Diplomacy

Muscat plays critical role as Yemen conflict mediator

By Fathallah Mukhlis

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Oman's Sultan Haitham bin Tariq meets with the US secretary of State at al-Alam palace in Muscat on February 21, 2020. [Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP]

MUSCAT -- Oman, which has long been working quietly in the background to mediate the conflict in neighbouring Yemen, has recently taken on a more public role in international efforts to bring the six-year war to a conclusion.

In a Sunday (April 18) statement, the United Nations (UN) Security Council welcomed Oman's mediation efforts between the key stakeholders in Yemen.

Meetings are ongoing in Muscat -- some that are official, announced to the public, and others conducted behind the scenes -- with the goal of reaching a solution to the Yemeni crisis in the near future, officials told Al-Mashareq.

In a rare public statement issued in late March, the sultanate said it continues to work closely with Saudi Arabia and with the UN and US envoys to Yemen and concerned Yemeni parties with the aim of reaching a comprehensive settlement.

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An aircraft carrying UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths lands at the Aden Airport in southern Yemen on January 7. [Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP]

Oman has traditionally focused on facilitating talks between adversaries by passing messages and creating the space and conditions for meetings to occur, the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies said in a May 2020 report.

"Oman has engaged heavily in recent years in passing messages and facilitating backchannel talks between the various parties to the conflict, including domestic Yemeni actors and foreign officials," the report said.

The sultanate shares a land border with Yemen and a network of cross-border tribal, trading and socio-economic ties, it noted.

"As the only Gulf Co-operative [sic] Council (GCC) state that has not participated at any point in the Saudi-led military coalition, the Omanis are seen by many in Yemen as an impartial and trustworthy arbiter," the report said.

This perceived impartiality means Oman is well placed to push the warring parties to overcome years of accumulated distrust, it said, noting that Muscat helped to broker backchannel talks after the 2019 attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

History of mediation

Oman has been well-versed in the tools and mechanisms of mediation since the reign of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Saeed, and Sultan Haitham bin Tariq and his government are following the same path, international negotiation expert Saleh al-Alawi said.

"It is unacceptable that the war continues with these zero results," he said.

"No side has achieved victory, and even those victories that some talk about, if we weigh them against the humanitarian situation in Yemen, they become worthless."

"We are working with the United States as a strategic partner to resolve the crisis, and US special envoy Tim Lenderking has listened to many constructive proposals, on which Muscat is working to gather consensus," he said.

Lenderking also has conveyed the vision of US President Joe Biden's administration, aimed at expediting the establishment of peace in Yemen and stopping the war.

"The US and Omani visions are virtually compatible in this regard, and hence we expect a breakthrough in the near future," he said.

"The government is being secretive about the details to prevent the emergence of obstacles that could prevent the completion of the negotiation or push certain parties to leave the table and back away," strategy analyst and military expert Mohammed al-Maamari said.

"The solution in Yemen is not entirely in the Yemenis' hands, as the regional parties are very influential, and therefore Muscat seeks to bring the viewpoints together," he said.

"The countries of the region have become certain beyond a reasonable doubt that war does not solve crises and does not guarantee stability, and are betting now on the voice of wisdom and reason in this troubled region," al-Maamari added.

"The Houthis are being intransigent in the negotiations and think that their situation on the ground is better than in past years," said a source close to the negotiations who asked to remain anonymous, due to the issue's sensitivity.

"But they are being positively [encouraged] to accept compromise solutions in which each party makes concessions for Yemen's sake," the source said.

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