By Maged Al-Madhaji
An Omani Royal Air Force aircraft landed in Sana’a on June 5. On the plane was a delegation from the Omani Royal Office, along with a number of Houthi officials, including the movement’s chief negotiator and spokesperson Mohammed Abdel Salam. During their time in the Yemeni capital the Omanis held meetings with senior Houthi leaders, including the movement’s head Abdelmalek al-Houthi, related to diplomatic efforts aimed at reaching a ceasefire in Yemen.
The visit hints at the increasing pressure on Muscat to play a bigger role in pressuring the Houthis to agree to a deal to halt fighting in the country – an approach the Omanis have generally avoided for a long time. The flight would not have been permitted to land in Sana’a without approval from Saudi Arabia, while the Omani foreign minister, Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi, spoke with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken the day before the delegation left for Yemen. Both Riyadh and Washington seem to agree that the Omanis have the ability to push forward the currently-stalled negotiations.
The Sultanate is the country with the greatest influence on the Houthi movement after Iran. Muscat has hosted Houthi officials since 2015, providing the movement a welcoming and safe environment to manage its international interests and engage politically with world and regional powers. While Oman is not a strictly neutral platform, it provides enough cover for international actors to engage with the Houthi movement in a way that would not be possible if the Houthi delegation were based in Tehran, Beirut or Damascus, where Iran and its allies hold sway. As a result, Oman possesses exceptional political leverage over the Houthis – something other stakeholders on Yemen, which currently lack means to pressure the movement, hope to benefit from.
While the visit of the Omani delegation represents the latest effort aimed at breaking the current diplomatic deadlock, it also puts renewed focus on Oman’s role in Yemen after six years of war. Much analysis in this regard focuses on Omani national security interests in Al-Mahra amid growing Saudi military influence in the Yemeni governorate bordering Oman to the west. However, other questions must be raised: Is Muscat doing enough to provide an opportunity for peace for its exhausted neighbor? And, importantly, how should the privileges Oman offers Houthi officials based in its capital be understood within the context of intra-Gulf politics?
While the simple view is that Oman is merely playing its traditional role of mediator of disputes in the Gulf, this doesn’t tell the whole story. In the past, Muscat often required guests not to get involved in politics. This can be seen in its history of dealing with Yemeni exiles; for instance, the Sultanate requested that Vice President Ali Salem al-Beidh, who fled to Muscat in the wake of the 1994 civil war, leave the country after he resumed political activity following a long period of silence. However, the no-politics rule appears to have been amended in more recent years for the Houthis, as much of their activity in Muscat is directed toward the group’s political and military struggle with the internationally recognized government in Yemen, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Omani relationship with its Saudi and Emirati neighbors is complex. While all are a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Oman has charted a course independent from its neighbors, sometimes leading to periods of rivalry and heightened tensions. In 2011, Oman said it uncovered an Emirati-run spy network in the country. Muscat also refused to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead in recent years in confronting Iran, joining the Arab-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen or participating in the diplomatic and economic blockade of Qatar. Amid lingering differences with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, including over the war in Yemen, providing political support and facilitating Houthi diplomatic outreach offers Oman a golden opportunity to push back against Riyadh and Abu Dhabi at little cost.
Yemen has witnessed several transformations in politics and alliances over the course of war, but one constant has been behind-the-scenes Omani support for the Houthi movement. Oman has opened international doors for the Houthis, facilitated the travel of the movement’s officials and even worked at times to neutralize Houthi adversaries. For instance, after former President Ali Abdullah Saleh fell out with the Houthis and was killed in December 2017, the Omanis reached out to a large bloc of Saleh’s allies, specifically sheikhs in northern Yemen and leaders in the General People’s Congress party. In exchange for Omani residency, Muscat garnered their neutrality and ensured that they didn’t defect to the camp of the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition. Qatar took care of the payments.
Indeed, outside of Iran, Oman has been the country that has most embraced adversaries of the Saudi-led coalition and the internationally recognized government. Since 2017 it has hosted the Southern Movement faction led by Hassan Baoum, figures from Al-Mahra who oppose the coalition’s presence in Yemen’s easternmost governorate, as well as Islah figures close to Qatar, giving them a platform to communicate their views as well as expand their influence and investments. This noticeable shift in Omani policy in a more adversarial direction also came as Oman and Qatar grew closer amid the diplomatic rift between Doha on one hand, and a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Doha has provided not only funds to Yemeni figures based in Muscat, but also to the Omani state itself in 2020 as it struggled to deal with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Qatari-owned Al Jazeera has regularly promoted the views of Yemenis aligned with Muscat, including its local allies in Al-Mahra. In another departure from Oman’s usual rule, it has allowed anti- coalition figures in Muscat to conduct public interviews.
At the same time that Oman has proven more willing to push back against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it so far seems unwilling to exert any real pressure on the Houthis. Their current lobbying appears limited to convincing the Houthis to meet with the UN special envoy and diplomats from countries involved in or concerned about the war in Yemen.
According to political, security and tribal sources, Oman’s borders with Yemen have been very flexible in terms of the movement of Houthi officials and allies. Iranian ambassador to Houthi-controlled Yemen, Hassan Irlu, reportedly arrived in Sana’a in October 2020 via Oman. According to the UN Panel of Experts, one of the primary smuggling routes for weapons to the Houthi movement is via Omani territorial waters and its land border with Yemen. It is also undeniable that Muscat has served as a headquarters for the Houthi’s political growth. Thus, given the vital services Oman offers to the Houthis, it has the ability to exert more pressure on them and use its influence to demand concessions. The Houthis have much to lose if the Omanis become angry at them.
Muscat has long been viewed as a respected and unbiased mediator in difficult situations. Its reputation for politeness and wittiness in its diplomatic interactions and for maintaining cordial relations with everyone is well-deserved. However, when it comes to Yemen, Muscat has charted a different, more partisan course.
This examination of the Omani role in Yemen does not aim to condemn Muscat but to ask it to explain its policy. Understanding Oman’s interests in Yemen can better help international actors work with Muscat to satisfy its genuine concerns and form a more unified front for diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the Yemen war. Sultan Haitham bin Tariq has better relations with his neighbors than his predecessor Sultan Qaboos, but it’s unclear how much this has altered Oman’s regional approach. The appointment of Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi in August 2020 to replace long-serving foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi, whose views sometimes brought him into conflict with other Gulf states, most particularly Saudi Arabia, also indicates a potential shift toward more cooperative Omani diplomacy with its neighbors. Publicly, however, there has been no visible change in Oman’s policy in Yemen. Muscat remains the Houthis’ window to the world and a silent and efficient ally against the Houthis’ rivals in Yemen.
This commentary is part of a series of publications by the Sana’a Center examining the roles of state and non-state foreign actors in Yemen.