Muscat mediation: Oman's diplomatic success in Yemen
Since last year, several Omani diplomatic delegations have repeatedly visited Sanaa. As a country with positive regional and international relations, Oman has been attempting to end the eight-year conflict in Yemen.
On 10 January, an Omani delegation arrived in Houthi-controlled Sanaa to continue negotiations about ending Yemen's civil war, following a previous visit by the Omani team last month. With regional and international backing, Oman has been intensifying its diplomacy to block Yemen's slide into a new whirlwind of violence.
Multiple factors have thus far enabled Muscat-led mediation to de-escalate the conflict in Yemen. However, the ongoing peace progress is not guaranteed to bring an era of stability to the country.
Oman's political and military impartiality towards Yemen's conflict is a leading factor in its influential diplomatic role. When Saudi Arabia launched an aerial campaign to bomb the Iran-allied Houthi group in 2015, Oman was the only Gulf country that didn’t join the Saudi-led coalition.
"Muscat has been a hub of diplomatic efforts, where the UN, US, Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government, and Houthi officials have met to discuss ideas on closing the long chapter of war in Yemen"
As years of war passed and it became clear that a military resolution was unattainable, Oman began acting as a peace mediator and was a key actor in the six-month truce reached in April after extensive efforts led by the UN, the US, and Oman.
Muscat has been a hub of diplomatic efforts, where the UN, US, Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government, and Houthi officials have met to discuss ideas on closing the long chapter of war in Yemen.
The chief Houthi negotiator and spokesperson, Mohammed Abdulsalam, has stayed in Muscat over the years, acting as a conduit between his group and the UN and other foreign authorities.
During the most recent visit of Omani officials to Sanaa in January, Abdulsalam said, "The visit of the Omani delegation comes as a continuation of the recent meetings after we conveyed many messages". According to the Houthi spokesperson, the intensive visits between Sanaa and Muscat mirror the Houthis’ seriousness in achieving a tangible peace process.
The Houthi leadership places immense trust in Oman as a peacemaker, and that is another factor for its crucial diplomacy in Yemen. This trust stems from the non-involvement of Oman's military in Yemen and the absence of Saudi influence over Oman's foreign policies.
Similarly, Iran, the regional backer of the Houthi group, has a favourable view of Oman. In late December, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Muscat, meeting with the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tarik.
Abdollahian said at the time that Oman plays a "benevolent role," describing it as the "epicentre" of regional talks. The Yemen conflict was one of many issues which he discussed with the Omani leadership. Accordingly, the Iranian approval of Oman's diplomatic efforts has contributed to the latter's success in pushing for peace in Yemen.
The fighting across Yemen, the drop in civilian casualties, the reopening of Sanaa Airport, and the end of the fuel crisis in Houthi-held areas are all significant examples of fruitful regional and international diplomatic efforts.
Saudi Arabia, which spearheaded a military coalition against the Houthis after they toppled Yemen's UN-recognised government in 2015, no longer demonstrates the zeal for military force to resolve the conflict.
The kingdom has shown more flexibility towards the Houthis and relied on Oman to facilitate talks with the rebel group. In October last year, Saudi Arabia and the Houthis exchanged delegations to verify the names of captives from both sides. Many political observers deemed the move a clear sign of a thaw between the two parties.
Amidst the lull in fighting across Yemen progress towards ending the conflict has been made, Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said during a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 18 January.
“I can say that we are making progress, but there's still work to be done," he said. According to Al Saud, the priority now is reinstating the truce and transforming it into a lasting ceasefire. However, he admits that significant obstacles lie ahead.
"It is the task of peace negotiators, including Omani diplomatic delegations and the UN envoy to Yemen, to find the middle road that may appeal to Yemen's conflicting rivals"
The Houthis' maximalist demands have been seen as an impediment to the success of peace proposals in Yemen. For the truce to continue, the Houthis need to lower their demands, or their opponents need to fulfil them. Both options are complex.
It is the task of peace negotiators, including Omani diplomatic delegations and the UN envoy to Yemen, to find the middle road that may appeal to Yemen's conflicting rivals.
UN envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg said, "serious steps … have been taken, and that is something that we all need to build on". However, Grundberg is not highly confident that the ongoing war recession is a solid foundation for stability in Yemen. In his remarks during the panel in Davos, he said it would not be easy to end the war as mistrust among the parties remained.
Mohammed Nasser, a 55-year-old retired soldier in Sanaa, believes that Oman can have an influence on the Houthi group and can persuade them to make some concessions.
"Oman does not have any vested interests in Yemen. It is a real peace mediator without any selfish agendas. That is why I, like many Yemenis, am optimistic about the role of this Gulf state," Nasser told The New Arab.
"If Oman cannot bring the Yemeni government and the Houthi group closer, it can at least bridge some gaps between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis," he added.
"Oman does not have any vested interests in Yemen. It is a real peace mediator without any selfish agendas"
Amer Al-Domaini, a Yemeni political activist and editor-in-chief of the Almawqea Post news website, said Saudi Arabia is preparing to end the war and is heading directly towards the Houthi group in Sanaa.
Al-Domaini contends that the Saudi leadership has opened back-channel dialogue with the Houthis through the Oman-led mediation. "Riyadh wants to end the war in Yemen at any cost, and it will not be ashamed to surrender and acquiesce to the Houthis, and it will meet their conditions."
Ending the war this way will have "undesirable consequences," Al-Domaini said. "This way does not represent a safe solution that can lead to a new era of recovery, stability, and reparations in Yemen."
Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Centre and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper