On 11 June 2021, the Omani Royal Office delegation left Sanaa after a visit, the first in years, that lasted for a week, during which it held intensive talks with the leader of the Houthi group, the head of its political council, and other Houthi political and military officials. While the results of the visit have yet to be announced, it did hold some indications of possible progress in diplomatic efforts to stop the war in Yemen.
This paper sheds more light on that visit, discusses its dimensions and implications at this time, and the results that it may have resulted in regarding the course of settling the conflict in Yemen.
Objectives of the visit
The Omani delegation, which arrived at Sanaa airport on 5 June 2021 on a plane belonging to the Royal Air Force of Oman, included representatives of the Royal Office and the agencies that oversee the Yemeni file in Muscat. According to the official spokesman for the Houthi group Mohammad Abdul-Salam, who accompanied the delegation, the visit aimed to advance peace efforts and “discuss the situation in Yemen on the basis of the principle of good neighbourliness and common interests”, noting upon the delegation’s departure that his group provided the delegation with a possible vision to end what he describes as "aggression and lifting the siege imposed on Yemen, starting with the humanitarian operation", and that this perception "focused on the humanitarian operation and the subsequent steps it requires that lead to security and stability in Yemen and neighbouring countries". A few days before this visit, the Omani Foreign Minister Badr Al Busaidi, whose country is at the forefront of the mediation efforts, had announced that "the path to a political solution to the Yemeni crisis passes through the gateway to the ceasefire and the flow of humanitarian aid".
The visit included a remarkable development in the Omani approach to mediate a solution to the Yemeni crisis, as the Sultanate is exploring other avenues to exercise its influence on the Houthis, by going to convince their leadership in Sanaa instead of simply hosting their delegation and providing facilities for consultations, in a move that may mean that Omanis have received a green signal from Iran that they can play this role. On the other hand, this move confirms that there is consensus between Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate on such a role, which means that Riyadh is increasingly convinced of the importance of the role that Muscat plays in resolving the Yemeni dilemma. While the visit contributes to reducing the international isolation of the Houthi group, there are those who believe that it brought signs of a partial breakthrough in the negotiating track, which has witnessed a major blockage in the past weeks, due to the Houthis’ continued rejection of the peace deal promoted by the UN envoy Martin Griffiths and the US envoy Tim Lenderking to Yemen.
The Omani delegation has sought to resolve the core points of contention that form the cornerstones of the UN peace plan, namely a ceasefire (which includes stopping the Houthi attack on Marib and their attacks on Saudi Arabia), the opening of Sanaa airport and the port of Hodeidah, and preparations for the resumption of political negotiations. The official media of the Houthis, or even the Omanis, did not announce the backstage details of the talks that the delegation held in Sanaa, with the exception of some Houthi leaks that “the Omani side discussed guarantees provided by the Sultanate for solutions on the table to resolve the Yemeni crisis” (Sputnik, 6 June 2021). It is estimated that those guarantees are focused on alleviating the Houthis’ suspicions and pretexts that the coalition may back down from any steps to lift the so-called “siege” or exercise other restrictions such as determining permitted destinations for air navigation, for example. On the other hand, it is likely that the Omani side sought to obtain the approval and confirmation of the group’s leadership of its serious engagement in peace and ceasefire consultations, in the event that some arrangements have already been made to lift or ease the “siege” by lifting the ban imposed on Sanaa airport and the port of Hodeidah, which the group insists are humanitarian entitlements that should not be linked to any ceasefire agreement.
Dimensions and significance of the visit
The visit of the Omani delegation enjoyed the support and encouragement of Washington, and it came at the request of Tim Lenderking, the US envoy to Yemen, according to a Western source who spoke to Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper on 7 June 2021. It was preceded on 6 June 2021 by a phone call between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his Omani counterpart Badr Al Busaidi, and a statement by the US State Department in which it was mentioned that the Houthis bear "a great responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully in the ceasefire and to take steps to resolve the conflict", noting that they "continue their devastating attack on Marib, which is condemned by the international community and leaves them increasingly isolated". Thus, the foregoing suggests that the US is running out of patience with the Houthi manoeuvres, and thus relies on the Omani mediator to achieve a breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis through the gateway to humanitarian arrangements.
