Oman’s Interests and Role in the Conflict in Yemen

In the course of the conflict in Yemen, Oman’s role has evolved substantially and in various ways. Currently, expectations are high that the sultanate will be able to do more, especially after its having hosted talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran that partially paved the road to a recent deal between the two rivals. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and the presence of security risks on its border with Oman are among the factors that have made the sultanate’s interaction with both Yemeni and foreign parties to the ongoing conflict more or less inevitable. By using covert mediation efforts early on, and by later deploying more overt means of facilitating dialogue, Oman has been using its longstanding policy of deploying diplomacy for conflict resolution, and thereby playing an important role in working to end the conflict and to address Yemen’s dire humanitarian crisis. Although it remains to be seen whether Omani mediation will successfully achieve a peace deal in Yemen, Oman’s role will undoubtedly represent a vital factor in Yemen’s prospects for peace and stability.

What Does Yemen Represent for Oman?

Wracked as it is by the conflict, Yemen represents for Oman both a humanitarian burden and a security challenge. Humanitarian problems have spilled over into Oman as Yemen’s conflict, which has led to hundreds of thousands of people being killed and wounded, and which has caused one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, with 17 million people currently suffering from food insecurity and a lack of basic services that are compounded by the country’s damaged infrastructure. Oman has also felt Yemen’s deepening humanitarian crisis, given that the two countries share a nearly 300-kilometer border, and that Oman has been one of the few countries that has kept its doors open for Yemenis.

Over the course of the conflict, thousands of Yemeni refugees have fled to Oman, and Yemenis injured in the conflict have been able to take advantage of the medical care that Oman has been providing them free of charge. With the number of internally displaced people in Yemen now standing at 4.5 million, Yemen is a potential source for an influx of refugees into Oman, which would certainly weigh heavily on the sultanate’s economy and drain its ability to provide various services.

Yemen is a potential source for an influx of refugees into Oman, which would certainly weigh heavily on the sultanate’s economy.

In terms of national security, militarization and possible terrorist activities in Yemen’s al-Mahra Governorate, which abuts Oman from the west, have represented a major security concern for the sultanate, since it fears that violence could easily cross over into its territory. With the temporary rise of ​​al-Qaeda in Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate in 2016, Oman was reminded of these very fears, which it had been expressing since the beginning of the Yemen conflict in 2015. Saudi and Emirati military forces deployed to eliminate the threat posed by al-Qaeda, but their expanded presence in Yemen, which started to reach into al-Mahra in 2017 raised security concerns in Oman, especially given that the sultanate has spent many years establishing its influence in eastern Yemen.

Oman’s Involvement in the Yemen Conflict

Oman’s involvement in the Yemen conflict has gone through several phases. In the first phase, it chose to present a prospective peace deal instead of participating in the conflict militarily; and it was indeed the only Gulf state that refused to participate in the Saudi-led military coalition. Oman thus demonstrated its strong belief that a military option was not the solution to the conflict, but rather that diplomacy and peaceful political dialogue were the way forward. This led to the second phase of Oman’s involvement, wherein it was quietly leading covert mediation efforts between the parties to the conflict. In the third and current phase, Oman has been publicly hosting direct talks between the Houthi armed group and Saudi Arabia ever since a United Nations-sponsored truce ended in October 2022 without an extension.

Nonetheless, doubts about Oman’s involvement in Yemen grew with increasing reports about weapons smuggling off its coast and on its border with Yemen. Numerous reports have detailed the confiscation of smuggled weapons in the Gulf of Oman. On March 2, for example, the US Navy reported that it had assisted the British Navy in confiscating a weapons shipment that originated from Iran and that was likely bound for Yemen. In January, the US Navy said that its forces had intercepted a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Oman that was carrying 2,116 AK-47 assault rifles on a route used to transfer illicit cargo to the Houthis. In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that French special forces had seized rifles and anti-tank missiles that also were bound for the Houthis. Again in February, UN investigators reported on the possible role of individuals or entities in Oman in smuggling anti-tank guided missiles overland from Oman to Yemen, weapons that were probably destined for the Houthis.

Allegations that Oman was quietly supporting the Houthis with smuggled weapons began several years ago. At the time, the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly denied said allegations, saying that claims about Iranian weapons being smuggled across Oman’s border with Yemen were baseless and that arms traffickers were instead taking advantage of unmonitored areas of Yemen’s shoreline. Regional experts and scholars agree that even before the ongoing conflict in Yemen, areas at the Yemen-Oman-Saudi confluence of borders were known for smuggling activities. The idea that Oman was allowing arms to be funneled to the Houthis is based on the misconception that Oman is supporting the Houthi armed group, whose officials it openly hosts in Muscat. However, the truth is that Oman is maintaining good ties with all parties, and is hosting numerous officials from a wide range of Yemen’s political parties, including the General People’s Congress, the Islah Party, and the Southern Transitional Council (STC); but it asks these officials to keep a low profile in their dealings with Oman for the sake of a successful mediation process, since Oman sees that undue publicity in the process as potentially counterproductive.

