The relationship of the Sultanate of Oman with the Yemeni Houthi group raises several questions about its nature, directions and purpose. This paper examines whether the general characteristics of neutrality and balance adopted in the Omani foreign policy towards issues of the region are sufficient to explain Muscat’s relationship with the Houthi group. Thus, is it possible to consider this relationship as part of the policy of openness to all parties pursued by Oman to facilitate its mediating role in the issue of the Yemen war, or does this relationship also entail a degree of common interests and long-term calculations for both sides? If so, what are these interests?
This paper assumes that the relationship between the Houthi group and the Sultanate of Oman tends to maintain the current level of rapprochement as war continues, despite the caveats and complications surrounding the relationship, and bringing to Muscat many doubts and misunderstandings.
This study covers the topic in five sections: The first includes an overview of the Omani foreign policy and its basic features. The second highlights Oman’s firm position on the current war in Yemen. The third section consists on analyzing the determinants of the relationship between the Sultanate of Oman and the Houthi group. The fourth section deals with the aspects of this relationship and its mutual benefits. The fifth and final section gave a brief forward-looking reading of the prospects for the future relationship between the Sultanate and the Houthi group.
Section 1: Omani Foreign Policy
The Omani foreign policy is the result of a set of pillars related to the strategic geographic location, the tribal demographic composition, and the Ibadi sectarian formation that is ideologically distinct from the prevailing doctrines in the peninsula and the Arabian Gulf region. The personality of the decision-maker (Sultan of Oman) and the system of values and ideas that he embraces – in addition to the limited economic resources – play a pivotal role in shaping the directions of the Omani foreign policy, and distinguishing many of its positions towards Arab and regional issues.((For more details see: Hammoud bin Abdullah Al-Wahaibi, The Impact of Geographical Location on the Foreign Policy of the Sultanate of Oman (1970-2011), Master’s Thesis: Department of Political Science, Middle East University 2012.))
The trends and positions of Oman’s foreign policy in its Gulf, Arab and regional surroundings can also be explained by referring to the factor of the Sultanate’s long historical experience with cases of internal instability, and with external interventions from some neighboring Arab and Gulf regimes against the “Sultanate regime” in different periods of its modern political history.
Oman is tribally divided into two large blocs, the “Ghafiri tribes” of Yemeni origin, and the “Hanawi tribes” descending from the center of the Arabian Peninsula.((Ibrahim Muhammad Ibrahim Shahdad, The Internal Conflict in Oman during the Twentieth Century 1913 – 1975 AD, 1st Edition, Beirut: Dar al-Awzai, 1989, p. 18.)) The country went through a long period of political instability as a result of tribal conflicts intertwined with the basic historical conflict between the Ibadi religious leadership (The Imamate) and the political leadership represented by the Sultanate of Muscat. The former enjoyed the support of the Wahhabi movement in Najd and Hijaz, then the support of the progressive Arab regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq throughout the 1950s and 1960s, while the latter relied significantly on the strength of the British backer in the face of foreign interventions aimed at eliminate it.((Ibid, p. 198))
The conflict that broke out between the “imamate” and “the sultanate” since approximately 1850 and continued until 1975-the date of the collapse of the imamate and the confirmation of the character of the sultanate in the state in an official and final capacity- formed the general course in which regional, Arab and even international interventions poured in. The tribal and religious uprisings flourished during that period: guerrilla wars between the leftist and nationalist radical ideas along with the tendency to form a state that combines tradition and modernity as a kind of necessary response to its controversial history. Yet – and this is what is important – this stands on the ruins of internal divisions, and adopts neutrality and caution in its relationship with the outside, and ultimately ended this tendency to win.
The Omani foreign policy went through at least two phases, which played a major role in crystallizing its general features:
The first: which dates back to before 1970 AD and is usually called the “isolation” phase,((Mustafa Shafiq Allam, Oman’s Foreign Policy in Regional Investigative Contexts, Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies, October 9, 2015, at the link: https://rawabetcenter.com/archives/13449)) which witnessed the success of the Sultan of Muscat Saeed Ben Taimur in controlling all parts of the country and unifying them under his rule after eliminating the Ibadi Imamate in the city of Nizwa in 1955. Then, there was the suppressing the Green Mountain Revolution and the eastern region 1957 with the assistance of Britain. However, during this stage, Oman continued to be an arena of instability and a theater for Arab interventions, the most prominent of which was the Saudi military incursion into the Buraimi oasis located on the coast of Oman in the northeast. Saudi Arabia’s continued policy of supporting Imam Ghalib bin Ali, who moved to residence in Dammam under the auspices of King Saud bin Abdulaziz after his exit from Oman. The Sultan of Oman planned for his country at this stage a policy of tight internal isolation at various levels as its foreign relations were limited to Britain almost alone.((Martyrs, previous reference, p. 141.)) Oman’s interest in Arab interactions and issues had greatly weakened at the time.
