The Omani capital Muscat has been the target of various Gulf diplomatic efforts over the last few weeks in relation to the conflict in Yemen.
Though Oman has been trying to keep to the same line of “quiet neutrality” on regional issues inherited from late sultan Qaboos Bin Said, there have been indications of a shift, with new sultan Haitham Bin Tarek slowly notching up activity in his country’s foreign policy.
Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan visited Muscat in mid-February to meet his Omani counterpart Sayed Badr Bin Hamad Al-Busaidi.
According to statements from the official Emirati and Omani news agencies, the two ministers discussed “the strong historic ties between the UAE and Oman and ways to strengthen their overall cooperation. The ministers also discussed issues relating to joint Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) action, in addition to a number of global issues of mutual concern.”
Sources in Oman and the UAE confirmed that the conflict in Yemen had been top of the agenda, especially with regard to exploring a political settlement in the war-torn country. Though the UAE withdrew its troops from Yemen in 2019, it is still part of the Saudi-led Coalition to support legitimacy there.
The coalition has implied that Oman has been facilitating Iranian logistical support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen through its borders with the country. Now that the new US administration is pushing for a halt to the war and is preparing to re-engage with Iran, the Omani role will be a conciliatory one.
Apart from Qatar, Oman is the only GCC country that has kept up good relations with Iran. The secret US-Iranian negotiations leading to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran under the former Obama administration were held in Muscat, where the newly designated head of the CIA, William Burns, was leading the American team.
It is not clear what the Omani and Emirati ministers agreed on with regard to the situation in Yemen at their February meeting, but the fact that countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia are starting to court Oman indicates that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are keen on following a political route in Yemen.
Just over a week after Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan’s visit to Muscat, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan arrived in Oman last Wednesday, where he met with his Omani counterpart and Yemen was at the top of the agenda.
Omani-Emirati relations have witnessed ups and downs, but Saudi-Omani ties have always been cold. The late sultan Qaboos kept his distance from Gulf positions led by Saudi Arabia in order to protect the neutrality of Oman, but Sultan Haitham might not have the same luxury to stay away from regional developments in like manner.
Oman has traditional ties to eastern Yemen with tribal extensions across the border. It also has strong ties with Iran built on history and trade rather than on the “transactional” basis of the Qatari-Iranian relations that were strengthened after the boycott of Qatar by its Arab neighbours in 2017.
Saudi Arabia is no longer in a position to impose its policies on other GCC members, and it acknowledges that it needs a Gulf consensus before there can be any settlement of the crisis in Yemen. Oman would be an important balancing power in that regard.
There could also be other mutual benefits since Oman has been the hardest hit economically of the Gulf countries by the Covid-19 pandemic. Its finances are not in good shape, and recently Qatar made it a $1 billion loan. Oman needs to borrow more to plug its widening deficit, and Abu Dhabi is in the best position financially to help.
The results of the Saudi visit to Muscat came a few days after Bin Farhan’s visit when Oman joined others in the region in supporting the Saudi rejection of the US move to implicate Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman in the killing of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Oman announced its support for Riyadh and the Saudi judicial system in its handling of the investigations into the killing.
The last of the recent visits to Muscat came this week when Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmed Nasser Al-Sabah delivered a message from the emir of Kuwait to the sultan of Oman.
An official statement mentioned bilateral relations, Gulf cooperation and issues of mutual interest, but Gulf sources also hinted that the letter might be related to recent Kuwaiti efforts to follow up on the GCC reconciliation with Qatar.
Kuwait recently hosted two meetings on the latter, the first between Qatari and Emirati delegations and the second between a Qatari and an Egyptian delegation. It was not clear if the Kuwait meetings led to significant breakthroughs in normalising relations with Qatar, however. Neither Kuwait nor Oman were part of the Gulf boycott of Doha.
It remains to be seen if Oman will use its clout to influence the Houthis and their Iranian backers to help end the war in Yemen to help the Saudis.
It is becoming clear that the Biden administration is not prioritising the region in its foreign-policy efforts, except for the nuclear deal with Iran, and as a result Muscat has gained a significant position as the only Gulf country able to play a credible conciliatory role based on its good relations with both Washington and Tehran.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly