For Yemen's warring parties, Oman holds the keys to negotiating a peaceful resolution–but the Sultanate has its own demands too
Analysis: Oman’s role in Yemen: Balancing international neutrality and local interests
Oman plays an important role in backing efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen under the auspices of the United Nations and its envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths. The country is ideally positioned for this role, given its geographic proximity and its decision from the beginning to remain out of the Saudi-led coalition in favor of maintaining its proclaimed neutrality in regional crises. Furthermore, Muscat maintains good relations with the various local parties to the conflict and their external supporters.
This report provides an in-depth look at Oman’s approach to Yemen since the beginning of the coalition intervention in 2015, including its political and diplomatic relations, and its policy of opening its doors to Yemenis of all backgrounds, including high-level political elites from different parties, and ordinary civilians seeking refuge by land. The report concludes by highlighting how the above strategies have benefited Muscat, and the ways in which these approaches–particularly Muscat’s professed neutrality–are becoming increasingly challenged or difficult to maintain.
Extensive diplomatic and political relations
Oman’s foreign policy is self-described as being based on the principle of "neutrality and non-interference in the affairs of others,” and as a result did not participate in the Saudi-led coalition formed in March 2015 at the request of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. This stance was justified as "not wanting to go to war with anyone," according to Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawi, who spoke with Saudi newspaper Okaz in October 2016 about his country's position toward the war in Yemen.
Though militarily uninvolved, Muscat has lent considerable backing to the political efforts led by the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and his predecessors. Foreign Minister Bin Alawi has characterized Oman’s role in supporting peace efforts in Yemen as that of a facilitator, rather than a mediator.
In recent years, Muscat has hosted many meetings between Yemeni parties and Western officials, and provided logistical support for a variety of different meetings and travel to and from Sana’a. In an effort to facilitate discussions toward reaching a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Muscat hosted a meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Houthi delegation in November 2016. The meeting resulted in the so-called "Kerry initiative," which provided for a truce, the formation of a national unity government with the inclusion of the Houthis, and the handover of their weapons, including ballistic missiles, to a third party. However, the government of President Hadi, which did not participate in the talks, rejected this initiative and it did not progress.
As an indicator of Oman’s importance in peacemaking efforts in Yemen, the foreign minister of Oman was invited to attend a December 2016 meeting of the so-called “Quartet.” The group of four countries – the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom – was formed in June 2016 to hold periodic meetings on resolving the crisis in Yemen and coordinate closely with the office of the UN envoy.
Former UN envoy Ismail Ould Al-Sheikh at the time described Oman as being “part of the solution and has a positive role to play by facilitating communication with the Houthis on the Yemeni issue, as well as hosting a number of meetings.” Since then, Oman has attended several of the infrequent meetings of the group of foreign ministers, which became known as the “Quintet.”
According to Omani academic Dr. Abdullah Al-Ghailani, who spoke to Almasdar Online about his country’s focus on Yemen, all these efforts remain within the framework of playing a supporting role and providing logistical support, but Muscat “does not have a full-fledged project” toward the Yemen issue.
The meetings last month between Saudi and Houthi officials in Muscat took place on the sidelines of the visit by Saudi Prince Khalid Bin Salman, the deputy defense minister, together with the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al-Jaber, who went to Muscat with the intention of facilitating the negotiation with the Houthis, said Al-Ghailani, who is a researcher in strategic affairs.
A few days later, Riyadh released 200 Houthi prisoners and reopened Sana’a International Airport to transport wounded Houthi members for treatment abroad. These steps are considered to be the result of discussions facilitated by Muscat, which were supported and welcomed by the UN envoy, as he sees Oman's role as assisting his own diplomatic mission.
The reason that Saudi officials went to Muscat, Al-Ghailani said, is because of the attack on Saudi Aramco, for which the Houthis claimed responsibility. The attack “marked a milestone in the course of the conflict, with Saudi Arabia's failure on two levels: militarily, as a failure of its defenses to counter the attack; and politically, when the Saudi leadership merely accused Iran without taking practical and deterrent measures,” Al-Ghailani said. “The Saudis realized that their geostrategic options were running out, especially after Washington failed them, and excluded the possibility of armed engagement in managing the conflict with Tehran.”
“All these developments have prompted Saudi Arabia to intensify its begging for a political solution, both for its impasse in Yemen and for its conflict with Iran, which holds part of the keys to the Yemeni crisis," he said. In going to Muscat, the Omani academic surmised, Riyadh sought to draw on Oman’s close relationship with Tehran, which has a direct influence on the Houthis.
It is unlikely that a political solution will soon be possible for several reasons, including that the timing of negotiations between the coalition and the Houthis is not encouraging, and that the Yemeni government remains completely excluded, further weakening their inclusivity in terms of the main players in the country. "The exchange of prisoners and the opening of Sana'a airport to transport the wounded are a costly start to the dialogue, not a sign of a coherent political solution," Al-Ghailani said. Furthermore, the Houthis are not in a situation where they are sufficiently pressured to comply with political solutions that will reduce their authority over the north of Yemen, given that Iran is not rushing to reconcile with Saudi Arabia and is using the crisis in Yemen strategically in its larger conflict with the United States.
Increased openness to Yemeni parties
Oman has a good relationship with all Yemeni parties, from the internationally recognized government led by President Hadi, to the Houthis and the General People's Congress (GPC) by virtue of their long standing relationship with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who signed the land border demarcation agreement between the two countries in November 1992 in Sana'a. Moreover, Muscat maintains relations with southern forces it sponsors in Al-Mahra, giving them further influence in helping to facilitate any upcoming settlement.
However, what is important here is Oman’s relationship with the broader array of actors involved in the conflict, beyond government representatives and formal diplomatic relations. Muscat’s relationships with these actors has been strengthened in recent years and rather than being limited to a certain ideology or geographic region in Yemen, this extends to include a broad spectrum of actors, the most important of whom are listed below.
Firstly, the Houthis have found in Muscat their main external base of political operations, as the head of their negotiating delegation and several senior figures are based there. From Muscat, Houthis officials are able to easily meet and communicate with diplomats from all over the world and reach a large audience. Oman has also served as a base for international trips, and on several occasions senior Houthi officials have been transported from Sana’a to Muscat by Omani aircraft, before traveling to meetings abroad.
Relatedly, Muscat's relationship with Tehran and the latter's relationship with the Houthis have strengthened. This has made Muscat a trusted intermediary between these parties, and more broadly Oman is positioned internationally as potentially a guarantor of a future deal with Saudi Arabia.
Secondly, Oman has strengthened its relations with Yemeni tribal leaders and influential figures in Al-Mahra governorate. There are longstanding ties between Oman and Al-Mahra, and Omani authorities have granted citizenship to a number of prominent figures from Al-Mahra, including Sheikh Abdullah bin Isa Al-Afrar, president of the general council of the Sons of Al-Mahra and Socotra, Sheikh Ali Salem Al-Harizi, former deputy governor, and Ahmed Qahtan, former security director, in addition to several others.
Notably, many of the key individuals from Al-Mahra who Oman is friendly with are known opponents of Saudi Arabia’s military presence in the governorate and recently formed the National Rescue Council. As a result, opponents of the council say that it was formed with Omani support in an effort to defend its influence in the governorate in the face of growing Saudi influence. The leadership of the National Rescue Council has denied that it has any special ties to Oman.
Thirdly, the General People's Congress (GPC), specifically the faction of the party loyal to the family of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Many GPC-Saleh officials have relocated to Muscat following the late president’s death. This includes former foreign minister Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi, who participated alongside the Houthis as a GPC member in past rounds of UN-sponsored peace talks, as well as Yahya Duwaid, former governor of Sana'a, in addition to several others.
On December 22, 2017, a couple weeks after the Houthis killed Saleh, Muscat received 22 members of the former president's family after mediating with the Houthis to enable them to leave the country. In October 2018 they succeeded in releasing two more family members, Saleh's sons Salah and Madian, in an undisclosed deal.
Finally, the southern leader Hassan Ba'oum, head of the so-called Supreme Council of the Southern Revolutionary Movement, has been living in Salalah for around five years. He is free to receive visitors from Yemen and abroad, including the UN envoy, and he often publishes messages and video speeches. He is considered one of the most prominent southern figures, and despite being imprisoned by Saleh in the past, he continues to demand the south’s secession.
A reliable border crossing for Yemeni travelers
With the closure of most civilian airports in Yemen, except for Aden and Seyoun airports, and difficulties transiting through Saudi Arabia to reach Yemen by road, the land border point in Shehn, linking Oman and Al-Mahra governorate, has become a major entry and exit point for Yemeni travelers. Omani authorities have allowed for Yemenis to cross the border on a basic transit visa that takes only a few days to procure, making this crossing the preferred transit route for thousands of Yemenis every month.
Yemeni medical patients, students, and expatriates, in addition to others, are increasingly using flights through Salalah Airport in Oman, which is closer to the Yemeni border than Muscat Airport, in order to reach destinations around the world or when transiting back into Yemen from abroad. The Al-Antari Travel Foundation in Shehn port now arranges transit visas, avoiding the difficulties previously encountered when the absence of an official Yemeni body to regulate the issuance of visas had made the process more complicated.
The war in Yemen has produced an opportunity for Oman to attract Yemeni investments, through a range of incentives and facilities to encourage migrant funds seeking investment opportunities. Oman is one of the main locations where wealthy Yemenis are parking their money, along with Turkey, Malaysia and Ethiopia.
These incentives include tax exemptions for companies operating in the Free Zone of Mazzyona, 14 km from the Yemeni town of Shehn, and allowing goods to be imported into the region without an import permit, among other measures. Yemenis can work in Oman without obtaining permanent visas or permanent residency.
Impact of heightened influence on neutrality
Over the past few years, Oman has not been physically affected by any repercussions of the war due to its distance from the frontlines in Yemen. However, with the emergence of clear foreign interests along Oman’s border in Al-Mahra, most notably from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, tensions have flared near the border, especially when tribes protested as Saudi Arabia sought to bolster its military presence in the governorate. As a result, Muscat has concerns that instability could spread along its border with Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has strengthened its grip on Al-Mahra, including by controlling its air and seaports and border with Oman. Tribal leaders opposed to Saudi Arabia’s growing presence continue to voice their grievances, and international media have highlighted this dynamic, with British newspaper the Independent describing it as part of the "new proxy war between the Gulf states.” Western diplomats were quoted saying that Oman is beginning to lose impartiality, in part because several of the key tribal figures behind the protest movement are closely linked to Oman.
Muscat has long considered Al-Mahra as a natural extension of its national security concerns, and the tribes and residents of the Omani governorate of Dhofar have social and cultural ties with those of Al-Mahra. Oman has encouraged and fostered these linkages, and as a result can play the tribal card to counter Saudi influence, which analysts say is in part geared toward building an oil pipeline that crosses Al-Mahrah toward the Arabian Sea.
Given Muscat’s crucial importance as a facilitator in the ongoing peace efforts, and a link between all the various players, it likely that it will continue to be positioned as a neutral player in the region. The power struggle in Al-Mahra between Riyadh and Muscat is likely to go on, but will take place within clear parameters in order to avoid any real confrontations in the governorate. Rather, each party will use its available tools, which for Riyadh means expanding under the cover of legitimacy, and for Muscat means asserting its influence through local tribal leaders and others who have a strong influence in the community.