With Sultan Qaboos bin Said assuming power in July 1970 after his bloodless coup against his father with the help of Britain, Oman entered a different phase in which the new Sultan began working to bring his country out of internal isolation. He went on to establish modern and favorable state apparatuses to improve the standard of living of citizens and get out of the state of extreme poverty. This stage was called the stage of “transformation and openness”((Muhammad Hamad Al-Qatatsheh and Omar Hamdan Al-Hadrami, Constants and Foundations in Omani Foreign Policy, Al-Manara, Volume 13, Number 4, 2007, p. 378.)), when Sultan Qaboos managed to completely eliminate the leftist Dhofar Liberation Front, backed by the ruling Marxist regime in southern Yemen, after receiving military assistance from the Shah of Iran, which included sending ground forces and dozens of helicopters. After the refusal of the Arab and Gulf states to provide aid to Oman((Shahdad, previous reference, p. 302.)), Sultan Qaboos also quietly ended his border problems with Saudi Arabia, and exchanged recognition with it in October 1971, after the Sultanate officially joined the Arab League in September 1970.
The second stage was about shaping the sets of the Omani foreign policy extending to the present time. ((Hatim bin Saeed Masn, The foundations of Omani foreign policy in light of regional changes (2005-2016), Master’s Thesis: Department of Political Science, Middle East University, 2017, p. 34.)) However, it is noteworthy that Oman’s foreign policy has also been governed by the old experience and the Sultanate’s history of political fluctuations, despite the external openness that came on the basis of stability and development renaissance that was achieved in during the reign of Sultan Qaboos, the Omani foreign policy at this stage attracted two somewhat opposite tendencies:
The first: It pushes towards creative political, economic and cultural interaction with its Gulf and Arab surroundings without reservations, inspired by the bitter experience of the past.
The second: tends towards maintaining locality and particularity curbing excessive openness as an optimal strategy for stability and self-preservation in the midst of a region that dates back to endless conflicts.
Out of the interaction between these two tendencies, it seems that a third, and a more clear and effective middle approach in the Omani foreign policy was born, based on neutrality, non-interference and on building balanced political mediation roles in crises and thorny issues in the surrounding environment, in parallel with the call for dialogue and coexistence and encouraging the search for peaceful solutions to achieve stability in the region and the Arabian Gulf. In this context, the Omani foreign policy has gained effectiveness and great influence at the regional and international levels, which made it the subject of respect for many countries of the world. Yet, this approach brought it in return a lot of misunderstandings from the countries of the region, which are suspicious about Oman’s neutrality and the nature of Oman’s role and goals. This is one of the real dilemmas facing Oman’s foreign policy in many files, including the situation of the war in Yemen, and specifically: its relationship with the Yemeni Houthi group.
Section 2: The Sultanate’s Position on the Current War in Yemen
Oman supported the efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to resolve the crisis in Yemen under the Gulf Initiative (April 2011) and its executive mechanism. Yet, the Omani role remained below the usual involvement in many crises that faced the path of political transition after the popular revolution (February 2011) before this path reaches the point of war. So, Muscat contended with supporting the international mediation and blessing the Gulf effort led by Saudi Arabia and the activities of the comprehensive national dialogue conference. After the Houthi group seized the capital, Sanaa, on September 21th, 2014, and signed the “Peace and Partnership” Agreement with the rest of the Yemeni political forces on the same date, Oman welcomed the agreement without expressing a public opposition or support of the coup movement. However, it returned and expressed on subsequent occasions its support for the legitimacy of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his government.((The Sultanate of Oman renews its support for the unity and stability of Yemen and its legitimate leadership, September 12, 2019, at the link: https://cutt.us/19NPf))
Oman is the only Gulf country that refused to participate in Operation Decisive Storm led by Saudi Arabia when it was launched in March 2015. Its opposition to regional military intervention in Yemen became clear through the call it addressed at the time to the Yemenis for reconciliation “to get Yemen out of its crushing crisis.” It confirmed “the Sultanate’s readiness to deal with all Yemenis, and its support for any effort by the brothers in the Arab League Council, in order to stabilize Yemen((Why did Hadi stop in Amman before heading to Riyadh on his way to Sharm el-Sheikh? March 27, 2015, from the link: https://arabic.cnn.com/middleeast/2015/03/27/hadi-oman-arab-summit)).
