Oman’s Pragmatic Yemen Foreign Policy: Poised for Promoting Peace?

From the outset of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen in 2015, Oman opposed the Arab coalition’s military attacks against the Houthi rebels and their Yemeni allies. Rather than entering the fray militarily, Oman has played a skillful game, diplomatically, seeking to bring the conflict to an end through roundtable talks that eventually produce lasting peace. Yet, thus far Muscat’s efforts to bring peace to Yemen have not produced their intended results and the civil war continues, threatening the Sultanate’s security.
Oman’s Pragmatic Yemen Foreign Policy Poised for Promoting Peace

The war in Yemen, which has resulted in over 10,000 civilian deaths and the world’s worst humanitarian disaster with at least 8.4 million Yemenis living on the brink of famine, rages on with no end in sight. The use of force in Yemen has exposed gaps between a militarized approach to security affairs used by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the one hand, and the Sultanate of Oman’s longstanding preference for political solutions to regional issues on the other. This unresolved conflict constitutes the gravest threat to the security of Oman, a country which like Saudi Arabia shares a land border with Yemen.

Officials in Muscat face a challenge in shielding Oman’s southernmost Dhofar governorate from chaos next door. Sharing 187 miles of border with Yemen, Dhofar is vulnerable to spillover effects from Yemen that could threaten peace in the Sultanate—the only Arab country to have not experienced any jihadist violence on its own soil in the 21st century, but where memories remain of a 1960s uprising in Dhofar that received material and ideological support from Yemen.

Geopolitically too, the crisis has had negative ramifications for Oman. Put simply, Muscat views as unsettling Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s efforts to consolidate their power in Yemen and use military force to achieve political objectives. As the conflict continues, Muscat will likely find it increasingly difficult to protect its interests in Yemen from the Saudi-led military coalition’s destructive actions and the seeming unwillingness of the Houthis to lay down their arms and make meaningful concessions. This dims the prospects for ending the civil war and provides more fertile ground for extremists on all sides to gain in power and influence.

Nonetheless, to Oman’s credit, the Sultanate has wisely used its unique set of cards in the Yemeni civil war to further establish itself as a balancing power that skillfully maintains autonomy from larger powers by playing their interests against each other to Muscat’s advantage. As Roby Barret put it, Oman is “making itself useful to the major powers in the region” in its attempt “to act as an evenhanded negotiator” in Yemen. Oman’s Minister of State Responsible for Foreign Affairs, Yousef bin Alawi bin Abdullah, told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018, “We envision that the political solution should take into account the Yemeni reality, and that all parties and political forces in Yemen and abroad should be given a chance in determining a future.”

That there is a consensus among all parties in Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that Oman is the only Arab Gulf state (and perhaps only state worldwide) capable of moving the Yemeni crisis in a positive direction attests to the success of Muscat’s regional policies. For decades, Oman under Sultan Qaboos has sought to avoid making unnecessary enemies while also investing in long-term relationships based on trust and mutual respect with states on all sides of geopolitical fault lines, including both Iran and Oman’s fellow GCC states and their Western partners, chiefly the United States and the United Kingdom.

Rejecting the Idea of a Military Solution

The Saudi-led military coalition launched its campaign in Yemen in March 2015 under the pretext of reversing Houthi gains, restoring President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi to power, and bringing security and stability to Yemen. From the outset, Muscat disagreed with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s actions and did not join the Saudi-led coalition. Intra-GCC tensions stemming from the Yemen war increased in September 2015 after the Riyadh-led coalition targeted the residence of Muscat’s ambassador in Sanaa, which led to Omani officials summoning the Saudi ambassador to Oman to protest the incident and demand that the Arab alliance provide an explanation. That same month, Kuwait and Qatar announced they would be providing military support to coalition troops after a mass-casualty attack on Emirati and Bahraini forces in Yemen. This left Oman as the only GCC state not part of the coalition, until Qatar’s exit in June 2017 in the wake of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini blockade.

