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The war next door: Omani foreign policy toward Yemen

Ibrahim Jalal

Over the past decade of turmoil, conflict, and external military intervention in Yemen, Oman’s foreign policy has emerged as the Gulf exception. Muscat has pursued a unique role, driven by both pragmatic concern and opportunity. While Oman largely fears the spillover of conflict, ideological rivalries, and the interference of other Arab and non-Arab states, particularly Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, on its doorstep, it has equally sought to assert its autonomy, develop influence, seize economic opportunities, and maintain security on its western border with Yemen. In particular, Muscat has harnessed its relations with most of the actors involved, including armed non-state actors, and sought to access new economic opportunities as part of its policies of strategic hedging, omni-balancing, and undeclared alignment. This mix of drivers enabled Oman to facilitate talks between a wide range of local, regional, and international actors in the early years of the conflict, but also to play a mediator role when needed more recently, while acknowledging resource constraints and their implications on influence and leverage. Oman played a key role in negotiating the April 2022 truce that lasted for six months before collapsing in October 2022 due to Houthi pressure and increasing demands, and without Muscat the truce might not have been sealed at all. Omani officials also accompanied the first public Saudi delegation to Sanaa in April 2023 and the first public Houthi delegation to Riyadh in September 2023.

Principles of Omani foreign policy

In the pursuit of its national interests, Omani foreign policy is largely based on long-standing principles of good neighborly relations, mutual respect, tolerance, non-interference and non-intervention, dialogue and understanding, and above all pragmatism with an emphasis on geostrategic realities. Oman’s location along key trade routes passing through the Strait of Hormuz, Sea of Oman, Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea, as well as its longstanding relations with both East and West and history on the Arabian Peninsula, have all contributed to the development of Muscat’s unique foreign policy approach. By virtue of its geography and history, as well as people-to people relations and trade, “Yemen, Iran, India, and Pakistan are thus among the most important neighbors” the Foreign Ministry acknowledges. Omani foreign policy towards these four countries is marked by a unique and independent approach, especially during times of crisis and instability, based on pragmatic calculations. Despite these complexities, Omani foreign policy is often simply described as “neutral.” The reality, however, is that regional geopolitics is complex and no state is neutral as they all view the world through the lens of their national interests.

Yemeni-Omani relations in times of crisis

As Yemen’s security landscape began to deteriorate with the launch of the Houthi armed rebellion in September 2014 and the Saudi-led regional military intervention in March 2015, Oman was in a position, due to the diplomatic leverage it had accumulated, to play an important international role. Between 2011 and 2015, it hosted back-channel talks and served as an intermediary in the negotiation of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. Oman’s position vis-à-vis Yemeni affairs evolved, along with its desire to maximize its diplomatic gains by playing a role akin to Switzerland in the West. However, this position was less driven by a desire for economic and strategic gains than it was by fear in the beginning. The instability in Yemen and the disturbances in its far-eastern governorate of al-Mahra make Oman one of the best options for Saudi oil pipelines connecting to the Arabian Sea. Moreover, the growing divergence between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has enhanced Oman’s gains as a future conduit and window onto the Indian Ocean for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

For Oman, the war in Yemen cannot be divorced from the historical memory of tensions and potential spillover of conflict from relations with neighboring countries, but also the role played by hosting talks and maintaining border security. Notable episodes include the Marxist-backed armed rebellion that erupted in the southwestern province of Dhofar, supported by the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, in 1962-76; the October 1992 agreement that resolved the border dispute between Yemen and Oman following Yemen’s reunification in 1990 under the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh; and the hosting of talks between rival Yemeni groups, such as between Saleh and his Vice President Ali Salem al-Beidh in the 1990s. In 2011, when the Arab Spring uprisings broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, Oman navigated the situation, along with the rest of GCC states, carefully given both economic challenges and increasing social unrest. It supported the November 2011 GCC initiative in Yemen, but its hopes that the initiative would fully contain the instability, like those of the rest of the GCC, were short-lived. In September 2014, the Houthis, in cooperation with former President Saleh, stormed the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and by early 2015 placed the newly formed government of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi under house arrest. By March 2015, after the Houthis marched into Aden and took large swathes of the south after deploying militias to many governorates in the northwest, Saudi Arabia launched the Arab coalition intervention to restore the regime of President Hadi, curb Iranian influence in Yemen, and defeat the Houthis.

