Oman’s Diplomatic Agenda in Yemen

A flurry of diplomatic activities and high-level meetings between Omani officials and their counterparts from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, the United States, and the United Nations have underscored Oman’s continued commitment to playing a peacemaker role in Yemen. Omani diplomats have made multiple trips to Yemen to discuss the conflict with local actors, and the Sultanate has provided humanitarian assistance to Yemenis in their country and inside Oman’s borders. To be sure, Muscat has a vested interest in alleviating the suffering of Yemenis and in serving a bridging role between the various sides in Yemen’s crisis. Ultimately, Oman seeks to assist in the restoration of good governance, whether centralized or federalist, that would bring greater stability and help address the humanitarian crises consuming Yemen.

Muscat’s determination to help resolve the Yemen conflict is largely tied to Oman’s own national security and economic interests. Omanis worry about it spilling over into their country. At the same time, the crisis in Yemen also provides the Sultanate an opportunity to further enhance its credentials as a regional balancer, one that aims to promote greater dialogue between state and non-state actors in the Arabian Peninsula.

Geopolitically, the Yemen conflict also offers Oman ways to project its influence while asserting its independence from wealthier and more conventionally powerful neighbors—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This is a tricky balancing act because Oman’s economic challenges might require it to reach out to the Saudis and Emiratis for financial assistance sooner rather than later. Against the backdrop of mounting economic problems, the leadership in Muscat will have to contend with difficult domestic issues that could somewhat limit the country’s ability to invest resources into Omani-driven peace efforts in Yemen.

The “Switzerland of the Middle East”

A pillar of Omani foreign policy is the impartial promotion of geopolitical balance in the Middle East, undergirded by business-like if not fully amicable relations with all in the region, including Iran. Muscat leverages its unique ability to serve as a facilitator of peace and to function as a trusted and credible party that can provide channels for dialogue. The Omani belief that long-term peace, prosperity, and stability in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) requires extinguishing fires in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf helps explain why Muscat invests resources in this Switzerland-like role.

“In essence, successful diplomacy that permitted prosperity has been the pillar of Omani politics for over a thousand years,” explains Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. He adds that Muscat always strove to assure its long-term interests by balancing “actions with limited capabilities.” A founding member of the GCC, Oman does not support Iranian adventurism in the region, but Muscat’s responses to regional crises are measured. Thus, Oman is uniquely positioned to provide “good offices” to most of the major actors involved in the Yemen conflict.

Oman is uniquely positioned to provide “good offices” to most of the major actors involved in the Yemen conflict. 

A Pro-Diplomacy Agenda

Oman’s unobtrusive—albeit constructive—diplomatic role in Yemen dates back to the early stages of Operation Decisive Storm (ODS), the Saudi-led military operation that began in March 2015 and nominally involved ten Arab and Muslim countries. In May 2015, Oman hosted peace talks for US diplomats and Houthi representatives. Although these talks did not produce anything tangible, they underscored Muscat’s interest in pushing for a resolution that requires compromises on the part of all actors in Yemen.

The Omanis see no military solution to Yemen’s crisis and believe they have a special diplomatic role to play in helping the warring factions move toward peace. In 2019, Oman’s then-chief diplomat, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, stated: “We always facilitate any attempt for parties to talk to each other, or any efforts by [UN Special Envoy for Yemen] Martin Griffiths to keep or bring parties from Yemen to meet in Oman.” Almost one year later, bin Alawi affirmed that Oman’s borders are “open to all Yemenis” and that “The Yemenis are our brothers and neighbours and we are seeking with them and others to resolve the differences and we will be able to look at the past and look to the future.”

In the same way that Omanis have never considered Bahrain’s Shia citizens an Iranian “fifth column,” they also view the Houthis as an organic Yemeni community, not a “proxy.” 

In the same way that Omanis have never considered Bahrain’s Shia citizens an Iranian “fifth column,” they also view the Houthis as an organic Yemeni community, not a “proxy.” Such views have distinguished Oman from some fellow GCC members, which see Iran not only as an external threat but as an internal one as well. To the Omanis, the Saudi-led ODS was a grave mistake because they believed that a militarized response to the Houthis’ ascendancy would not lead to stability or a Saudi-friendly political order taking shape in Sanaa. What has unfolded in Yemen since 2015 validates this assessment. The result was that Oman has spent the last six years facing major security, geopolitical, and economic challenges stemming from this conflict.