Early on in the Saudi-led campaign, Oman’s fears of the likely consequences of the Arab coalition’s operations in Yemen leading to a quagmire amid deadly chaos came to fruition. As the only GCC state to sit out of the entirety of the campaign, Oman saw plans for achieving a military victory over the Houthi rebels as entirely unrealistic. Muscat viewed Yemen’s crisis as one that could only be solved through dialogue with all the conflict’s major parties committed to making concessions to their adversaries and engaging in trust-building initiatives. Mindful that throughout Yemen’s history no tribe or faction had usurped control of the entire country by force, Muscat did not expect the coalition to achieve any military victory. Rather, Oman has correctly interpreted the Saudi/Emirati military intervention in Yemen as merely giving the Houthis further grievances and less reason to trust other Yemeni factions when it comes to brokering a peaceful settlement.

Regardless of Muscat’s opposition to the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen, the Sultanate’s leadership has pragmatically addressed the problems which the Yemeni crisis’ prolongation has created for Oman. The challenges created by the war are diverse, including economic and geopolitical dilemmas which Sultan Qaboos, and most likely his eventual successor too, will need to continue to address shrewdly. Yet the longer the conflict rages on in Yemen, the more difficult it will be for Muscat to mitigate the dangers of potential spillover from Yemen into Dhofar which remain a source of concern for Oman’s leadership.

By October 2017, 51,000 externally-displaced Yemenis had entered Oman according to the United Nations. Officials in Muscat have not shared publicly how many Yemeni refugees are currently in Oman. Nonetheless, the Sultanate has invested resources into assisting these vulnerable Yemenis. In doing so, Muscat has received much praise from the United Nations, the European Union, and others in the international community. In April 2018, the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, met with Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, and hailed the Sultanate for its “pivotal role” in helping the Yemenis.

At the same time, the good will among Yemenis which the Sultanate’s humanitarian help has earned Oman continues to solidify Muscat’s position as the only GCC capital adequately trusted and respected by Yemen’s parties to drive diplomatic efforts in their country. Indeed, that talks held under Omani auspices have included representatives of the Hadi government, the Houthi rebels, GCC states, Iran, and the United States underscores Muscat’s unique leverage in Yemen based on Oman’s “no enemies” foreign policy.

When the conflict eventually gives way to negotiations for a political settlement, Oman will stand out in Yemen as the only neighbor respected by Yemenis across the political spectrum and from diverse tribes for having avoided any military action against Yemen’s internal factions, as well as for the aid which Oman has given Yemeni refugees and other victims of the war. Such diplomatic maneuvers in Yemen on Muscat’s part appear to be the most realistic source of optimism for conflict resolution in the current regional and international context. The breakdown of peace talks in Kuwait in 2016 was attributable in part to Kuwait’s participation, however limited, in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis. Likewise, the current US administration is in no position to present the US to the Houthis as a trustworthy peace broker. As Hakim Almasmari, the editor-in-chief of Yemen Post, put it, “If not for Oman, there would be no hope to end the current Yemen war.”

Yemeni Crisis Poses Steep Costs for Oman

Against the backdrop of low oil prices since 2014, the Sultanate’s funneling of financial resources into caring for displaced and injured Yemenis has further contributed to Oman’s economic challenges. Doubtless, financial costs for the Sultanate will only add up if there is a long-term continuation of its neighbor’s humanitarian catastrophe and more Yemenis seek refuge in Oman. There are also security concerns about violent extremists from Yemen’s civil war entering Dhofar pretending to be refugees. While thus far there have been no cases of violence in Oman due to Yemen’s post-2014 crisis, there remains a residual risk of Islamic State (ISIS) or al-Qaeda militants seeking to penetrate into Dhofar. With radical forces, including ISIS, seeking new targets, Oman is justifiably concerned about its southernmost governorate becoming vulnerable to such extremists in the future.

The history of Omani-Yemeni relations largely informs Muscat’s perceptions of the threats posed by the war in Yemen to its own security. The Marxist regime that held power in the then-People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was a main foreign sponsor of the Dhofari insurgents of the 1960s and 1970s, whose uprising constituted the last great threat to regime security from within. Thus, the future political landscape of Yemen will inevitably impact Oman for better or for worse, giving Muscat high stakes in promoting stability and moderation in Yemen. The continued build-up of a security wall along the Yemeni border and Oman’s refusal to accept all Yemeni refugees both highlight how Muscat is balancing its interests in providing humanitarian aid to Yemenis with the Sultanate’s legitimate security concerns as the military and humanitarian crises in Yemen continue to worsen.

