Sultan Haitham bin Tariq of Oman (right) receives Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah in Muscat on January 12, 2020 // Photo: Omani News Agency
Commentary by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
On April 9, the unilateral announcement of a two-week cease-fire by the Saudi-led coalition raised hopes that a window of opportunity might open to bring an end to its troubled five-year military intervention in Yemen. The fact that the Houthis were not consulted before the cease-fire was declared, and that the Saudis, Emiratis and Yemeni government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi lack consensus on the next steps means that attempts to broker a political settlement will be complicated and may yet falter. Although fighting in parts of Yemen continued despite the cease-fire, the prospect of a pause in the conflict is an opportune moment to examine the roles of Kuwait and Oman in deescalation, dialogue, trust-building and diplomacy.
Kuwait and Oman have carved subtly different niches for themselves in the maelstrom of Gulf politics, in contrast to the muscular approach to regional affairs taken by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Oman, during the long rule of Sultan Qaboos bin Said (1970-2020), focused on facilitating talks between adversaries by passing messages and creating the space and conditions for meetings to occur, with the hosting of US-Iran backchannel negotiations in 2012-13 a prominent example. Kuwait has placed greater emphasis on mediation with Emir Sabah al-Ahmad, himself a former foreign minister of 40 years’ standing, often engaging in shuttle diplomacy, as occurred in the opening weeks of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rift in 2017 that pitted Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar.
Both Kuwait and Oman have a track record of engaging in mediation and facilitation in Yemen. Kuwait acted as a mediator on several occasions during Sabah al-Ahmad’s tenure as foreign minister, including in 1972 after border clashes between (the then-separate) North and South Yemen and again in 1979, when it hosted a reconciliation summit that produced the Kuwait Agreement. Relations between Kuwait and Yemen were strained severely by the newly reunified Republic of Yemen’s failure to condemn Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and took years to recover. In 2016, however, Kuwait attempted to mediate in the Yemen War when it hosted months of talks between April and August, but failed to bridge the gaps between the parties. Kuwait acted in close coordination with the United Nations and the UN special envoy for Yemen, and the Kuwaiti leadership also focused on Yemen during Kuwait’s two-year term on the UN Security Council in 2018 and 2019.
For its part, Oman has engaged heavily in recent years in passing messages and facilitating backchannel talks between the various parties to the conflict, including domestic Yemeni actors and foreign officials from states closely involved in the broader dimensions of the war, including the United States and Iran. Oman’s western governorate of Dhofar is linked to Yemen’s easternmost governorate of Al-Mahra through webs of cross-border tribal, trading, and socio-economic ties, and since 2015, Omani officials have viewed the growing Saudi and Emirati influence there with some alarm. As the only GCC state that has not participated at any point in the Saudi-led military coalition, the Omanis are seen by many in Yemen as an impartial and trustworthy arbiter. Oman’s ability to talk to all parties has involved meetings with senior Saudi and Houthi officials, along with the current UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths. Notably, Muscat played a key role brokering backchannel Saudi-Houthi talks after the attack on Saudi oil infrastructure in September 2019.
To be sure, the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 has come to dominate policymaking bandwidth as governments around the world have struggled to come to grips with the pandemic, while Oman, especially, has also been hit hard by plunging oil prices since March. This double-hit has complicated Sultan Haitham bin Tariq’s first months in power since he succeeded his cousin Qaboos in January, although the new Sultan has pledged to follow his predecessor’s approach to regional affairs and support the peaceful resolution of disputes. The advent of new leadership in Muscat has been seen by some as an opportunity to reset ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE that had become strained. The Saudi desire to disengage militarily from Yemen also means that any talks facilitated and hosted by Oman may have more of a chance of expanding into formal and substantive negotiations, just as the US-Iran talks paved the way for the P5+1 process that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran in 2015.
The challenge going forward for Kuwait, Oman or any other regional or international party is to identify practical ways to support deescalatory measures and bridge the gaps between the maximalist positions that have undermined previous talks. For an eventual political process to be feasible, and not to suffer the fate of the Kuwaiti mediation in 2016, painstaking and incremental preparatory work will be required to explore which compromises are possible and around what issues, temper expectations so that all sides can build confidence in each other, and agree on parameters for peace negotiations to reduce the risk of subsequent grandstanding and point-scoring.
Kuwait and Oman are well-placed to perform much of the groundwork for an eventual negotiated settlement to end the war in Yemen. They are generally regarded by all sides as sufficiently credible, trustworthy and relatively untainted by too close an association with any one side in the conflict. Their perceived impartiality, coupled with the fact that Kuwaiti and Omani officials are rooted in the political culture of the region, means that Kuwait and Oman may better be able to push the warring parties to overcome years of accumulated distrust that has hampered the UN’s attempts to sustain and support the political track in Yemen.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is the Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He tweets at @Dr_Ulrichsen.