Main Image Credit Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz receives Sultan Haitham of Oman at Neom airport, Saudi Arabia, on 11 July 2021. Courtesy of Abaca Press/Alamy Stock Photo
As international efforts to end the war in Yemen – and the concomitant humanitarian crisis – continue to tread water, Omani mediation efforts could offer some hope of progress.
Hans Grundberg, the UN’s newly appointed envoy to Yemen, has his work cut out. Negotiations to end the war that has ravaged the country since 2014, causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, appear to be stuck. The Houthis, who control the capital Sana'a and large swathes of the country’s northwest, are demanding that all ‘airports and ports are opened’ before a ceasefire can be considered. Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the Saudi-led coalition that backs it, meanwhile, do not want to lift restrictions on sea and air routes to Houthi-held territory before a ceasefire is agreed.
To break the logjam, Grundberg will need all the help he can get. The administration of Joe Biden seems poised to increase its efforts, including boosting its allocation of humanitarian aid to Yemen by an extra $165 million in early August. Its own special envoy, Tim Lenderking, and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman have both visited the Gulf in recent weeks to push for a diplomatic breakthrough – albeit thus far with meagre results. The UK and the EU (which Grundberg represented as Ambassador to Yemen before being tapped for the UN job) are also keen to find a resolution, and Russia and China have little interest in prolonging the war either.
One actor that may be able to make an important contribution is Oman. The Sultanate lacks the muscle to exert direct influence on the conflict, but it is one of the few countries in the region that maintains constructive ties with the main belligerents on all sides. Oman’s Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi attended the inauguration of Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi in August, making him the most senior representative of any Gulf monarchy at that event. Muscat also has good relations with both the Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Manur Hadi, and the Houthis – a delegation from Oman’s Royal Office visited the movement’s leader, Abdulmalik Al Houthi, in June. Furthermore, Sultan Haitham bin Tarik Al Said, who succeeded the country’s long-time ruler Sultan Qaboos in January 2020, appears keen to revive Oman’s role as one of the region’s premier facilitators of dialogue and mediation.
For the past half a century, Oman has generally made a point of remaining neutral in many of the Middle East’s most turbulent political disputes and violent conflicts. It refused to join other Arab countries in cutting ties with Egypt after Cairo made peace with Israel in 1978, has retained relations with the Syrian regime over the past decade, and did not take sides in the 2017–21 dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. For decades, Muscat has also steadfastly maintained a friendly relationship with Iran, even as most of its fellow Gulf monarchies saw Tehran as fanning the flames of instability across the region – including in Yemen. In 2012, this enabled Oman to help broker the negotiations between the US and Iran that eventually led to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme in 2015.
Oman also did not join the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015. But beyond providing some humanitarian support, especially along its shared border with Yemen, it has mostly been unable to make its voice heard in international efforts to bring the war to an end. This has been a result of internal factors, as the country was struggling with economic problems and approaching a complex transition of power with Sultan Qaboos being ill for the last few years of his reign. Regarding the war in Yemen, the little bandwidth for action that remained was taken up by efforts to manage any direct implications for Omani national security.
This may now be changing. After more than 18 months in power, with his cabinet fully established, and drawing on his own background as a former Secretary General in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sultan Haitham appears intent on making good on his inaugural pledge to 'follow in the late Sultan’s footsteps' in matters of foreign policy, and for Omani diplomats to ‘remain the brokers of peace and contributors to conflict resolution’ in the region.
The timing could prove fortuitous. Recent shifts in the regional and international environment mean that Oman may find a more receptive audience for its offer to act as a mediator in Yemen than in the past. Most importantly, Saudi Arabia appears both more eager than ever to extricate itself from the war, and more open to dialogue initiatives – even from neighbours such as Oman who did not fully support the intervention in 2015. After working primarily in partnership with the UAE for much of the past decade – particularly on security matters – Riyadh now appears eager to reengage with its other neighbours. In this context, there has been a noticeable warming in Saudi relations with Oman over the past nine months. In early July, King Salman hosted Sultan Haitham for the latter’s first international trip since assuming office. Matters related to economic cooperation were at the top of the meeting’s agenda, but the general mood music regarding Oman’s offer to take on a more significant diplomatic role in Yemen seemed encouraging.
If Riyadh is indeed willing to engage more actively through Omani channels, Grundberg would do well to make the most of this asset. During his last briefing to the UN Security Council, Grundberg’s predecessor, Martin Griffiths, said that 'I hope very, very much indeed ... that the efforts undertaken by the Sultanate of Oman, as well as others, but the Sultanate of Oman in particular … will bear fruit'. Muscat may not broker an eventual agreement by itself, but it can serve as an invaluable go-between behind the scenes which is trusted by all sides.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Tobias Borck
Research Fellow for Middle East Security Studies
International Security Studies