Washington's Bet on the Omani Role in the Yemen Conflict


Sun, 06-06-2021 08:00 PM, Aden

Ayad Qassem (South24)

The pressure exerted by Washington on the Omanis these past few weeks to approve sending a delegation from the Royal Office (Intelligence) resulted in meeting the Houthi's group leader in Sanaa, according to the Houthi's spokesman on Saturday morning [1]. But will Oman be able to achieve any progress in the Yemeni conflict and convince the group in what Washington and the UN failed to do.

The US Special Envoy to Yemen returned to Washington after a new round included Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman and Jordan where he met a number of Yemeni and GCC parties to discuss efforts for ending the war in Yemen. "The Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict", Lenderking said. "The Houthis continue a devastating offensive on Marib...leaves the Houthis increasingly isolated." He added in a statement on Friday.

The arguing point between international efforts and the Houthis lay in the chain of implementing the ceasefire and processes of opening Sanaa's airport and Hodeidah port. The Houthis seek to lift restrictions on these ports before taking ceasefire steps. While the position of the US, UN, Sweden, Saudi Arabia and the parity government in Yemen seems completely opposite to what the Houthis seek. 

I mentioned in a previous analysis [2] that the US requested Oman to send a delegation to meet Abdulamlik al-Houthi after the failing efforts of both the UN and US envoys to reach an agreement with the head of the delegation Mohammed Abdulasalam in Muscat in early May.

Washington's Aspirations

The US performed "major" pressure on the Omanis to take a harsher stance from the group that Muscat provide with a wide logistic and diplomatic support. 

"The dialogues between Washington and Muscat seemed more intense", informed political sources told "South24". "The Americans asked the Omanis to not satisfy with the role of a facilitator".

Sen. Chris Murphy, who accompanied the US delegation to Muscat in the previous round has pointed out these pressures on May 5th. [3]

Whereas Washington aspires to a possible Omani role that could push towards convincing the Houthi group into accepting a ceasefire, several questions emerge on if the US has lost direct pressure on the Irani-backed Yemeni group, which is weakening its diplomacy to achieve an influence that can lead to resolving the conflict in Yemen.

Washington revoked on February an order issued by the Trump administration that classifies the Houthi group in the US "international terrorism" list. The new Biden administration explained their decision in the humanitarian consequences the order might make. But according to experts, these steps pushed the group into more field escalation against the Yemeni government's last stronghold in North Yemen, the city of Marib and increased the Houthis stubborn position.

"The U.S. has struggled to carve out a diplomatic role in the Yemen conflict, so communicating with Oman can compensate for that" Oxford researcher Samuel Ramani told "South24".

"The U.S. views Oman as the only country that can engage in dialogue facilitation with all of Yemen's warring factions."

This comes under reasons enumerated by Ramani in which Oman "did not join the Saudi-led coalition in 2015 and has hosted Houthi diplomats, including Mohammed Abdulsalam. It has experience facilitating meetings between the Houthis and UN officials."

Oman relationship with Yemen and Iran

From another point of view, the closeness between Oman and the Islamic Republic of Iran can not be hidden. The relationship between the two countries deepened since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015 during the rule of the previous sultan "Qaboos Bin Said". 

For example, Washington consolation in the death of Qaboos Bin Said came late and did not participate with a "high-ranking" delegation at the memorial service. After the rule of the new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, and replacing the former Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman's relationship witnessed a breakthrough to some extent with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Oman's relationship with the government of the internationally recognized president of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was flawed with a long period of estrangement after probable non-formal accusations to Muscat of overlooking weapon smuggling to the Houthis. Oman does not have clear relationships with the leading force on their western borders, the Southern Transitional Council (STC).

Ramani believes that "Oman's policy towards Yemen has remained relatively constant under Sultan Qaboos and Sultan Haitham" but " Sultan Haitham has been more involved on the Yemen file than his predecessor". 

On the opposite side, Ramani thinks that Oman has "deep local connections in al-Mahra, relations with the Hadi government alliance and even links to local officials in Marib and other regions in the Yemeni government's control" while "viewed with suspicion by STC over its ties with the Houthis but it has a broader base of support in northern Yemen."

