On Tuesday, President Trump spoke with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said shortly after a visit to Washington by Oman’s minister of state for foreign affairs. Though a less visible negotiator than Kuwait, Oman has been active in efforts to mediate the crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Can Oman continue to avoid taking sides in this conflict — and will its neutrality allow it to arbitrate effectively?
Oman’s role in the war in Yemen offers insight into its potential for mediating the Qatar crisis. During my recent research in Oman, it was clear that while it has benefited from Qatar’s economic and political isolation, Oman’s ability to fully pursue these opportunities cannot not be considered in isolation of its ongoing efforts to broker peace in Yemen, nor its domestic economic environment.
Oman’s unique history of neutrality
Omanis interviewed for my research were quick to situate their policy of political neutrality as both long-standing and organic. With a documented history as go-between for the Arab Gulf states, Iran and the United States, Oman has served as a back channel for regional agreements large and small. Collectively, Omanis I spoke with portray their foreign policy as one of nonaggression, but it is clear from Oman’s past actions that this is not just a passive strategy. Since the beginning of the war in Yemen two years ago, it has negotiated the release of hostages, served as a go-between with Iran, helped evacuate American diplomats and hosted peace talks.
Doing what the United Nations cannot
While the U.N.-sponsored peace process in Yemen has all but entirely stalled, Oman has some options that the United Nations lacks, given the latter’s state-centric configuration and power dynamics among members. Oman’s flexibility is evidenced in its willingness to host different Yemeni factions in Muscat, particularly Houthi representatives and their allies aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Oman has also dispatched its own representatives to Riyadh to meet with the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and members of the coalition that supports it.
More informally, Yemenis outside of the warring factions find a ready ear in Muscat. This means that Omanis have a well-grounded sense of the progress of the war, its costs to combatants and civilians alike and its risks to the region. Yet those with whom I spoke bristled at the suggestion that Oman was engaged in a parallel track and instead characterized their work as helping to inform and support the U.N. process.
What constitutes neutrality?
Critics of Oman’s dealings with the Houthis and their Iranian supporters argue that its bilateral relations with Tehran extend beyond neutrality. Members of the Saudi-led coalition, most especially Saudi Arabia, have put tremendous pressure on Oman to fall in line with fellow GCC members. Omani diplomats report being blindsided by the coalition’s decision to intervene militarily in 2015, but express no regrets about not joining. Though Saudi Arabia denied responsibility, the Omani ambassador’s residence in Sanaa was hit by a Saudi airstrike in what one Omani diplomat described to me “as direct a message as one can imagine.”
Oman has not maintained its neutrality in Yemen only out of altruistic humanitarian considerations. While the country does send aid — both officially and privately — and allows medical evacuees to be treated in Muscat hospitals, the 179-mile border has been secured in ways that limit movement of people and goods. This reflects Oman’s concern about the conflict’s potential for spillover, as well as its wariness how regional realignments are playing out in Yemen.
Concern over regional power plays
First among these concerns is the growing role of the United Arab Emirates in southern parts of Yemen. This includes the UAE’s potential support for southern secessionists, which antagonizes the Hadi government and its Saudi patrons. It also reflects anxieties about potential Emirati development of a military base on the Yemeni island of Socotra at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden, with Qatari and Iranian-backed media reporting a rumored long-term lease. Emirati and Saudi forces have also openly clashed over development of the port of Aden.
Some Omanis interpret the UAE’s quest for territory and influence in the south as an effort to specifically challenge the Chinese-financed development of the Omani port project at Duqm, or more generally to strategically encircle the sultanate.
When neutrality is an economic boon
The Gulf economy is heavily reliant on transport, so it’s no surprise that Emirati moves in South Yemen may threaten Oman. But the Qatar crisis has also been a boon to Omani ports. Oman has welcomed Qatari shipping through its ports and rerouted air traffic through its airports and airspace with the help of Oman Air. Whether it’s the business executive making his weekly shuttle between his firm’s Dubai and Doha offices, or pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia via Doha’s global hub, Qatar Airways generates an estimated 30 percent of its revenue from flights within the Gulf. The state-owned company now relies largely on Oman to retain at least some of that revenue, offering Oman a return on its neutrality Yemen likely never will.
Such economic considerations are significant in light of Oman’s current 21 percent budget deficit. Indeed, the Economist explicitly described Qatar’s isolation as “a silver lining” for Oman, given that economic diversification has actually been reversing in the sultanate, where oil exports generate a staggering 80 percent of government revenue even as prices fall. The expansion of its port and air traffic and partnerships with Omani state enterprises offer one potential lifeline.
How sustainable is Oman’s neutrality?
However, Oman’s commitment to neutrality in two simultaneous Gulf conflicts — one military, one diplomatic and economic — may be too much to bear long term. Given Oman’s tenuous economic position, Saudi Arabia and the UAE could attempt to secure its support in Qatar by threatening economic isolation of its own. That this has not yet happened supports Omani perceptions that their neutrality may be criticized publicly but remains valued privately as an essential back channel.
Of the two crises, Yemen is more central to Oman’s stability and security. To safeguard its neutrality in Yemen, Oman will therefore need to work quickly to put out the fire in Qatar.
Though it may seem a counterintuitive move, Oman’s decision last week to recommit to its bilateral ties with Iran may hold Saudi Arabia and the Emirates at bay long enough to negotiate a settlement and allow Oman to refocus on Yemen. While some have posited that the Trump administration distrusts Oman, this week’s diplomatic engagement in Washington may suggest that Oman is poised to once again play its well-rehearsed role as regional broker.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and serves on the executive board of the American Institute of Yemen Studies. She is the author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon,” (I.B. Tauris, 2013).