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How important will Oman’s mediation be in solving the Yemen conflict?
Yemen war up to now
Yemen’s territory, after almost nine years of war, is divided among three major players: the internationally recognized government, Houthi rebels, and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). Recent talks in the capital city of Sanaa have led to a growing optimism for peace, with the Saudi-backed government controlling approximately 55% of the country, the Houthis holding about 25%, and the STC controlling about 20%. This results in an estimated total of 550,000 square kilometers (about 212,000 sq miles).
Despite holding only a quarter of the country’s land, the Houthi-controlled areas include most of the population centers in the north, where roughly half of Yemen’s 32 million inhabitants reside. In contrast, the Saudi-backed government controls the country’s oil and gas fields in the southern provinces of Marib and Hadhramaut, while the STC, supported by the UAE, controls Aden, the southern economic capital.
Vital institutions, including the UN country headquarters and telecommunications and internet companies, are located in the capital, which is held by the Houthis. Sanaa also recently hosted talks mediated by Oman between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, following a thaw in relations between Riyadh and Tehran last month.
Yemen’s Information Minister, Moammar al-Eryani, has expressed hope for restoring peace, citing a more favorable atmosphere than ever before.
In what is an important step forward in increasing chances of productive peace negotiations in Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia have re-established official diplomatic ties.
On Wednesday, an Iranian delegation arrived in Saudi Arabia to initiate the process of re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries, which split acrimoniously seven years ago. As part of this process, the main gate of the Iranian embassy in Riyadh was opened for the first time in seven years, allowing the Iranian team to inspect the premises, according to a Reuters report.
In a statement, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Nasser Kanaani announced that the delegation would be taking the necessary steps to set up the embassy and consulate general in Riyadh and Jeddah.
After a historic meeting between the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia in China, during which they pledged to bring stability to the turbulent region, a Saudi delegation visited Tehran. Shortly after, an Iranian delegation arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday to reopen the Iranian embassy and consulate, following a recent agreement between the two countries, according to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
One team of the delegation is scheduled to travel to Jeddah to prepare for the reopening of Iran’s consulate and its representation in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, while the other will stay in Riyadh to reopen the embassy. According to Tehran, Saudi Arabia has invited Iran’s President, Ebrahim Raisi, to visit the country, marking the first such visit since Mohammad Khatami’s in 1999.
Saudi Arabia, which has previously supported opposing sides in conflicts around the Middle East, is negotiating with Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels as contacts between Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to grow. This comes eight years after launching a military intervention aimed at removing the Huthi rebels from power in its impoverished neighbor.
Despite this, doubts have remained on whether this alone could be enough to establish peace in Yemen.
Oman’s mediation could be the game-changer in taking a positive climate in Yemen and transforming it into real results as a result of negotiations.
Wracked as it is by the conflict, Yemen represents for Oman both a humanitarian burden and a security challenge. Humanitarian problems have spilled over into Oman as Yemen’s conflict, which has led to hundreds of thousands of people being killed and wounded, and which has caused one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, with 17 million people currently suffering from food insecurity and a lack of basic services that are compounded by the country’s damaged infrastructure. Oman has also felt Yemen’s deepening humanitarian crisis, given that the two countries share a nearly 300-kilometer border, and that Oman has been one of the few countries that has kept its doors open for Yemenis.
Over the course of the conflict, thousands of Yemeni refugees have fled to Oman, and Yemenis injured in the conflict have been able to take advantage of the medical care that Oman has been providing them free of charge. With the number of internally displaced people in Yemen now standing at 4.5 million, Yemen is a potential source for an influx of refugees into Oman, which would certainly weigh heavily on the sultanate’s economy and drain its ability to provide various services.
A meeting between Saudi and Omani delegations with Houthi representatives in Sanaa on April 9 has generated some cautious optimism that the ongoing conflict in Yemen may be coming to an end after more than eight years of warfare. Although details of the pending agreement remain undisclosed, sources suggest that it could include a six-month ceasefire, the reopening of borders and ports, payment of salaries to Yemenis across the country, reparation and compensation measures, and the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Yemen before a political process begins. Oman’s mediation efforts in the conflict have been critical in achieving a negotiated solution, as the only GCC member that declined to participate in military operations in Yemen.
Oman has facilitated discussions between representatives of different Yemeni factions, as well as Saudi, Iranian, Russian, and American diplomats, and United Nations officials, making it a vital balancing role in the Arabian Peninsula. Oman’s peace initiative in the early stages of the conflict has been appreciated by the Yemeni public, who view the country positively as a peacemaker. Oman’s role in Yemen has been instrumental in enabling Saudi Arabia to pursue a peaceful exit from the country, with the Crown Prince and Prime Minister focused on developing the kingdom and making Vision 2030 a success.