Oman’s leadership sees the wisest strategy for countering terror menaces from within Yemen as pushing for a diplomatic settlement to Yemen’s civil war that can pave the way for a legitimate government to take power and begin governing effectively. Just as Oman cooperated with Yemen’s past governments to counter transnational threats such as terrorism, today Muscat believes that addressing the threat of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and other violent extremists in Yemen will be far less challenging if there is a unified Yemeni state to work with, rather than a virtually endless list of non-state actors who would likely try and seize power if Yemen permanently fragments into another Somalia. Moreover, Oman is aware that such a Somalia-like scenario in Yemen would only benefit the violent extremists that could further exploit the civil war by eventually solidifying a de facto “statelet,” perhaps similar to the so-called Caliphate that ISIS temporarily established in Iraq and Syria in 2014, only this time far closer to Oman.

Geopolitical Pressures Mount on Muscat

In the long-term, Oman’s geopolitical concerns about the Yemeni crisis largely relate to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s attempts to institutionalize their clout in strategically-prized areas of Yemen. Al-Mahra has long served as a section of eastern Yemen where Oman has the most influential foreign presence, due to numerous factors including tribal links between Omanis and Yemenis on both sides of the international boundary.

Reports emerged in late-2017 that Abu Dhabi had established the “Mahri Elite forces” as a UAE-backed security force in al-Mahra and tasked the group with securing al-Mahra’s borders and seizing control of the airport in al-Ghayda, under the pretext of clamping down on illicit arms transfers. The Emirati leadership is pursuing its interest in southern and eastern Yemen, including al-Mahra, in line with the UAE’s grander ambitions as a regional power with rising influence across swathes of East Africa and the Indian Ocean littoral.

In January, al-Akhbar (a Lebanese daily) reported that Saudi Arabia’s heightened involvement in al-Mahra was being coordinated via Abu Dhabi and was increasingly evident by the influx of Saudi-provided food, buses, ambulances, hygiene vehicles, and street lights into the province. Saudi Arabia’s militarization of al-Mahra, as highlighted by Riyadh’s reported deployment of reinforcements to Nishtun port (situated within 120 miles of Oman) is deeply unsettling to Muscat which fears that Saudi Arabia’s growing military footprint in Yemen will prove to be a driver of  instability in eastern Yemen along the border with Dhofar. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s opening of a Salafist missionary center in al-Mahra stoked further Omani suspicions of Riyadh’s agenda in Yemen, especially in light of recent reports of the Arab coalition working with militant Salafist extremists in Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels.

From Oman’s perspective, the deepening Emirati footprint in al-Mahra is seen as a danger to the Sultanate’s vital interests. As eastern Yemen has been largely spared the violence which has beset areas across western/northern Yemen, Oman has seen al-Mahra as a buffer of sorts between Dhofar and the rest of Yemen. “Oman aims to preserve the current balance of power, in addition to its traditional soft power in neighboring al-Mahra, with the aim of containing Emirati ambitions in the area,” as Eleonora Ardemagni, an associate research fellow at the Institute for International Political Studies, put it. “Muscat has traditionally relied on offering humanitarian aid and double citizenship [Omani and Yemeni] for Mahris.”

The UAE’s military actions in al-Mahra heighten the risks of the violence of western Yemen spilling into territory closer to the Omani border given the extent to which Emirati forces are targeted by numerous armed non-state actors in Yemen. That local Yemenis in al-Mahra went on strike in August 2018 to protest new trade restrictions and tariffs on imports — 70 percent of which are Oman-sourced and transit the al-Mahra border crossing, as well as the presence of troops from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, which they began protesting months earlier – illustrated how also among locals there are preferences for Oman, as opposed to any other GCC state, remaining the major outside influencer in al-Mahra. Moreover, that month, the Yemenis who had spent months protesting the Saudi/Emirati military presence prompted the Arab coalition to relinquish its control of the al-Ghayda airport, which inspired other protests elsewhere in Yemen at that time.