Because of the shared 187-mile border with Yemen, continued combat in the war-ravaged country directly threatens Oman’s national security. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has successfully exploited the breakdown in governance and widespread instability that have plagued Yemen since 2014-2015. The extremist group has filled voids in terms of providing services to Yemenis. At the same time, Washington’s counterterrorism operations against AQAP have faced setbacks because of Yemen’s civil war. A continuation of chaos provides endless opportunities to extremists such as the so-called Islamic State and AQAP—two forces that Oman does not want to see as “winners” because they could potentially threaten Oman’s southern Dhofar region from areas in Yemen.

Oman-Houthi Relations

Aside from Iran, Oman and Russia are basically the only two states that have some influence over the Ansar Allah movement, or the Houthi rebels. Oman’s leadership has viewed constructive engagement with the Houthis as critical to its efforts to succeed as a peacemaker in Yemen, and this approach has paid off. Over the years, the Omanis have negotiated with the Houthis to release western nationals they detained and provided the Yemeni insurgents a platform for talks with US diplomats in Muscat.

The fight for Marib continues as diplomatic efforts to secure a cease-fire have so far proven futile. For the Houthis, capturing Marib would boost their position before peace talks. 

But Oman will be challenged to persuade the Ansar Allah militias to lay down their arms. Put simply, the Houthis are confident in their ability to gain greater leverage, if they continue waging war, before future talks with their adversaries. Given that roughly 80 percent of Yemenis live under Houthi control, and that Ansar Allah are still engaged in a war for control of hydrocarbon-rich Marib, the perception of the Houthis as winning the war is not untethered from reality. The fight for Marib continues as diplomatic efforts to secure a cease-fire have so far proven futile. For the Houthis, capturing Marib would boost their position before peace talks. Nonetheless, this violent struggle is exacerbating the humanitarian disaster in this area where many displaced Yemenis had fled to escape warfare elsewhere in the country. There is also a risk that continued Houthi aggression will dissuade the Biden Administration from believing that Ansar Allah could be engaged diplomatically.

In March 2021, after Saudi Arabia offered the Houthis a cease-fire, the Omanis encouraged the Iran-backed rebels to accept the proposal. Yet the Houthis’ refusal to do so underscores the limits of Omani influence with the rebels. Put simply, it will be difficult to convince the Houthis that they need to make concessions while they are successfully exploiting Saudi weaknesses, using increasingly technologically advanced weaponry.

Saudi Perceptions of Oman’s Yemen Policy

Saudi Arabia is becoming more supportive of Oman’s diplomacy in Yemen. The Saudi leadership has been recalibrating its foreign policy on multiple fronts. Riyadh recognizes that it must find a negotiated path out of the Yemen quagmire, prompting it to pivot toward Muscat for help in winding down the war.

Throughout May and June 2021, there have been growing indications that the Saudi leadership sees Muscat as capable of convincing Ansar Allah to agree to a cease-fire. Various diplomatic exchanges between the Sultanate and Saudi Arabia, in the form of official visits and letters, have been characterized by a “very positive tone,” according to Cinzia Bianco, an Oman expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

On June 9, Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr bin Hamad Albusaidi traveled to Riyadh for a formal meeting with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud, on regional issues and bilateral affairs. While in the Saudi capital, Albusaidi passed along a handwritten letter from Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. A week later, the Omani and Saudi foreign ministers met again on the sidelines of the Ministerial Council of the GCC’s 148th session to discuss the same topics. Additionally, during the previous month, King Salman invited Sultan Haitham to Saudi Arabia for an official visit.

Another sign of Saudi Arabia’s growing support for Oman’s diplomatic agenda in Yemen came on June 5, when an Omani Royal Air Force aircraft arrived in Houthi-controlled Sanaa. It brought Houthi officials and an Omani Royal Office delegation, who spent their time in the Yemeni capital meeting with the Houthi rebels’ senior leaders to discuss cease-fire efforts in the war-torn country. It is safe to assume that the flight’s ability to safely land in Sanaa was because Riyadh approved of this visit, seeing the Omanis as capable of helping stalled negotiations move forward.

Despite growing Saudi enthusiasm for Oman’s diplomatic actions, not all parties in the conflict are necessarily so optimistic about Muscat’s role, including the Southern Transitional Council.

Despite growing Saudi enthusiasm for Oman’s diplomatic actions, not all parties in the conflict are necessarily so optimistic about Muscat’s role. The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), a separatist group seeking to carve out an independent state in southern Yemen, views Oman’s agenda in Yemen with a degree of suspicion. In part, Muscat’s commitment to the preservation of Yemen’s territorial integrity is a key factor in the equation. Ultimately, some tensions between the STC and Oman could create further complications down the road.

