. Al-Monitor reported in February 2022 that the administration had spoken with Damascus about Majd Kamalmaz, another US citizen believed to have been detained by the Syrian government. 

“You want to hopefully see Syria fully integrated back into the international community,” Albusaidi said. “There are questions pertaining to certain people, pertaining to certain aspects that need to be brought to closure.”  

'Open' to Israel ties but not at Palestinians’ expense

As the Biden administration works to expand the Abraham Accords, Albusaidi indicated the creation of a Palestinian state would be a prerequisite for Oman to establish full ties with Israel. 

Oman and Israel maintain quiet, unofficial relations. In a sign of warming ties, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the late Sultan Qaboos in Muscat in October 2018, the first such visit by an Israeli leader in 20 years. In February, Oman followed Saudi Arabia in opening its airspace to all airlines, including Israel's. 

"We are open to a relationship with Israel, but not at the expense of ignoring [and] closing the door on the Palestinians,” Albusaidi said. “Any fully-fledged relationship with Israel also needs to be also matched in parallel with a fully-fledged relationship and recognition of the State of Palestine.”

The Gulf state was once thought to be next in line to normalize relations with Israel. Oman hailed Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Morocco’s joining of the Abraham Accords, and days after the UAE-Israel deal was announced in August 2020, then-Omani Foreign Minister Yousef bin Alawi spoke on the phone with his Israeli counterpart about the "need to strengthen relations.”

But Israel's regional acceptance has been slowed by the arrival of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government, members of which espouse hard-line views against the Palestinians. Albusaidi said Oman is ready to assist with the Palestinian-Israeli peace process “when the mood and the willingness are there in the Israeli camp, which unfortunately, at the moment we don't see.”

'Confident' in US security commitment amid China’s rise 

Oman sees China as “a partner, not as a competitor” against the United States, Albusaidi said. 

Seeking to diversify their oil-dependent economies, Oman and other Gulf states are drawing closer to China at a time when the United States is pivoting its strategic focus toward Asia and Eastern Europe. Trade between Beijing and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries doubled between 2010 and 2021, according to the London-based think tank Asia House. China, which remains the top market for Omani crude, is investing billions to develop an industrial park at the strategically located port of Duqm in Oman's southeast. 

China has also emerged as a diplomatic broker in the region, and in March, helped get the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran across the finish line. Asked about the US security policy in the Gulf, Albusaidi said he was “confident about US engagement and commitment to stability to the security of the region.”

“We are also equally friends with India, China, Russia for that matter. We are really trying to create a very balanced set of relationships,” he added. 

Houthi-Saudi talks in Yemen 'a first step'

The Omani foreign minister called the direct talks between Saudi and Houthi officials in Yemen’s capital Sanaa earlier this year a “first step” in ending the country’s long-running conflict. 

Oman, which shares a border with Yemen and hosts Houthi officials in Muscat, has quietly facilitated prisoner releases and broader talks to end the war. An Omani delegation joined Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber for the April talks in Sanaa. 

“I think it's the first step because up until recently, there wasn't really any credible dialogue between any major players in Yemen,” Albusaidi said. “Our assessment is that they are now working on the modalities of how we can move forward that process which will help them [gain] better trust and confidence.”

Assad's normalization a 'better way out of crisis'  

Albusaidi is optimistic that renewed engagement with Syria could help address the country’s challenges, including the plight of refugees and drug trafficking across its borders. 

Oman never cut ties with the Syrian government and voted last month to restore its membership in the Arab League, more than a decade after Syria was expelled for its bloody crackdown on protesters. The Syrian return to the body will “empower it to address these issues, and deliver on some of the requirements for Syria to heal, to reconstruct [and] reconcile,” Albusaidi said.

“This is [what] drove us and the rest of the Arabs eventually, to go back to the negotiating table and try to find a deal, and find a better way out of this crisis one day — and it's a long way to go."

Albusaidi acknowledged the Western skepticism that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be willing to make any concessions in exchange for his global rehabilitation, but he pointed to the Arab League’s ministerial contact group as a venue for “empowering the Syrian government to really deliver on some of the key concerns.”

US, Iran 'close' on a potential prisoner deal

Albusaidi confirmed Iran and the United States “are close” to finalizing a deal on the release of Americans held in Tehran.

“I can say they are close,” Albusaidi said of a potential prisoner agreement. “This is probably a question of technicalities.” 

Oman, which acted as a backchannel for the 2015 nuclear accord, has been a recent venue for indirect talks between US and Iranian officials, according to several sources with knowledge of the effort. Albusaidi did not confirm Muscat’s involvement, but said his country has “offered in good faith our offices to help both sides, be it here or anywhere else.”

Dual nationals Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz have been in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison for years on espionage charges the United States says are baseless. A US legal permanent resident, Shahab Dalili, is also detained in Iran on trumped-up charges.

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