“Muscat’s position on the military intervention of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has remained constant throughout the years of the war. With the war lasting more than what was expected, Oman’s choice that the war was not correct from the beginning was confirmed to be right. In this regard, the former Omani Minister of Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi said in January 2020: The “truth has become clear to everyone, which is that the war in Yemen is useless and was the result of miscalculations”.((Yemeni official: Omanis are fair, January 2, 2020, at the link: https://cutt.us/3j2tE))
The Sultanate’s refusal to participate in “Decisive Storm” is due to several reasons. Among them are Muscat’s commitment to a policy of non-interference in the affairs of others; avoiding regional and international conflicts; and its quest to establish close relations with all Yemeni parties. So, it can play the role of mediator to end the war in Yemen.((Previous reference, p. 54-55))
Oman faced a lot of pressure to retreat from its opposition to “Decisive Storm”, but it hung on its option. At the same time, it avoided media and political battles against the Gulf views in favor of military intervention in Yemen. When the Gulf Cooperation Council decided to move its diplomatic missions from the capital, Sanaa to the temporary capital Aden, the Sultanate kept its embassy in Sanaa because it believed that the process of transferring diplomatic missions would not benefit dialogue and a peaceful solution.((In an attempt to understand the real role of the Sultanate of Oman in the region, August 1, 2015, from the link: https://www.noonpost.com/content/7734)) The situation continued, until the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE bombed the Omani embassy in Sanaa in September 2015, so that Oman, immediately after that, evacuated its embassy without escalating speech that could harm the relationship with Saudi Arabia. After a short period, Oman continued its efforts to free Saudi detainees from the prisons of the Houthi group.((Alan Gresh, Sultanate of Oman’s metropolitan diplomacy in Rough Bay, from the link: https://180post.com/archives/7729))
In fact, Oman renews its official support to the legitimate leadership of Yemen and to its territorial integrity, but in return, it keeps also good relations with the Houthi group. At the same level, it seeks to balance its relationship with Iran with stable relations away from tension with Saudi Arabia. From this point on, it joined the Islamic military alliance in Riyadh to fight Terrorism December 2015, to say -it seems- that its independent policies in the region, including Yemen, do not aim to oppose the Saudi role in the region when there are no strong reasons for that. What is remarkable in this context is its strong opposition to the Emirati intervention in Yemen, which is usually expressed in unusual frankness. In February 2019, the former Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf Ben Alawi said: Oman does not agree with the UAE’s policy towards Yemen; because it “does not like to nurture wars and conflicts”((Why do Saudi Arabia and the UAE oppose Omani mediation in Yemen? April 3, 2019, from the link: https://cutt.us/tpRJq)), in a clear reference to the UAE’s role in fueling war and supporting armed factions that adopt agendas that conflict with peace endeavors.((The Sultanate’s explicit position on the role played by the UAE in Yemen is inseparable from the tension that erupted in the relationship between the two countries after Muscat accused Abu Dhabi of trying to overthrow the ruling regime in Oman at the end of 2010. Rather, it may trace its roots back to the history of the UAE’s separation from the Sultanate in the late 1960s.))
In search of a point of balance in the internal and regional war policies in Yemen, Oman played various roles through which it also wanted to draw the features of a balanced and unbiased policy towards all parties. When the war started, Oman facilitated the passage of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi through its territory to Riyadh after his presidential palace in Aden was targeted by planes belonging to the Houthis and their ally at the time, former president “Ali Abdullah Saleh”. In February 2015 Oman evacuated the American embassy staff from Sanaa, then led a series of successful operations to release American and Saudi detainees from the Houthi prisons, and also strengthened the policy of safe passage for Yemenis from various sides in its lands. After the killing of former President “Saleh” at the hands of the Houthis in December 2017, Muscat received more than twenty members of the Saleh family who were chased by the Houthi group, in addition, of course, to its pivotal role as a mediator accepted by all Yemeni parties. In fact, Oman is an open back channel for passing ideas and putting forward initiatives related to a political settlement and ending the war, along with its support for the United Nations efforts to cease fire in Hodeidah.
These seemingly contradictory roles led the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to shift away from the policy of pressuring Oman to change its positions, due to their conviction of the vitality and importance of the Omani role to push the situation in Yemen towards a possible political solution.((Mustafa Shafiq Allam. Previous source.)) This aim requires maintaining the Sultanate as an open door for the negotiations, and accepting the role of the mediator that it plays.((Maryam Yousef Al Balushi, The Impact of Omani-Iranian Relations on the Security of the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries after the Arab Spring, Center for Arab Unity Studies, December 17, 2020, from the link: https://cutt.us/c07t4))
The Omani mediation possesses many factors that can make it fruitful in the Yemeni situation, the most important of which are the good relations with Iran, and the depth of relations with international powers (the United States of America and Britain) wishing a political settlement in Yemen. In addition to the Houthi group’s confidence in the Omani mediation, this stems from Oman’s opposition to the military intervention in Yemen.((Previous reference, p. 52.))
Section 3: Determinants of the Relationship between the Sultanate of Oman and the Houthi Group
The relationship of the Sultanate of Oman with Yemen responds to many determinants related to the geographical neighborhood, the similarity of the tribal social structure of the two countries, and their moral sense of the existence of a common history. This huge population was in addition of course to other determinants related to the variable regional policies in the region and the dynamics of the war in Yemen. Here, we can elucidate the most important determinants that push the Sultanate of Oman and the Houthi group to rapprochement.