Even before the ongoing conflict in Yemen, areas at the Yemen-Oman-Saudi confluence of borders were known for smuggling activities.

Because Oman does not update the media with information about its approach to the conflict in Yemen, two of the steps it has taken could be interpreted as indicative of its security approach and its recent mechanisms to address increased smuggling. First, since 2013, Oman has sought to strengthen its border security by building a costly security wall along its border with Yemen. Second, in 2021, Oman spent 7.3 percent of its GDP on military expenditures, demonstrating its increased concern with a potential enlargement of the conflict. So far, Oman has successfully avoided a spillover of violence into its territory and has also succeeded in refusing to be dragged into the violence in Yemen. Nonetheless, the sultanate remains vigilant about the prospect of threats emanating from its neighbor.

Oman’s Involvement with Foreign Actors in Yemen

Armed with its stance in favor of peace in Yemen, Oman has maintained good relations with the various outside actors involved (directly and indirectly) in the conflict: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and the United States. And it has done this despite security concerns about the growing influence and military mobilization of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in southern Yemen. The UAE’s support of the STC, which is calling for “a sovereign independent federal state” in southern Yemen, and the presence of the UAE’s proxy armed forces controlling Yemen’s Socotra island have been unsettling for Oman. Even more concerning is the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s support of Yemeni armed groups that operate outside the control of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, and that actually often militarily challenge government forces. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia seems to have aspirations of building an oil pipeline from the kingdom through eastern Yemen to the Arabian Sea.

These changing security dynamics just next door could translate into instability in the sultanate’s western region for some time to come. Expectedly, responding to these developments is a priority in Oman’s national security agenda. However, Oman has not initiated any confrontation—neither a diplomatic nor a military one—most probably because of Oman’s long-standing policy of tolerance of differences and of peaceful dialogue during conflicts.

Oman is eager to continue its cordial relationships with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and seems to be primarily focusing on continuing and enhancing its constructive diplomatic efforts and on building a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, and the Houthis and Iran on the other. Now that Saudi Arabia and Iran have resumed diplomatic relations, Oman’s involvement between the two will evolve into a new chapter, one that moves beyond merely using backchannels for communication between the two countries.

The United States, meanwhile, continues to express gratitude for Oman’s engagement and mediation efforts in the conflict in Yemen; but Oman continues to be cautious. Notably, US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking has not officially met with Mohammed Abdul-Salam, head of the Houthi delegation in Muscat. Oman seems to be pushing the United States’ mediation efforts to the side because it views US involvement in the peace process in Yemen as problematic. One interpretation of this is that Oman views cleaning up the US’s currently bad reputation in Yemen—built in large part on US complicity in war crimes—as extremely time consuming. Also possible is that Oman is concerned that the US might take all the credit when a peace deal is brokered, even though the sultanate is the country that has done all the hard work.

What Is to Be Expected?

Oman’s role in Yemen has been vital, as is vividly demonstrated by its mediation efforts. The public in Yemen perceives Oman positively, despite media reports of smuggled weapons traversing its territory. Yemenis recognize Oman primarily as a peacemaker, given that it stepped in with a peace initiative early on in the conflict, at a time when not many other countries were willing to do so. Yemeni expectations for Oman are positive, and most appreciate Oman for its wise decision not to participate in the Saudi-led coalition and for prioritizing peaceful dialogue instead.

The warring parties, meanwhile, perceive Oman as a third party that enjoys good connections with all stakeholders, and that could help all of them save face as they try to reach a settlement to resolve the conflict. This is Oman’s biggest challenge in the mediation efforts, because putting the warring parties in embarrassing or uncomfortable positions could possibly cause a return to the status quo ante. Thus, Oman’s tactic of starting covert mediation efforts in the beginning of the conflict and continuing them now saves all the parties from the dreaded embarrassment and discomfort.

The question remains: Will Oman bring peace to Yemen? Does it have the ability to influence the warring parties? For Oman, the answers depend on those parties’ plans. Being friends with everyone gives it an opportunity to communicate with all actors, but not necessarily to influence them. Oman’s approach is not to impose solutions on anyone or to patronize; but rather to provide a venue for warring parties to sit, negotiate, and reach a solution themselves, and at their own pace.

However, in one of the few rare official statements by Omani officials about Oman’s mediation efforts, Omani Foreign Minister Badr Albusaidi in 2022 gave a description of the political settlement that Oman envisions for Yemen. He said that Oman is pushing for the formation of an inclusive national government, in which all stakeholders in Yemen are represented. The Omani role in achieving this goal is expected to proceed within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In 2021, prominent Omani academic Abdullah Baabood predicted that Oman’s peace perspective on Yemen might include its possible support of a GCC-led initiative for the country that would include the withdrawal of foreign forces on the one hand, and its possible support of Yemen’s admission to the GCC, on the other. Only time will tell regarding the fate of Oman’s mediation efforts and its future role in Yemen.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Akram Alrasny