Oman’s position upon the launch of the Arab coalition

Unlike the rest of GCC states, Oman pursued a policy of military non-interference in Yemen, choosing to not join the Arab coalition while maintaining communication channels with the Government of Yemen, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and the late President Saleh. In fact, Oman became a second home for Houthi negotiators and a major hub for Western and Arab diplomats to meet with them, positioning itself as an interlocutor. As the Omani Foreign Ministry puts it, “Neighbors are forever … policies and governments come and go.” These moves are consistent with Oman’s positions on other Arab files. For instance, Oman didn’t break relations with Egypt after the 1979 Camp David Accords or with Syria after the 2011 uprising and ensuing civil war despite voting for its suspension from the Arab League in November 2011. In 2017, it opposed the Quartet’s siege of Qatar during the Gulf Crisis. Muscat has near consistently chosen to keep channels open and maintain communication, avoiding policies of exclusion and boycotts, consistent with its foreign policy principles.

Given its 288-km-long shared border with Yemen, “Oman fears a resurgence of extremist factions in Yemen due to the power vacuum caused by the continued instability,” Abdullah Baabood notes, as well as “the increasing foreign involvement in al-Mahra.” This is further buttressed by historical people-to-people relations, including patronage and tribal relations evident in the dual nationality of some residents in the area or the division of tribes between modern Yemen and Oman. Oman has granted nationality to many Mahris, including the son of the last Mahra sultan, Sheikh Abdullah Issa al-Afrar, and influential tribesman Sheikh Ali al-Hurayzi, and it backed the General Council of the People of Mahra and Socotra, formed in 2012, and the National Salvation Council, formed in 2019.

Oman’s support increased amid growing Saudi and Emirati activity, particularly after 2016, both to prevent al-Qaeda and the conflict from expanding in geographic scope, as well as to counter the influence of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This caused divisions within Mahri tribes for the first time in a long while, resulting in increasing militarization in the province and geopolitical competition for influence, control, and leverage. Ahmed Nagi, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, noted that “the war in Yemen has opened a subtle but acute season of popular discontent and regional rivalry in Mahra, stuck in a three-players game among Saudis, Emiratis and Omanis.” Non-alignment, therefore, has its limits and ends when Oman’s national security concerns are at stake. With the changing phases of the conflict in Yemen and varying levels of regional presence, issues of displacement, mass migration, illicit border activities, mobility of radical and violent groups, and the activities of GCC states are all on the radar.

Pillars of Oman’s role

In March 2023, Afrah Nasser, a non-resident scholar at the Arab Center Washington, D.C., stated that “Yemen represents for Oman both a humanitarian burden and a security challenge.” This reductionist view explains part of the story. Driven by opportunity, concern, proximity, and the need for sustained engagement, the first pillar of Oman’s role is diplomatic. Muscat’s diplomatic facilitation and mediation is consistent with its broader role in Yemen and has wide-ranging benefits.

Diplomatic and political sphere

First, Muscat’s refusal to join the Arab coalition, coupled with its foreign policy of non-interference, uniquely positioned Oman to play interlocutor between international, regional, and local actors. This was clearly seen in the talks it hosted between the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, the U.K., the U.S., and other Western diplomats. In April 2015, Oman proposed a seven-point peace plan involving the following steps:

  1. Withdrawal of Houthi-Saleh forces from all Yemeni cities and handover of seized state military hardware (consistent with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216)
  2. Restoration of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Government of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah
  3. Early parliamentary and presidential elections
  4. Agreement signed by all Yemeni parties
  5. Conversion of the Houthis into a political party
  6. Accession of Yemen to the GCC
  7. Holding of an international aid conference

In May 2015, Oman reportedly hosted talks between the Houthis and U.S. officials, and since then Muscat has served as a hub for the Houthis and Saleh. After Saleh’s assassination by the Houthis in December 2017, Oman reportedly attempted to mediate a de-escalation between Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Houthis, releasing several GPC officials and offering them residence in Oman if they would remain neutral and/or not join the Yemeni government.