1- Geopolitical Determinant
The Sultanate of Oman has a geographical border with Yemen that extends from the coast of the Arabian Sea in the south to the Saudi-Omani border in the north, with a distance of about 300 km. (67 thousand km2) is a strategic depth of the guerrilla war waged by the Dhofar Liberation Front against the Sultanate (1965-1975). Therefore, Oman considers these areas as part of its national security, and has a high degree of sensitivity to the situation in its western borders with Yemen. Since the end of the revolution in the region of Dhofar, Oman has already worked out local security arrangements in cooperation with the local population, to ensure the stability of the border strip areas on both sides, to help resolve tribal and clan conflicts in the Yemeni Mahra Governorate and reduce tensions that might negatively reflect on Omani national security.((Yahya Al-Swari and Ryan Bailey (Editor), Mahra, Yemen: From Isolation to the Heart of a Geopolitical Storm, July 15, 2019, Sana’a Center for Studies, at: https://sanaacenter.org/ar/publications-all/analysis-ar /7693))
In parallel, Muscat adopted the principle of flexible borders with the local residents of the governorate, many of whom are now able to cross the Omani borders and carry out trade and transport goods across the border as a main source of life. Muscat, and its policies – to ensure border security – included providing development and relief aid to the entire population of Mahra, whose number does not exceed approximately 350 thousand people. As a result of all this, Oman remained for more than four decades “the most influential foreign power among the Mahris”.((Ibid))
During the war, the Yemeni governorate of Mahra turned into an arena for the Saudi military presence under the pretext of combating the smuggling of weapons from Omani lands through Mahra to the Houthis.((Ibid .)). Its loyal local government has established nearly ten military bases in Mahra Governorate ((Casey Koggis, Mahra: Where Regional Powers Determine Local Politics, December 20, 2020, Sana’a Center for Studies, at: https://sanaacenter.org/ar/publications-all/analysis-ar/12323)) trained and supported the Coast Guard with weapons and ammunitions, and deployed equipment and watchtowers along the coast of the governorate.((Ibid..)) This is, of course, far beyond mere temporary measures to prevent arms smuggling, and represents a threat to Oman with soft traditional influence in Mahra.
In the same context, another challenge to Oman emerged, this time coming from the UAE military presence in the archipelago of the Yemeni island of Socotra through the control of the pro-Emirati Southern Transitional Council on the island since July 2020. This is a control that took place in full view of the Saudi duty forces stationed on the island. The Emirati military presence on the island located at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden from the Indian Ocean, which was affiliated with the Sultans of Mahra until 1968, raises many Omani concerns. The concentration on the island gives the UAE strategic advantages by supervising global trade lines in the Indian Ocean, and may put an end to the Omani economic aspirations linked to the port of Duqm overlooking the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean in the southeast coast of Oman.
To meet these challenges, Oman is fueling Mahri’s civilian opposition to what has become known among nationalist Mahris as the “Saudi occupation,” taking advantage of local fears raised by the Saudi ambition to extend a pipeline from the oil fields in the Empty Quarter across the Mahra desert to the Arabian Sea. Its intention to deploy Saudi soldiers to protect the line is permanent,((Ibid…)) but in the face of Emirati influence in Socotra, Oman stands almost helpless. In any case, Oman appears aware of the fact that its “strategy” to undermine the Saudi military influence in Mahra by supporting local protest mechanisms is ineffective, and it represents a double-edged sword that threatens to slide into uncontrolled and unwanted violence on its border with Yemen.((Oman plays a key role in controlling the local Mahri opposition to Saudi influence in the province of Mahra, and keeping it below the level of violent and armed opposition. This is due to the fact that Oman is aware of the high cost of the option of uncontrolled violence on its borders and the possibility of it getting out of control, in addition to the risks of being drawn into a proxy conflict with Saudi Arabia. At the end of February 2020, when five soldiers of the Saudi force were killed in Mahra after an armed attack on their military vehicle, Oman used its traditional influence in Mahra to calm matters down after Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman visited Muscat in March 2020. See: Saudi Arabia is testing the new trends of the Sultanate of Oman regarding the Yemen situation, March 6, 2020, at the link: https://cutt.us/VhTwb))
In addition to its realization that Saudi Arabia has a long experience in winning battles of influence of this kind by relying on the financial abundance that Oman lacks((Muscat announced on January 1st, 2021 its budget, with a deficit of more than 3.3 billion riyals (the dollar is approximately 2.5 riyals). See: https://arabic.sputniknews.com/arab_world/201801041028961181)), its military presence in Mahra is supported by an official cover of Yemeni legitimacy.
