With the conflict in Yemen commanding international attention Oman is emerging as a bridge in the search for a peaceful outcome.
An enviable trait in a world dominated by headlines from the maleficent, Oman has yet again taken up the role as an international mediator. Oman was widely credited with playing an indispensable part in the P5+1 deal with Iran, which ended the sanctions against Iran and reinstated one of the largest economies in the Middle East. No stranger to this sensitive political game, the unfortunate reality of war in Yemen has Oman contributing again as a nonbiased, non-aggressive party that has the sole aim of ending the conflict peacefully. The magnitude of Oman’s role in today’s geopolitical landscape should not go unnoticed, especially because this role grows increasingly rarer in the reality of modern-day international relations, with “neutral” actors usually harboring their own biases and preferred outcomes. Oman does not choose to get involved to cash-in on these conflicts or to influence their outcome for its own benefit, which is why the world has recognized Oman time after time as being the embodiment of peaceful virtues.
Right now, Yemen is marred by a bitter civil war between supporters of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Houthis, a shia group. Further complicating and intensifying this inter-country struggle is the outside interest that it has generated, with Saudi Arabia forming a coalition against the Houthis, which includes the likes of Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and more. The Saudi-led coalition has also received military support in the form of airstrikes, weapons, and intelligence from the US and other western powers like France, for example, which are battling Al Qaeda’s Arab peninsula presence. On the other hand, the Houthi forces have received support from Iran. Once again, almost all of the GCC and MENA region appears to be embroiled in this civil conflict in Yemen, save for one country. Oman, as the noteworthy exception, has ostensibly gained the trust of the Houthis as an honest broker and therefore has the rare chance to step in and facilitate an end to the conflict.
Oman is using its longstanding foreign policy approach of mediation to have officials from both sides meet to find common ground. The most obvious manifestation of Oman’s role came in June of 2016, when US officials secretly met with Houthi representatives in Muscat in one of the first high-level meetings of its kind since the last major military offensive undertaken by the Saudi coalition. In addition, Oman was the meeting place for Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, Houthi officials, and various GCC officials. The UN envoy looking to find peace in Yemen also chose Oman as one of its meeting points, again showing Oman’s prominence as a broker of peace on the world stage. The fact is, Oman is seen as the backdoor channel to many different entities, between Iran and the GCC, various actors and Yemen, and more—proving to be an indispensable bridge of communication.
Oman’s role in this situation is important for many reasons, if not also for its own self-preservation. Despite its status as neutral country in this conflict, Oman clearly will benefit from ending the increased violence and unrest, especially true of Oman’s southernmost Dhofar governorate, which shares a 300km border with Yemen. The Houthis fired a SCUD missile into Saudi Arabia in June 2016, for example, which does not put bordering countries’ minds at ease. In addition, Oman has been able to avoid the scourge of violence perpetrated by Islamic State actors thus far, and an increasingly unstable Yemen has proven to be a haven for both Al Qaeda and ISIS. The de facto capital for Al Qaeda is now said to be Al Mukalla, a southeastern city in Yemen. The threat of radical extremists entering into the south of Oman is an unfortunate thought, but it is a reality as long as Yemen remains unstable. The refugee situation created by Yemen is also economically burdensome, with 2.4 million citizens fleeing their homes and over 120,000 Yemenis seeking asylum in other countries.