Oman’s involvement in Yemen comes under scrutiny

It is unclear why Oman is trying to reconcile factions at war with the Saudi-led coalition.
Sunday 18/02/2018
Former Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi (L), Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah (C) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend the Tehran Security Conference, on January 8.  (AFP)
Falling in line. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi (L), Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah (C) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend the Tehran Security Conference, on January 8. (AFP)

LONDON - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an official state visit to Oman in what was seen as an attempt by the sultanate to consolidate strategic alliances outside the Gulf region, where it has come under increased scrutiny for its foreign policy.

New Delhi and Muscat signed eight deals during the visit, including on judicial and military cooperation. The two countries also agreed to hold joint military exercises, a day after India announced it would have its first naval exercises with the United Arab Emirates, another member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

India and Oman said the countries expressed satisfaction over the state of bilateral relations, “especially the robust security and defence cooperation” and agreed to further expand cooperation to new areas, including space, cyber-security, energy security, renewable energy and food security.

The strategic outreach by Muscat comes as it faces scrutiny over its involvement with the war in Yemen. Oman was accused of attempting to organise mediation talks between the Houthis — the rebels fighting in Yemen — and the General People’s Congress (GPC) party.

Oman would host a new round of consultations between the Iran-allied Houthis and the party of the late former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Muscat once the new UN special envoy to Yemen arrives, reports said. The reports, based on comments attributed to outgoing UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, were denied by a high-ranking GPC leader.

The unidentified GPC leader said the plans were an Omani attempt to reconcile the two sides.

Muscat is said to have encouraged leaders from the GPC and the Iran-allied Houthi militia to make peace after clashes between the two sides in December resulted in the killing of Saleh and GPC Secretary-General Aref al-Zouka.

Oman’s mediation efforts reportedly secured the release of most GPC leaders detained by the Houthis but were unable to reach an agreement on the release of some of Saleh’s family members.

Oman is also said to have tried to convince the Iran-backed militia to release two of Saleh’s sons, with the remaining two to be released later but the proposal was rejected by the GPC, which demanded the release of all detainees before discussions could begin.

It is unclear why Oman is trying to reconcile factions at war with the Saudi-led coalition.

Muscat has previously faced criticism for its position regarding the war in Yemen.

In September 2016, weapons smuggled through Oman, allegedly meant for Houthi rebels, were intercepted in Yemen, a report in the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat said. Marib Governor Sultan al-Arada told the publication that an attempt in August 2016 to smuggle weapons and explosives from the Hadramawt region to Sana’a had also been foiled. The armaments were reportedly discovered in trucks with Omani licence plates.

“Arada did not confirm an external link to that shipment, indicating that the trucks were carrying Omani licence plates but it was not possible to confirm any Omani authorities’ connection to that,” Al-Hayat reported.

As the war in Yemen continues, the possibility of both Saudi Arabia and the United States exerting further pressure on Oman is highly likely, analysts said.

“Houthi militias have shot ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, including against Riyadh’s international airport. The Trump administration believes that Iran smuggled these missiles to the Houthis and, while it has not openly accused Oman of involvement in the transfer, clouds are beginning to form over the relationship,” wrote Jay Solomon of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Gulf countries are increasingly being forced to take sides in the Saudi-Iranian dispute,” a senior US official told Solomon. “Oman is not exempted.”

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