For all these facts, Oman, in its quest to circumvent the geopolitical risks posed by the Saudi and Emirati presence in Mahra and Socotra Island, does not rely on stimulating topical oppositions with local foundations and limited horizons. Rather, it tends – in parallel – to build balanced relations with forces opposed to foreign influence in the Yemeni scene as a whole. The future of Oman’s regional influence in Yemen will ultimately be decided based on the overall level of Yemeni politics and its deadly internal and regional interactions, and not in the geography attached to an anxious Oman
In this context, Oman’s relationship with the Houthi group relies on the rapprochement in the “geopolitical” vision of the future of the “foreign presence” – Saudi / UAE in particular – in Yemen. So, the support for the Houthis to remain strong within the framework of a single state that imposes its control over all its lands is a safety valve for Omani policy. In the face of the current and future geo-political risks coming from Yemen, this is the shortest and least costly way to weaken the Saudi and Emirati military influence, from the point of view of the country that prefers to avoid problems and avoid a rough confrontation with others. Oman does not find itself interested in engaging in a feverish regional geopolitical competition game over Yemen as long as the principles of its foreign policy are based on the principle of “zero problems”((Ibid….)), and are looking for security (secure borders) rather than political and economic penetration into neighboring countries.
2- Defining the Relationship with Iran
Oman and Iran share the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which 90% of Gulf oil shipments exported to the world pass. Oman is connected to the Strait of Hormuz via the Musandam Peninsula, separated from the Omani mainland by land belonging to the United Arab Emirates. This position obligates Oman to coordinate security policies in the Strait of Hormuz with Iran based on common interests, such as extracting natural gas from some joint offshore fields near the strait.((Ibid…..))
Iran was the third country to recognize the Sultanate’s regime after the United States of America and Britain, and it played a decisive role in eliminating the Dhofar Revolution in the south of the Sultanate, as previously mentioned. Even with the radical changes that occurred to the Shah’s regime in Iran, and the “Islamic Revolution Regime 1979”, withdrew Iranian soldiers from Oman, then the Sultanate’s accession to the Gulf Cooperation Council in May 1981 Omani-Iranian relations maintained their distinction and stability. As Oman has always adopted a vision to achieve stability in the Arab Gulf region calling for openness to the participation of all neighboring countries, including Iran.((Ibid……))
Oman played important regional roles that served its vision of stability in the region, such as it success, since 2012, in hosting secret negotiations between Iranian and American officials that led in July 2015 to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iranian nuclear agreement). The agreement was signed between Iran, the United States and other permanent member countries of the Security Council in addition to Germany.
Oman’s regional role and its relations with Iran are often not acceptable to Saudi Arabia, but there are many considerations that prevent Saudi Arabia from dealing with Muscat as part of the Iranian axis in the region such as, in particular, the Saudi leadership’s awareness of the regional and international weight of Omani policy and the importance of understanding it as much as possible.((On November 31th, 2019, Prince Khalid Ben Salman Ben Abdulaziz, Saudi Deputy Defense Minister and responsible for the Yemeni situation, met with the late Sultan Qaboos Ben Said, in a visit that aimed to eliminate Oman’s fears of Saudi influence in Mahra Governorate. In addition to obtain its support for the Riyadh Agreement, which had been signed in Riyadh between the legitimate government and the Southern Transitional Council a few days before the visit. On this visit, the Saudi prince, who was accompanied by the Saudi ambassador in Yemen and the Saudi chief of staff, said: “He came to listen and see His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Ben Said about the situation in Region”. See: The Omani Ministry of Information, the media portal, at the link: https://omaninfo.om/topics/78/show/288669)) Oman, in turn, is keen to emphasize the peculiarity of its foreign policy by avoiding provoking the countries of the region, and distancing itself from the hardline Iranian positions. For example, it rejects Iran’s repeated threats to stop maritime navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, or use it in its political maneuvers with the United States and its allies in the Middle East. To confirm this, the region has been hosting a US military base that allows the United States to monitor the Strait of Hormuz((Look at it in this link: https://www.bayancenter.org/2020/09/6301)) on the Omani island of Masirah in the Sea of Oman since 2000.
The Omani positions towards the Houthis are a translation of its good relationship with Iran, as the Houthis are the only organized group loyal to Iran in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf region. Iran considers this group vital to its policies and interests in the region, and it is clear that Muscat is fully aware of that.((Unconfirmed information circulated at the end of the year 2020 that the Iranian ambassador in Sanaa, Hassan Erlo, came to Yemen on a flight from the Sultanate of Oman, and although there is no confirmation of the validity of this information, Oman also did not deny it.)) Empowering the position of the Houthis in Yemen could be an essential step on the way to achieving regional balance in the Gulf and the Arab region, which, for Oman, means that a regional power such as Saudi Arabia is not monopolizing security policies in the region.
3- Decadal and Demographic Determinants
The majority of the population of the Sultanate of Oman belongs to the Ibadi faith, which has its roots in the ideas of Abdullah Ben Ibad in the third century AH. The Ibadi sect- which is a natural extension of the thought of the pioneer Kharijites after being revised and formulated according to the data of Islamic history in the subsequent centuries – rejects the traditional Sunni principle of limiting the caliphate to Quraysh and its theory in bequeathing the rule. It also rejects – with the same doctrinal clarity – the principle of the Imamate in the family of the house of the Prophet, which is espoused by the Shiites, because the imam who is appropriate to lead must be chosen by the wise people at all time.