It is important to note that not all is cordial between Saudi Arabia and Oman. The two Arabian monarchies have different perspectives on the situation in Yemen’s easternmost al-Mahra Governorate. “The first priority of the Omani leadership is to prevent the Yemeni conflict from spilling over into Oman,” according to Roby Barrett, a Gulf expert at the Middle East Institute and a Fellow at MENAF—Cambridge University. “The obvious threat is that conflict in Yemen’s easternmost al-Mahra governorate might spill over into Dhofar.” Muscat opposes Saudi and Emirati militarization of this region and considers Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s intervention in al-Mahra as a destabilizing influence that has long-term implications for Oman’s own interests. In fact, in 2018 Oman participated in joint military drills with the United Kingdom to signal its opposition to the UAE’s conduct in al-Mahra. Although there is tension between Riyadh and Muscat over the status of al-Mahra, Saudi Arabia’s growing interest in taking advantage of Oman’s role as a facilitator of peace talks could result in Riyadh taking steps to assuage Omani concerns about eastern Yemen. At least doing so could buy the Saudis more goodwill in Muscat.

Synergy between the Biden Administration and Oman

The Biden Administration, at least officially, is committed to winding down Yemen’s conflict. Whereas the Trump Administration had less use for Oman’s diplomacy in Yemen because former President Donald Trump was more focused on helping the Saudis achieve their goals militarily, President Joe Biden’s White House is turning to Oman as a peacemaker in Yemen. In 2015, Muscat and the Obama Administration worked together to lay the groundwork for passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the current Biden Administration is comprised of Obama-era veterans who are well acquainted with Omani officialdom.

Building on these past diplomatic experiences, Biden’s team is in a strong position to intensify ongoing diplomatic efforts to work with the Omanis to achieve peace in Yemen. Although the US has no plans to completely farm out its Yemen policy to Oman, Biden’s Administration will continue engaging the Omanis and supporting their diplomatic efforts to help the Yemenis move closer to peace. “We’ll be looking for ways to leverage Oman’s unique position if and when we or the UN try to get the parties together,” said Gary Grappo, the former US ambassador to Oman, in an email exchange with the author.

Oman Must Continue Its Efforts

Regardless of Oman’s good intentions and motivations, there is no country that can alone magically resolve the multiple and overlapping conflicts plaguing Yemen. A resolution to Yemen’s crisis requires certain degrees of political will on the part of Yemeni actors—without which the international community’s and Oman’s efforts cannot on their own move the conflict closer to resolution. Realistically, success on Muscat’s part will likely entail Omani-led negotiations and peace bids leading to de-escalation of the fighting in Yemen.

As Omanis continue trying to facilitate peace in Yemen, Muscat should maintain its neutrality in the conflict so that it can act as a trusted interlocutor. 

As Omanis continue trying to facilitate peace in Yemen, Muscat should maintain its neutrality in the conflict so that it can act as a trusted interlocutor. It would be beneficial to the various groups in Yemen, plus Saudi Arabia, if the Omanis double down on their efforts to facilitate greater dialogue between the different factions. Muscat can help build trust among Yemenis by continuing to host talks that could lead to more prisoner exchanges and cease-fires. Oman and others in the international community could help Yemen move toward a new era of enduring peace and stability since the gaps between the demands of different groups in Yemen are bridgeable.

Muscat can use its friendly relations with the major geopolitical forces in Yemen—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran—to at least try to convince these powers that it is critical to curtail their ambitions in Yemen, which for years have served to dim the prospects for peace. By focusing on empowering Yemenis (and not foreigners) to shape the future of Yemen, the Omanis should continue to emphasize the need for all peace talks to address legitimate grievances by Yemen’s various communities. Oman can try to de-escalate tension and war in Marib by engaging the Saudis, President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government and its supporters, and the Houthis. Muscat should also try to persuade the Saudis to end the blockade of Yemen and remove restrictions that prevent commercial goods from coming through Houthi-controlled ports and the Sanaa International Airport. In exchange, Ansar Allah should agree to lay down their arms and end their assault on Marib within the framework of a grand strategy aimed at implementing a nationwide cease-fire, one that Yemen desperately needs.

Ultimately, of all the countries in the GCC, the League of Arab States, and the world at large, Oman is best positioned to help resolve Yemen’s conflict through a political settlement. The Sultanate’s neutrality and friendly relations with the various actors in Yemen’s crisis still inject optimism in the potential for Oman’s diplomatic energy to push the conflict in a positive direction. Yet Muscat, despite holding some unique cards, harbors no illusions about how difficult it will be to achieve that outcome. Despite such enormous challenges and being a relatively small state with limited resources, Oman could and should continue to play its peacemaker role in Yemen. Doing so not only will help the Yemeni people, but it will also further enhance the Sultanate’s position as a regional balancer and force for stability and moderation.