What reinforces the fact that Washington is increasingly reliant on mediators such as the Sultanate of Oman and the State of Kuwait in its quest to achieve a breakthrough in the Yemeni file is that the Omani delegation’s visit to Sanaa coincided with a visit by the Minister of Foreign Affairs in President Hadi’s government Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak to Muscat, during which he met with many Omanis and Gulf officials, and also took place in conjunction with President Hadi’s receipt of a message from the Emir of the State of Kuwait, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, through the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister, who visited Riyadh on 5 June 2021. However, since the US expects the Houthis to continue to miscalculate the moves it is taking, including pressure on Saudi Arabia, to stop the war in Yemen, Washington took some pressure steps on the group in conjunction with the Omani delegation’s visit to Sanaa. The US announced on 10 June 2021 that sanctions were imposed on a financing network of 12 individuals and entities, which it said was working with the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), in favour of the Houthis, in what observers considered as an indication of the Omanis' failure to persuade the group to accept the UN plan. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken renewed the call for the Houthis to accept a nationwide ceasefire and to resume talks aimed at a political settlement to end the war, stressing that his country "will continue to apply pressure on the Houthis, including through targeted sanctions, to advance those goals".
In conjunction with this visit, it was remarkable that the (outgoing) UN envoy Martin Griffiths headed to Tehran, on 8 June 2021, to take advantage of the diplomatic momentum given by the Biden administration to the Yemeni file. Griffiths aimed to push Iran to exert its influence on the Houthis to urge them to positively deal with the ideas of the Omani side and seize the opportunity to reach an agreement that establishes a comprehensive solution. On the same day, Hassan Erlo, who was appointed as Tehran's ambassador to the Houthis, discussed with the foreign minister of the group’s government, which is not internationally recognised, Hisham Sharaf, "the developments of regional and international moves towards peace and political settlement in Yemen", according to the Houthi Saba Agency. However, there is no indication of a real change in the Iranian position. During his meeting with the UN envoy, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated his country's affirmation of a political solution in Yemen, stressing the "necessity of lifting the siege and facilitating the provision of humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people", according to a statement issued by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
What has the Omani delegation achieved during the visit?
Despite the great optimism that accompanied the Omani delegation’s visit and the many hopes that were attached to it and the speculation about the successes and results that it might have achieved, many signs indicate that the Omani delegation did not make remarkable progress in its endeavour to displace the Houthis from their previous positions. Indeed, the delegation’s arrival at their home may have made them gain increased confidence in the possibility of obtaining more concessions from their opponents, leading to the latter's acquiescence to their requirements, foremost of which being the lifting of the "siege" on them without conditions.
In addition to the increasing military escalation by the Houthis, especially towards Marib, which they targeted with two separate missile attacks, considered the worst since the beginning of the year on residential neighbourhoods, during which dozens of people were killed and wounded, most of them civilians, an escalation that gave a general impression of their indifference to peace efforts, the Supreme Political Council of the Houthis, in a meeting on 9 June 2021, reiterated that "opening Sanaa airport and the port of Hodeidah is a simple humanitarian entitlement that is not considered a blessing from anyone, but rather a gain of the steadfastness of the Yemeni people", stressing what it considered "three basic principles that cannnot be deviated from in any upcoming discussions, namely lifting the siege, stopping the aggression by air, land and sea and ending the occupation, the exit of foreign forces, and non-interference in the internal affairs of Yemen”.
However, it is difficult to say that the Omani delegation completely failed in its endeavour. There are those who believe that the delegation, despite carrying a green light from the international community, the coalition and Iran, may have clashed with the existence of matters and conditions on the ground that were not arranged internationally and regionally. Therefore, it will continue its efforts from Muscat by conducting extensive discussions on the guarantees required for the maturation of some understandings, which will take time to reach. These could likely include the announcement by the Houthis’ opponents of the lifting of restrictions on Sanaa airport and the port of Hodeidah, followed by a gradual reduction of the military escalation by all parties, especially the Houthis, for a limited period in preparation for everyone’s declaration of commitment to a comprehensive ceasefire and setting a date for the launch of consultations under the auspices of the United Nations. What supports the hypothesis that the Omanis would be able to achieve a breakthrough in this path is the statement by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the government of President Hadi Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak that there is progress in the talks on a ceasefire.
However, any talk of an imminent political solution in Yemen remains optimism that is not yet based on decisive facts, and the most that the Omani delegation can achieve would be in the humanitarian file at best, at least in light of the available data.
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