The Ibadi faith, then, stands in opposition to the Sunni and Shiite faiths from a purely creedal standpoint. As for the historical position of both sects, it is somewhat different, because of historical factors, the most important of which is the geographical decline of the Ibadites in the farthest corner of Oman without other neighboring countries. Their distance from the centers of Islamic civilization have normalized their relationship with the Sunnis as they are apprehensive, and with the Ibadites being tolerant of the followers of the Sunni sect within Oman and respecting sectarian diversity. Because, unlike other Kharijites groups, they do not declare their opponents to be infidels, including the perpetrator of the major sins, but they have a deep fear of assimilation into the external Sunni environment and the loss of privacy. They consider the Shiites as less dangerous to their existence and their internal cohesion((Bouzidi Yahya, The Impact of the Religious Factor on Omani-Iranian Relations, August 21, 2017, from the link: https://alrased.net/main/articles.aspx?selected_article_no=7918)), especially after the spread of the Sunni Wahhabi tide, which is sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Followers of the Ibadi sect consider the Wahhabi sect as extremist and incites the rest of the sects, including their own. In fact, it is difficult to exclude the influence of the sectarian composition with the majority Ibadi (about 75% of the population) on Oman’s foreign policy, and its relationship with the Houthi group, which claims to represent the Zaidi sect in Yemen, it falls, in some ways, under what some people describe as the “convergence of minorities”.((Alan Gresh, previous source.)) Muscat may be happy with the political expressions of sectarian minorities that are able to express themselves in neighboring countries, because that mitigates the influence of Sunni sectarian monism surrounding it.
In addition, the developments of the conflict in Yemen are negatively reflected on the Sultanate of Oman, as result of the geographical proximity. The war has complicated Oman’s task in controlling its long borders with Yemen, and it threatens to create a fertile environment for instability in the border province of Mahra, and the continued flow of unknown numbers of Yemenis to Amman as result of the widening humanitarian catastrophe and the collapse of the economic situation.
Section 4: Aspects of the Relationship and Common Benefits
The relationship between the Sultanate of Oman and the Houthi group is characterized by diversity, and both parties are keen to continue this relationship from the position of mutual immediate needs, and also in view of the common benefit they both can achieve in the medium term. Typically, in adjusting the balance of regional power in the Gulf region and the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and curbing regional ambitions for each of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean and Bab al-Mandab. In general, the relations between Oman and the Houthi group focus on three basic aspects, with the possibility of other aspects for which no reliable information is available.
The political aspect: It is known that the Sultanate of Oman did not withdraw its embassy from Sana’a except for security reasons after the coalition- led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE – bombed it in September 2015. Since the beginning of 2018, Oman has hosted what is effectively a “permanent political mission” of the Houthi group in Muscat, where Houthi political leaders live in the Omani capital on a continuous basis, led by Muhammad Abdul Salam, the group’s spokesperson. Oman provides these leaders with all facilities, including providing them with freedom of international political communication, meeting with ambassadors of countries concerned with Yemeni affairs in Muscat. Moreover, holding secret talks with diplomats from different countries, leaving Omani lands to Tehran to meet with its officials and then returning to Muscat, issuing statements and press releases that involve threats and tense political positions. In addition to this “mission” facilitating the interests of the Houthis abroad, as receiving the wounded of the group in the war and transporting them for treatment in other countries.
Despite the prevailing view of Oman as a neutral mediator in the situation of the war in Yemen, many of its positions indicate that its perceptions of peace and an end to the war are more or less close to the perceptions of the Houthi group. It internalizes ideas from outside the circle of the three references that Yemeni legitimacy adheres to, which are the Gulf initiative and its implementation mechanism, the outcomes of the comprehensive National Dialogue Conference, and the relevant Security Council resolutions, including Resolution 2216. This was evident when the former US Secretary of State during the Obama administration (John Kerry) presented an initiative to end the war in Yemen in late 2016. The initiative consisted on delegating President Hadi his powers to a consensual deputy without requiring the Houthis to implement – in a simultaneous manner – the aforementioned Security Council resolution, which stipulated the Houthis’ withdrawal from the areas they controlled, and the unconditional handing over of weapons.((Will Kerry’s initiative succeed in saving peace consultations in Yemen? August 27, 2016, from: https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast/2016/08/160826_yemen_kerry_initiative))
It is clear that the initiative, which resulted from secret meetings that brought together representatives of the Houthi group with American officials in Muscat and was supported by Oman((Ben Alawi denies the existence of a special relationship between Oman and the Houthis, October 13, 2016, from the link: https://thenewkhalij.news/article)), complicated the path of a political solution in Yemen. As it pushed the Houthis to intransigence in the issue of security and military arrangements, an issue that broke the back of political consultations in Kuwait (April-August 2016), according to what was later stated in the last briefing given by the former UN envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh to the Security Council (February 2018), days before leaving his post. The end of the consultations that the Houthis are not ready at this stage to make concessions in the security aspect or to enter into a comprehensive security plan”.((Houthis’ arms and political settlement efforts in Yemen, July 23, 2018, Emirates Policy Center, at the link: https://epc.ae/ar/brief/political-settlement-and-houthi-disarmament-in-yemen))