On Saturday, the Foreign Minister in the government of Riyadh Agreement, Ahmed Bin Mubarak, has arrived for the first time in Muscat but the welcoming ceremony was "pale" according to observers. Oman settled with sending the head of the Ceremony Department, "Khalid Al-Jaradi" to receive Bin Mubarak [4].

Usually, the Royal Office in the sultanate manages the Yemeni file. It is a government body that has the most influence on national security and intelligence issues [5]. This office usually comprises the old guards, and it will be difficult for those to achieve a practical breakthrough in the ceasefire efforts in a balanced fashion with all Yemeni conflict parts.

To avoid this, Washington might bet on wider roles to Oman's Foreign Ministry and its Minister "Badr Albusaidi" who showed a more pragmatic attitude towards the conflict parties and international bodies related to the Yemen war file.

Oman Foreign Ministry stated on Friday that Oman Foreign Minister and his US counterpart have confirmed in a phone call "on the importance of amplifying efforts to reach an agreement" in Yemen "and end the war and initiate peaceful resolutions between the parties through direct negotiations and dialogues". [6]

Economic and Security Pressures

High-ranking political sources told "South24" that the Americans warned Omanis of their fears from moving the conflict into their western borders with South Yemen. Particularly in Al-Mahra and Hadramout, in case the Houthis managed to conquer the entire Marib. Al-Mahra remains away from any direct military clashes since the civil war began in Yemen.

Meanwhile, Oman faces tremendous economic challenges due to Covid19 pandemic and recently resorted to borrowing major amounts of cash to block this financial deficit.

After the US withdraw from the Nuclear Agreement with Iran and the return of US sanctions on Tehran, the importing and exporting industries impacted between the Sultanate and Iran. Omanis hope for talks held in Vienna to lead to permanent solutions that enable Muscat from reinforcing their economy with Tehran, according to Oman's Oil Minister, Mohammed al-Rumhy [7]. Oman had announced on May 17 that it intends to revive the Iranian gas importing plans and transport it to Yemen according to the popular economic website "S&B Global".

Perhaps some might view Washington's request from Oman to play an active role in the Yemeni crisis, alongside reminding Omanis of the economic and security consequences, with the aim of preventing the Sultanate and its new leadership from falling into the grip of Iranian influence. Washington aspires to at least create a new Omani balanced approach that does not oppose the policies of the new US administration in the region.

"U.S. engagement with Oman is more about its trust in Muscat as a diplomatic partner" Mr. Ramani believes. "I don't think the Biden administration is as worried as Trump administration officials about Oman-Iran relations. They might see Oman's ties with Iran as something useful that they can leverage in re-engaging with Tehran".

Will the Omanis Succeed

While the Washington bet on the Omani role started to translate into practical movements which appeared through the visit of the Palace Office delegation to Sanaa on Saturday, it is unclear whether the Omanis are able to play a constructive role, in light of the previous facts.

AFP on Saturday considered the return of Houthi leaders to Sanaa after they were "trapped" in Muscat for years "indicats a possible development in the diplomatic efforts for a ceasefire". [8] Even though, experts say that Oman's role might be "limited" in influencing the Houthi group in Yemen.

"Even if Oman was able to stop the Houthis, if it didn't pan out perfectly, they would lose all their future leverage over the group" The Expert in The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Elana Delozier tweeted earlier. [9]

Instead, Ramani considered "Oman's preferred foreign policy strategy is to facilitate dialogue between Yemen's warring factions" and based on this " It has no interest in a much deeper public mediation role, which would expose the limitations of Omani diplomacy."

So, it is possible for Oman to assist a UN-backed peace process or U.S. diplomacy but won't try to do what Kuwait did in the early stages of the war and host its own peace format, according to Ramani's statements to "South24".

Ayad Qassem
Head of the South24 Center for News nd Studies

- Read on Arabic (عربي)
- Photo: An Omani plane at Sanaa airport (Archive/ Al-Ghad Al-Yemeni)

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