The politicization of the Nobel Prize
In 2014, Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai received it “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev received it in 1990 “for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community.”
But unfortunately, the prize has on several occasions become nothing short of an embarrassment, not only for the awarding committee but even for the recipient. This was the case when newly elected President Barack Obama received it in 2009 for his lofty campaign promise to bring “hope” and “change” to a bitterly divided America.
During his acceptance ceremony in Oslo, he said: “I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage.” The decision to award Obama the prize was largely aspirational, and centered on what the committee hoped he could achieve as president.
The 2017 prize will be equally controversial, given that his Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini appear to be favorites for their role in securing the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.
Never mind that Obama’s foreign policy legacy includes failure in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and Tehran — spearheaded by Zarif’s foreign policy — is waging proxy wars with its Arab neighbors in Syria and Iraq, and actively trying to undermine Washington’s regional agenda.
If Kerry, Zarif and Mogherini receive the prize, it would also be considered a clear rebuke of US President Donald Trump and his likely refusal to certify Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. The future of the deal, and whether it could or should be amended, remains hotly contested in Washington.
What is certain, however, is that the present level of Arab-Iranian acrimony over competing visions for the region is unsustainable, and mechanisms for reconciliation, peace and conflict resolution between Tehran and its Gulf neighbors are sorely needed and should be pursued.
In the context of the Nobel Peace Prize, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos stands out as a deserving contender for his impressive and undisputed legacy of pursuing peaceful reconciliation to help resolve the region’s many intractable conflicts.
As the Arab world’s longest-serving monarch, Sultan Qaboos has skilfully managed throughout his 47-year tenure to serve as a regional intermediary to help defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran. He has also actively contributed to Israeli-Arab dialogue by hosting the Muscat-based Middle East Desalination Research Center, which is dedicated to sharing Israeli expertise on desalination technologies and clean fresh water supply.
Oman recognizes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an irritant between the US and the Arab world, but — consistent with Sultan Qaboos’ philosophy of peaceful coexistence and conflict resolution — he sought to play a constructive role on this matter as well.
In recent years, Oman has used its channels to Tehran — and to the Houthis in Yemen — to gain the release of a half-dozen detained US citizens. Obama publicly thanked Muscat for these efforts.
Following the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Oman was the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member to consistently engage with Israel via a number of informal diplomatic initiatives. It was also one of only three Arab League members not to boycott Egypt after the peace treaty, while actively supporting Jordanian-Israeli peace talks in the ensuing years.
On the surface, Oman’s quiet diplomatic style of doing business appears to be by design: By maintaining a policy of neutrality and non-interference, it seeks to preserve its independence and stability by closely aligning with Britain and the US, while balancing relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. But the Israeli-Palestinian angle does not fit into Oman’s immediate strategic concerns; unlike Iran, with whom it shares the Strait of Hormuz, Israel is a distant power.
The Obama administration, and Kerry in particular, came to rely on Muscat for a host of regional initiatives, including on Iran, Syria and Yemen. Kerry grew so appreciative of Oman’s effective diplomacy that he attended its National Day celebration in 2016, a most unusual public gesture for a secretary of state.
In light of Myanmar’s widespread genocide against its Muslim Rohingya minority, the 1991 peace prize for Aung San Suu Kyi serves as another embarrassment for the Nobel Committee. It also painfully illustrates that consistent support for peaceful reconciliation must be measured over decades, as opposed to selecting candidates to serve an expedient political agenda.
Rather than politicizing the prize by selecting Kerry, Zarif or Mogherini, Oman’s unique foreign policy record underscores why Sultan Qaboos remains a worthy contender. He has demonstrated that pursuing peace and reconciliation is a lifelong endeavor that does not come easy.
• Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst based in Washington.
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