For their part, the Houthis describe the Omani role as neutral and impartial, and they are generally reassured that the Omani position affirms their perceptions of a political settlement. Muscat is the only capital in which Houthi leaders appear as real peace-men, which helps them absorb the pressures exerted by the international community on them. Until recently, pictures of Sultan Qaboos raised on the facades of some buildings and streets of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, which is under the control of the Houthi group, were an indication of the gratitude they felt towards the Sultanate and the warmth of their relationship with it. The Houthis showed a high pragmatism in dealing with the Sultanate’s policy towards Israel. They did not attack the normalization of its relations with Israel in their media campaigns, as they did with some countries of the coalition to support legitimacy in Yemen. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Muscat in October 2018, Muhammad Ali al-Houthi, the head of the “Supreme Revolutionary Committee” at the time, came out with a timid tweet on Twitter, criticizing Oman’s position, stressing that the purpose of the visit was to “isolate Oman from playing any positive role in the region.”((Will Netanyahu’s visit to the Sultanate undermine Muscat’s relationship with the Houthis? October 29, 2018, at: https://www.alayyam.info/news/7KWOX2FT-4YYBU6))
The aspect related to weapons that reach the Houthis through Omani territory:
For years, there have been press reports and accusations by Yemeni officials regarding the presence of Iranian weapons networks and military equipment being smuggled from Oman to the Houthis in Sanaaa through the border governorate of Mahra. While some reports mention that some of these networks linked to the Omani authorities, others attribute arms smuggling to the Omani authorities’ inability to fully control its borders with Yemen.((Ashraf Al-Falahi, Omani Neutrality in the Yemeni Conflict Where to?, October 12, 2016, from the link: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ar/originals/2016/10/oman-neutral-saudi- war-iran-houthis.html)) Oman has totally denied the passage of any weapons from its territory destined to the Houthis,((
Jay Solomon, Will the Sultanate of Oman’s soil administration be forced to take a certain side?, January 9, 2018, from the link:
)) a statement by the Omani Foreign Ministry said in October 2016: “all allegations of arms smuggling through Omani territory have been discussed and refuted with a number of coalition countries, the United States and Britain, and confirmed that they are not true.”((The Sultanate of Oman denies smuggling weapons across its borders.. October 12, 2016, from the link: https://cutt.us/rldbR))
Regardless of the Omani official denial, the Houthis’ ability to fight the war for six consecutive years, and their access to advanced weapons that were not present in the strength of the Yemeni army’s armament, such as drones and new types of cruise missiles, and their boasts of having a program of “manufacturing” and developing weapons. All of this prove that the arms embargo supply system in accordance with the relevant Security Council resolutions suffers from significant gaps and it is not respected.
The economic aspect: With the escalation of the war and the imposition of trade restrictions by the coalition countries on the Houthi group, including restrictions imposed on the port of Hodeidah, which is under the control of the group, many commercial imports have reached the Houthi-controlled areas through the land ports with Oman. The most important of which are the Shahn and Sarfit border crossings.((Casey Cogges, Al Mahra: Where Regional Powers Determine Local Politics, op. cit.)) Despite the absence of statistics on the size and type of goods imported to Houthi-controlled areas, what is certain is that the Yemeni borders with Oman have become an important economic lung for the Houthis. Oman also benefits from it in reviving the Omani free trade zone and the port of Salalah in the south of the Sultanate.((Ahmed Naji, Yemen Another Proxy Conflict, October 22, 2018, Malcolm Kerr-Carnegie Middle East Center, at: https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/77544))
Section 5: Prospects for the Future Relationship between Oman and the Houthi Group
Within the framework of the current readings to analyze the trends of Omani politics – and by extension – the future of its relationship with the Houthi group. Two points of view prevail, each with its own indicators and realistic data. Its borders with Yemen, on the one hand, and the emergence of an internal economic challenge on the other. These two factors will lead Muscat to reconsider the role of diplomatic mediation in many situations in the region, including the Yemeni situation, because mediation becomes limited in light of geopolitical challenges and direct security and economic risks and perhaps little usefulness.((Noha Khaled, Sultan Haitham and the Challenge of Foreign Policy, February 20, 2020, Al Jazeera Center for Studies, at the link: https://studies.aljazeera.net/en/node/4574))
This opinion may become more valid if the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council succeed, following the field steps taken in terms of implementing the military-security aspect in early December 2020, and then forming a new “equal government” as the agreement enshrines the military presence there. The Saudi and Emirati in Mahra and Socotra Island by ignoring the issue of extending government control over these two governorates, thus compounding the aforementioned external challenges, and could push Muscat to depart from its neutral role and get closer to the Houthi group.((Muscat had reluctantly welcomed the Riyadh agreement in November 2019 and welcomed the agreement as a step on the way to ending the war and achieving a political settlement in Yemen.))