Second, Oman, due its wide-ranging relations, facilitated talks related to the release of Western nationals, including those kidnapped for ransom by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the Houthis. While Oman’s relationships enabled Muscat to facilitate prisoner and hostage swaps, its role as a hub for Houthi representatives also broke the movement’s isolation, and it became a center for activities ranging from travel to the management of wartime business, including illicit transfers of oil and arms from Tehran. From within Oman, Houthi leaders, including chief negotiator Mohammed Abdul Salam, manage a network of lucrative activities, including arms shipments detected by the U.N. Security Council’s Panel of Experts. The role of Oman was eventually recognized by Saudi Arabia in 2019, after the visit of Khaled bin Salman, then the vice defense minister and lead on the Yemen file, during Sultan Qaboos’ last months on the throne. In 2021-22, Oman joined the Quartet +1 grouping with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the U.S., and the U.K to mobilize support for Yemen, particularly in the political sphere, and supported back-channel negotiations. In 2023, Omani officials accompanied the first public Saudi delegation to Sanaa and the first public Houthi delegation to Riyadh five months later, a few days after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Muscat.

Insecurity triggered by AQAP and expanding coalition deployments

Oman’s unique relationship with the GCC and its key players, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has also contributed to its positioning in Yemen. In particular, the historical memory of the uprising in Oman, the previous expectations of its Arab Gulf partners regarding Iran after the formation of the GCC, and Muscat’s evolving relations with Tehran have also shaped its calculus. The memory of the 1962-76 insurgency in Dhofar, Iran’s role, and Oman’s perceived abandonment at the time continue to shape its thinking too. Within the region, it was chiefly Iran, under Reza Shah Pahlavi, along with the British Special Air Service, that came to Oman’s aid in the 1970s, providing an estimated 4,000 troops on the ground during the Dhofar rebellion. As a result, when the Saudi and Emirati militaries deployed in Hadramawt and al-Mahra near the Omani border, it triggered Muscat’s sense of insecurity. Oman’s fears about potential spillover from the conflict, already heightened after AQAP captured Hadramawt in 2015-16, were further exacerbated by the UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s increasing militarization and expanding spheres of influence in al-Mahra in 2017.

Riyadh’s deployment was driven by both perceived threats and strategic opportunities, including stabilization, trade, investment, and strategic dominance. As Ahmed Nagi, then a non-resident scholar at the Malcom H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, noted, “The Saudis sought to curb the arming of the Houthis, counter increased Omani influence in the governorate, and gain strategic access to the Arabian Sea.” The Yemeni government and coalition forces reportedly captured multiple arms shipments, chiefly on land and in Omani and Yemeni waters, destined for the Houthis in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216. Numerous U.N., Yemeni, American, and British government reports the following year revealed that Iran used Omani waters to illicitly supply arms to the Houthis via ship-to-ship transfers, which the Omani government denied repeatedly. Arms confiscated by the British, American, and French navies, according to the U.N. Panel of Experts report for 2022, included large caches of AK-47s, anti-tank guided missiles, and drone equipment. Although smuggling took place along the Yemeni-Saudi and Yemeni-Omani borders prior to the conflict, the smuggling networks have definitely expanded during the war and transcend the classic lines of the conflict. The U.N. Panel of Experts reported in 2021 ongoing investigations over the smuggling of three tons of “uncrewed aerial vehicle and other components” interdicted in al-Jawf in January 2019. The shipment, according to the Omani government in its response to the panel, was sent from China, picked up from Muscat International Airport on Dec. 2, 2018, and “exported” on the “same day” to the Salalah Free Zone to pass overland into Yemen. Pro-Houthi entities and individuals based in Oman have supplied military and telecoms equipment overland to Houthi-held areas using trans-conflict smuggling networks. The quantities intercepted raise serious questions about whether any Omani actors are involved, including by potentially turning a blind eye.