In this post-GCC period, shaped by Saudi and Emirati maximalist foreign policies in the Gulf region, along with a White House that encourages Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to act more aggressively against Iranian influence, Oman has grave concerns about Saudi and Emirati actions not only in Yemen, but throughout the greater Arab/Islamic world as well. Driving much of Saudi Arabia’s aggression in the region is Riyadh’s perception of the alleged Iranian threat. Yet just as Oman has not bought into Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran narrative in the past, the Sultanate continues to reject the idea of all six GCC states uniting aggressively against Tehran while Oman remains the Arab Gulf state on best terms with the Islamic Republic. Based on numerous socio-cultural, historical, energy, and geopolitical factors, Omani-Iranian ties remain strong, and this bilateral relationship continues to drive tension in Muscat’s relationship with both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Naturally, in viewing Iran as more of an ally than a grave regional threat, Oman has taken positions on a host of regional issues from the Yemeni and Syrian civil wars to the Iranian nuclear deal (in which Oman facilitated the dialogue between US and Iranian officials that preceded the formal phase of negotiations with the P5+1) that have placed the Sultanate at logger heads with the GCC’s most anti-Iranian members.

Largely based on Saudi Arabia and the UAE having extremely different threat perceptions of Iran than Oman, Muscat does not feel threatened by the alleged menace posed by the Houthis. Whereas Saudi officials describe the possibility of the Houthis institutionalizing a de facto proto state in northern Yemen as essentially the same as Hezbollah establishing a post along the Kingdom’s border, Oman views the Houthis as an organic Yemeni community that has certain legitimate grievances that must be addressed to resolve the civil war peacefully. As one Omani diplomat explained, Oman is “passionate” about all Yemeni communities, viewing them as indigenous people of the Arabian Peninsula who are linked to Omanis by heritage, tribe, religion, language, and culture.

Doubtless, Oman has strategically used its warm relations with the Houthis to position the Sultanate as an increasingly invaluable player vis-à-vis the Yemeni crisis. Muscat officials have developed increasingly trustworthy ties with the Houthis. Oman’s unique relationship with the Houthis has enabled diplomats in Muscat to serve as interlocutors between representatives of the Houthi rebellion and their enemies, opening up dialogue that would have been far harder to facilitate directly without Oman’s service as a neutral country capable of hosting and sponsoring talks. Simultaneously, as a useful diplomatic actor in Yemen’s civil war, the Sultanate has been able to improve its standing with Western states based on Oman’s brokering of talks as well as Muscat’s pivotal roles in negotiating the release of Western nationals held captive by Houthi fighters in various parts of Yemen since 2015.

Pragmatic voices in Saudi Arabia and the UAE recognize the value of being allied with Oman, an Arab Gulf state that maintains a neutral stance on the Yemeni civil war with the ability to facilitate talks between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on one side and the Houthis on the other. That Saudi and Emirati representatives have participated in talks involving their Houthi counterparts in Muscat as early as 2015 demonstrates that, at least to a certain extent, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have valued Oman’s neutrality in the Yemeni crisis. Yet with Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi’s crown princes—Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ)—driving their countries’ foreign policies, it is unclear if the Kingdom and the UAE’s de facto rulers will continue respecting Oman’s neutrality vis-à-vis the Yemeni civil war, or if they will decide to take actions aimed at pressuring Muscat into aligning with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The latter scenario may become especially likely if Riyadh and Abu Dhabi (along with certain voices in Washington) continue accusing the Omanis of failing to prevent Iranian arms from transiting the Omani-Yemeni border into the Houthis’ hands.

Since the Qatar crisis erupted in June 2017, Omani officials have been unsettled by MbS and MbZ’s foreign policy decisions in the region; they fear Oman could one day be at the receiving end of the “Qatar treatment.” As Oman’s policy in Yemen could not be more different from the ones pursued by the Saudis and Emiratis over the past three-and-a-half years, there is a concern that the Omanis—as well as the Kuwaitis—could come under pressure from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to “toe the line” when it comes to regional affairs.

More pernicious, however, is the concern that Saudi or Emirati officials could put pressure on Sultan Qaboos’s eventual successor in much the same way that their pressure on Qatar began within weeks of Emir Tamim coming to power in June 2013, a fact carefully noted by policymakers in Oman and Kuwait. Within this context of Saudi Arabia and the UAE conducting increasingly maximalist foreign policies in the region, Oman will see its autonomy, sovereignty, and security under a graver threat, as confrontation in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf intensifies. Doubtless, Yemen will remain a regional hotspot in which GCC states and Iran compete for geopolitical influence, leaving Oman poised to continue efforts aimed at promoting peace and stability, but more vulnerable to the threat of destabilizing spillover as the civil war rages on.