The second view is based mainly on the change made by Sultan Haitham Ben Tariq in the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs shortly after his rise to power, specifically his “overthrow” of the most important “pillars” of Oman’s traditional foreign policy and its most prominent “symbol” for more than twenty years, namely, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Yusuf Ben Alawi, which is an indication of the new Sultan’s desire for Gulf rapprochement “and to deal in a healthy manner with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” In addition to this change, there stands the impact of the bad economic situation that Oman is going through. As a result, the Sultanate will not stay, according to this opinion, as “the bird that sings outside the flock”.((Khairallah Khairallah, small but profound change in Oman, published on August 23, 2020, at the link: https://cutt.us/tmAYJ)) As with the first point of view, there are also facts that support this opinion, the most important of which is the convening of the GCC summit in Al-Ula city in Saudi Arabia (January 2021) and the prospects for improvement in Gulf-Gulf relations, including Oman’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE .
Contrary to the two previous points of view, this paper considers that the Omani policy in the region in general, and towards the Yemeni situation in particular, will maintain its current character without deep changes. Moreover, Muscat will continue to a fundamental degree the regional mediation policies that are the focus of Omani foreign policy and its field of political effectiveness, and the source of its symbolic balance which is difficult for it to abandon. The alternative to this approach is Oman’s fall into the trap of regional conflicts, and multiply the challenges facing it, that can still be contained. Therefore, everything that harms the role of mediation, including rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE outside the Gulf Cooperation Council system, or increasing rapprochement with Iran, the Sultanate will tend to move away from it.((Despite the geopolitical challenges that Muscat is now facing as result of the Saudi and Emirati military presence in Yemen, it prefers not to get closer to Iran, especially at the military level. In October 2018, Oman conducted joint military exercises with Britain to send double messages that it rejects the military activity of the two Gulf States close to their borders in Yemen, but its cautious approach to the relationship with Iran will not change because of this.))
The possible changes in the US democratic administration’s strategy towards Iran and its nuclear situation are an encouraging factor for the Sultanate of Oman to continue its mediating role in the region. Such a change presents greater opportunities for a diplomatic movement that the Yemeni situation can witness under a more serious democratic administration regarding ending the war in Yemen, and all this opens up prospects for expected roles that no other country in the region, other than Oman, is able to play. In the same context, the Gulf – Gulf reconciliation is not an indication of a Gulf rapprochement that ends the neutrality of the Sultanate, because Oman’s traditional relations with Iran were not originally the focus of the Gulf – Gulf disputes. Indeed, Oman has long ago defined the ceiling of its Gulf relations by rejecting the idea of a Gulf union late 2013.
As for the difficult economic conditions that Oman is going through, which is not expected to reach the brink of collapse, it may be a motive to cling to the remaining Muscat’s “political power” represented in regional mediation roles and not the other way around. With regard to the security risks on Oman’s western borders with Yemen, it is likely that Oman will seek to mitigate them through the channels of open bilateral relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and through its deep and influential international relations, especially with Britain and the United States of America. Oman, in the last analysis, does not have a sense of fragility. Oman’s internal security is not in danger, in light of the coexistence system that works well inside. The country is also confident in its strategic role in a strained and tense region, and in the relationship between its security as a small and moderate country and the security of the Strait of Hormuz, which is guaranteed by the will of the world powers. Therefore, there is no need for Muscat – at least in the short and medium term – to depart from its quiet policies or to engage in the politics of polarizing axes in the region, or risk escalating the situation on its western borders with Yemen. Thus, fueling a proxy conflict against Saudi Arabia that may turn its borders into flaming lines for decades.
In this context, it is likely that Muscat will maintain its relations with the Houthis at their current level, especially since this level achieves for Oman – as well as for the Houthi group – what it wants from that relationship. It secures to Muscat the required openness of the Houthi group to facilitate its role of mediation, and helps Oman, under the guise of mediation, to consolidate the political presence of the Houthi group, enlarge its contact with the world and enhance its position. Most important, is that both parties do not bear the high cost of such a relationship, given the international community’s conviction that it is necessary and required to make progress in the political process. As long as the war in Yemen continues with all the geopolitical challenges it poses on Oman, and the demand for peace necessarily continues with it, the Omani role will remain necessary, and the well-studied relationship between Oman and the Houthis will not witness a decline. Although the United States’ decision to classify the Houthis as a terrorist group may pose caveats in the face of this relationship, Muscat could turn into a major gateway to a diplomatic movement that works to remove the name of the Houthis from the US terrorism list within the framework of its mediation role ,backed, of course, by a supportive position from the United Nations and a democratic administration that does not seem to practically speaking, pursuing or defending a decision it did not make.