People-to-people relations

Omani-Yemeni people-to-people relations are long-standing and include tribes split by state borders, through which Oman has developed soft power in Yemen’s eastern region. After the 1992 border agreement with Yemen, Muscat invested in consolidating its relationships with Mahri tribes, including through offering Omani passports and facilitating trade and mobility. During the conflict, people-to-people relations continued to grow, particularly due to displacement, migration, and the quest for security, including for business.

Oman is one of two states that thousands of Yemenis access on their way into and out of the country by land. At the public level, tens of thousands of Yemenis have flown to Oman on transit visas to travel to Hadramawt, al-Mahra, Socotra, or beyond for security reasons. On an elite level, Oman, which had previously welcomed former senior government officials, did the same with many politicians provided they followed clear terms, including no political activism. It is not clear that these standards were applied to the Houthis throughout the conflict, or to a few other actors during periods of turmoil in al-Mahra or the siege of Qatar. To the contrary, not only did Oman break the Houthis’ isolation but it also gave them — whether deliberately or inadvertently — a hub to amplify their narrative and manage wartime business. Oman also hosted leaders from the Islah party, Southern Hirak, and the al-Mahra region, including anti-coalition figures who expressed their views and made investments.

Humanitarian support for Yemen

Despite its more modest resources compared to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE, Oman offered assistance to Yemen to reduce humanitarian suffering and harness people-to-people and people-to-government relations. Oman’s humanitarian support, the exact scope of which has not been publicized, includes scholarships, medical assistance, food and financial support, provision of generators, and a flow of international humanitarian goods, including via the Oman Charitable Organization. Notably, Oman, like Kuwait, has pursued the humanitarian file quietly and without raising suspicions, unlike many other regional and international actors.

Geo-economic interests

Oman’s positioning and pursuit of its foreign policy are not free of the search for strategic opportunities. Instability in Yemen, particularly the eastern region, where Saudi Arabia has reportedly been interested in developing a pipeline to access the Arabian Sea, increases the attractiveness of Omani infrastructure, including ports, and foreign direct investment. Yemen’s instability creates security concerns but it also provides economic opportunities. For a long time, Saudi Arabia has sought direct access to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean to reduce its reliance on traffic flowing through the Iranian-controlled Strait of Hormuz or potential harassment by the Houthis on the Red Sea, thereby reducing its energy logistics risks and diversifying its export routes. In 2018, Mahri figures, including the head of the region’s protest committee Ali al-Hurayzi, expressed discontent about Saudi Arabia’s reported efforts to establish an oil pipeline passing through al-Mahra and militarize al-Ghatdah Airport, after it deployed security forces in the governorate. The security landscape in al-Mahra and lack of open Saudi-Yemeni government-to-government negotiations on trade and investment have made strategic sectoral cooperation difficult. In 2021, Saudi Arabia and Oman inked at least 13 memorandums of understanding and established the Saudi-Omani Coordination Council to deepen and broaden bilateral trade and investment. Duqm oil pipeline, with investments in Oman’s Duqm port, has been among the key issues for discussion.

The way forward

There is no doubt that Omani foreign policy in Yemen during the war has been driven by a mix of pragmatic concern and opportunity. While Muscat’s fears include a potential spillover of conflict or radical ideologies and an increasing sphere of influence by neighboring states along its western border, Oman also has geo-economic and long-term partnership opportunities. Muscat’s approach toward the Houthis, who represent an armed minority in Yemen, raises questions about its intentions, including the role of ideational interests and whether the empowerment of more minorities in the region compliments its strategic long-term positioning. Nevertheless, Oman’s strategic positioning and wide relationship-building will support its diplomatic role as Yemen continues the search for a durable, just peace. Oman’s delicate balancing act between its ties with the GCC and its strategic relationship with Iran amid regional de-escalation will likely enable Muscat, in cooperation with regional and global actors, to play a key role on a wide range of files, including Yemen. The growing tensions between the UAE and Saudi Arabia are likely to boost Oman’s strategic gains as a future conduit for Saudi Arabia but also to become the Gulf’s window to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

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