Praise for Oman’s role as region’s mediator

Omani diplomacy helped secure the release of hostages in Yemen and brought the US and Iran together. Will it work for Yemen?

The US thanked Oman and its leader Sultan Qaboos on September 20, 2015 for helping broker the release of hostages in Yemen, including two American citizens. Mohammed Mahjoub/AFP Photo
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MUSCAT // Following its success bringing the United States and Iran together for historic talks, Oman has been praised for its role as a Middle East mediator.

The country is now involved in helping opposing sides find common ground in other difficult conflicts – in Yemen and Syria.

“They [Oman] are trying to ride the wave of this diplomatic momentum,” said Leon Goldsmith, an assistant professor at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.

On Sunday, Oman helped to secure the release of three Saudi Arabian citizens, two US citizens, and a British citizen held by Houthi rebels in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. The freed hostages were flown to Muscat.

Representatives of the rebels, including both the Houthis and members of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress, also travelled to Muscat on Sunday expecting to hold talks with the United Nations envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

Since taking over Sanaa in September last year, the rebels have been locked in combat with a range of groups, including loyalists of the internationally recognised government and southern separatists.

In March, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of countries intervened alongside pro-government forces. They pushed the rebels out of the southern city of Aden in July and have launched a ground offensive to retake Sanaa.

Oman’s mediation in Yemen sees it playing a careful – and difficult – balancing act.

The country has adopted a different position to its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, who are all part of the coalition fighting the rebels.

On September 13, Yemen’s government said it would not attend United Nations-brokered peace talks to be held in Oman unless Houthi rebels first accepted UN security council resolution 2216, which demands they lay down arms and withdraw from territory they have captured. The UN had earlier said the government had agreed to attend talks.

“I don’t think Oman will have much luck to bring the conflict parties to an agreement,” said Nadwa Al Dawsari, a Yemen expert at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy. “And this is not just about the government in exile wanting the implementation of the [security council] decision as a precondition. It is also about Houthis not showing good faith.”

Yet Oman remains one of the few regional players close enough to all sides to mediate an increasingly bitter conflict.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said has long maintained a foreign policy based on non-interference and helping parties to resolve their differences, said Younis Al Harrasi, a Muscat-based social commentator.

The country hosted talks between Iran and Iraq during their 1980-1988 war, and has also helped to promote dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Its best known diplomatic success was hosting US and Iranian officials for negotiations that led to Tehran and world powers signing a historic agreement over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme in July.

The mediation efforts are not simply a boost to Oman’s diplomatic reputation. As a country that aims to attract more tourists and become a major shipping hub, Oman has a direct stake in fostering regional stability.

“Things are going one way right now. You need to change something,” said Mr Goldsmith, commenting on the regional chaos. “[Oman] has no choice, but to play the mediator role.”

Since the Houthis pushed south from Sanaa in February, Oman has allowed hundreds of Yemenis to enter the country via land and air and provided medical treatment to the injured.

“Temporary accommodation is being provided in a variety of locations [in Mahra], including a private school, residential compound and a youth sports facility,” the United Nations said.

According to the UN, more than 500 displaced families have also fled to Yemen’s remote, eastern Mahra governorate, which borders Oman, with the number reported to be rising daily.

Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, said that the number of displaced people in Mahra posed a risk to the area’s stability.

“The tribal norms and values that Mahris hold have helped to hold society together in the absence of strong centralised security. The large influx of refugees may erode the basis of Mahra’s fragile stability,” she said.

This threat of instability in Mahra is of concern to Oman, due to the shared border and close ties between Yemenis in Mahra and Omanis on the other side of the frontier.

“People [on either side of the border] are like relatives in that area,” Mr Al Harrasi said.

“It’s a bit complicated there. [The conflict in Yemen] might affect the other side. So Oman cannot side with one side or the other. They are trying to maintain the same distance from all, which is very difficult.”

Oman’s efforts do not appear to have been entirely welcomed. Mr Al Harrasi said that while most regional powers might believe Oman’s actions are “practical”, the mediation efforts could also infringe on efforts to control the path of the conflict.

“Now, I believe there are some countries that are frustrated with the Omanis and their role,” he said.

On August 27, Riad Yassin, foreign minister in Yemen’s exiled government in Riyadh, described talks between the Houthis and UN in Oman as “consultations”.

The only deal being offered to the group, he said, was to comply with UN security council resolution 2216.

An attempt to hold talks between the government and rebels earlier this summer in Geneva failed.

Mr Goldsmith said Oman “cannot afford for Yemen to be another Syria”.

The five year war in Syria presents Oman with perhaps a greater challenge.

Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Muallem visited Oman in August for talks on resolving the conflict. Afterwards, the Saudi Arabian and Russian foreign ministers met in Moscow. But the key backers of the rebels and the regime made clear they were still at odds over how to end the conflict.

“It is still early to talk about a clear role for Oman in this,” Mr Al Harrasi said, adding that the talks in Muscat over Syria seemed to have been about exploring the various views on the conflict.

“Oman is not siding with one side or the other. But it is forcing its views on the matter, which is bringing people to the table and opening lines of communication.”