Is Oman’s hard work with Yemen and Saudi Arabia paying off?

Developments towards peace in Yemen show how productive Omani efforts have been.

People ride a motorbike past anti-Saudi graffiti on the gates and wall of the Saudi embassy
Anti-Saudi graffiti adorns the walls of Riyadh's embassy, which was evacuated shortly before Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign against the Iran-allied Houthi rebels, in Yemen's capital Sanaa [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

On April 9, Saudi and Omani delegations met Houthi representatives in Sanaa to discuss a permanent ceasefire in Yemen. After more than eight years of warfare in the impoverished country, the meetings have led some to have cautious optimism that the fighting in Yemen may be winding down.

Although the public still does not know much about the pending agreement, sources have indicated that it may include a six-month ceasefire, a reopening of borders and ports, payment of salaries for Yemenis across the country, reparation and compensation measures, and a withdrawal of all foreign forces from Yemen before a political process begins.

Such developments, should they be true, would show the extent to which Omani efforts to bring a negotiated solution to the war in Yemen have been productive.

As the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member that refused to take part in military operations in Yemen, Oman has had a unique balancing role in the Arabian Peninsula. Representatives of the different Yemeni factions, Saudi, Iranian, Russian, and American diplomats, as well as United Nations officials, have been to Muscat several times in recent years to discuss the Yemeni file.

“Since the beginning … Oman has been the voice of reason, saying early on that military intervention wasn’t the answer in Yemen but rather peaceful diplomatic political talks,” Afrah Nasser, a non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, told Al Jazeera. “Eight years on, Oman is demonstrating that it has always been right.”

The Saudis appeared ready to resolve their conflict with the Iran-backed Houthis because the cost of continued warfare was too high. “Saudi Arabia has decided they want out of this war,” Abdullah Baabood, an Omani scholar and visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, told Al Jazeera. “It is too costly for them, economically and politically.”

Muscat: Diplomatic heavy lifter

When an agreement between longtime rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia was announced last month, China, justifiably, got vast amounts of credit for brokering it, leading some commentators to attribute much of the recent progress in Yemen to Beijing.

But when it comes to Riyadh-Tehran relations and how they reflect on the situation in Yemen, it was Muscat’s years of diplomatic heavy lifting that let progress happen.

It has been working to bridge differences between the parties involved since 2015. With Iraq, it facilitated talks between the Saudis and Iranians that began in Baghdad in April 2021.

“The Omanis have been critical partners in efforts to advance an end to the Yemen conflict … especially in maintaining an open dialogue with the Houthis,” Gerald Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen, told Al Jazeera. “Their mediation of Saudi-Houthi talks has been central to advancing initiatives to resolve outstanding issues related to the coalition intervention in the Yemen conflict.”

Sultan Haitham bin Tariq
Sultan Haitham bin Tariq drew closer to Saudi Arabia and maintained relations with the Houthis [File: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via Reuters]

Oman enabled Saudi Arabia to pursue a dignified exit from Yemen, after reaching a compromise with the Houthis became more important. With Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman focused on developing the kingdom and making Vision 2030 successful, drone and rocket attacks from Yemen made Saudi Arabia a less attractive option for foreign companies and investors.

“Previously, Riyadh taunted Oman for refusing to join the Saudi-led coalition in 2015, Saudi now recognises that Muscat’s role is crucial in its efforts to bring the war to a close,” said Veena Ali-Khan, a Yemen researcher at the International Crisis Group. “In Muscat’s view, Saudi is finally listening to them and prioritising a diplomatic approach, after eight years of conflict.”

By growing closer to Saudi Arabia since Sultan Haitham took the helm in early 2020 and maintaining relations with the Houthis and their backers in Tehran, Muscat is in a unique position vis-à-vis the Yemen situation. The April 2022 truce and its extensions, for example, were only possible because of Oman.

“Oman has played a very important role in this by getting the two sides to talk and opening the … opportunity for them to negotiate and, at times, maybe putting some pressure on the Houthis to come to an agreement,” explained Baabood.

“Oman’s persistence in showing the importance of peace talks is finally yielding results,” added Nasser. “Besides acting as a peacemaker and bringing the warring parties to direct talks, Oman’s role today is … like a face-saver. The warring parties have been desperate to have this third party that could save their faces … an end to the conflict must come with no victory or loss announced.”

Oman’s role in the Middle East

Muscat’s friends-of-all foreign policy has defined the country regionally since Sultan Qaboos ascended to the throne in 1970 – Oman has never severed relations with any country since Qaboos took power and the sultanate has a record of neutrality in regional and international conflicts.

“Omanis have set a record for effective but also quiet diplomacy for nearly five decades and demonstrated rare accomplishments to date,” Joseph A Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre in Riyadh, told Al Jazeera.

Sharing a 300km (187-mile) border with Yemen, Oman will always have vested interests in its neighbour. “Yemen is the sultanate’s back yard and … one of four strategic areas of concern [besides Iran, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia], so what happens south of the border matters a great deal. Sultan Haitham and his team of advisers, most of whom were skillfully trained by his predecessor, have been heavily involved in secret discussions with the Houthis,” said Kéchichian.

What Oman seeks in Yemen is stability that does not threaten the sultanate’s own security. “For Oman, a successful resolution of the conflict would mean an end to the civil war in Yemen, a return to some semblance of national governance in Sanaa that would maintain good relations with all of Yemen’s neighbours, and opportunities for Yemenis to achieve economic stability,” explained Feierstein.

“From a national security perspective, the Omanis would like to see security on their border with Yemen strengthened and stability, in particular in Yemen’s eastern governorates of Mahra and Hadramawt, to prevent any spillover into Oman,” he added.

“Muscat wants the kind of peace and security that will eliminate regional tensions and, consequently, encourage the creation of wealth for everyone,” Kéchichian told Al Jazeera. “Its agenda … is to be on friendly terms with friends and on correct terms with foes.

It seeks harmony when possible but believes that it must always operate from a position of strength, which is why it takes its defence duties seriously, even if budgetary constraints limit its outlook. This is a sophisticated approach that aims to show results to its citizens, neighbours, and global powers. The results are rewarding as the country earns worldwide respect.”

Source: Al Jazeera