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A neighbourly matter
Published in Ahram Online on 13 - 07 - 2021

On his first foreign trip since his enthronement last year, the Sultan of Oman Haitham Bin Tariq Al-Said landed in Neom – northwest of Saudi Arabia – on Sunday. This is also the first visit by an Omani ruler to Saudi Arabia in many years.
All official announcements about the two-day visit focused on consolidating cooperation between the two Gulf neighbours, especially on the economic front. Yet the significance of the visit and the talks concern hot regional issues, with Yemen topping the list.
Both Saudi Arabia and Oman share borders with Yemen, and Oman recently actively joined the UN-sponsored efforts to settle the Yemen conflict and end the six year-long war. Friendly relations between Oman and Iran give the Sultanate some edge to claim it is at an equal distance from all parties.
Western observers following Gulf developments see the visit as a symbolic move that Oman is resuming its activities – after a transition period following the death of late Sultan Qaboos Bin Said last year – mainly as a neutral regional mediator that keeps out of conflicts. But it also indicates the new approach by Oman to face its internal economic hardships. Recently, the Sultanate witnessed demonstrations protesting rising unemployment among young Omanis. The Coronavirus pandemic exacerbated debt and budget deficit problems. Trade and investment agreements with the biggest economy in the region, as announced during Sultan's visit and talks with King Salman and his Crown Prince, could alleviate some of these burdens.
Since the oil price crash of 2014, Oman's debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio has leapt from about 15 per cent in 2015 to 80 per cent last year, while Oman's plans to diversify revenue away from oil and reduce spending on its bloated public sector have made slow progress, according to a Bloomberg report.
But the pressing regional issue of the Yemen war is of great concern for both Riyadh and Muscat. The Houthi militia continues to attack southern Saudi cities and towns, using armed drones and ballistic missiles. Almost every day, Saudi defences intercept and destroy a projectile from the south. Inside Yemen, the fighting is claiming more lives and impoverishing an already devastated population.
On the day Sultan Haitham started his Saudi visit, the Houthi militias carried out a rare missile strike on a southern region that has seen renewed infighting between forces allied to a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The attack on a military base in Abyan took place while the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) both amass fighters in the area and Riyadh moves to ease tensions.
This is in addition to the ongoing Houthi assault on gas-rich Marib, the northern region not under their control. Whether the Abyan attack is meant to further complicate Saudi efforts to bring its allies together or just pull the forces of the legitimate government away from Marib is not clear. But it further complicates the international endeavour to stop the war in Yemen.
The STC is wary of Hadi's government as it includes the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Islah Party. The ultimate aspiration of the STC is to control southern Yemen in any form to be agreed on in a final settlement of the crisis. The southerners worked well with Emirati forces within the Saudi-led coalition until the UAE withdrew its forces from Yemen in 2019.
"Militarily, the Saudis need the UAE to push the Houthis to the north of Yemen. Politically, they need the Omanis for their friendly relations with Iran and their interest in ending the war on their border," as one veteran British commentator close to the region told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that the Saudis are now parting ways with the UAE on certain issues, and Oman might be poised to fill this void.
One remarkable regional development in the Gulf in recent weeks has been the Emirati stance within OPEC, which is in contradiction to the Saudi position, which some have seen as going beyond economic differences. Saudi Arabia didn't join the Abraham Accords, normalising relations with Israel as the UAE and Bahrain did last year. Oman was believed to be the next Gulf country in line to do so, but its Foreign Minister Sayid Badr Bin Hamad Al Busaidi told the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that his country would not be the third Gulf nation to normalise relations with Israel even though it supports the Abraham Accords.
The Israeli media floated the suggestion that Muscat might be hosting Iran-Saudi talks, and not only mediating the Yemen crisis. The Israeli daily The Times of Israel reported concerns that any Omani-sponsored rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran might not be in the interest of Israel. It referred to a previous meeting in Baghdad as mainly focusing on Yemen, but talks in Oman would be on broader issues.
Yet few observers are optimistic about the Omani role in ending the war in Yemen. The Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames told the Weekly that nothing much is expected of Omani mediation. Alkhames added that the problem with the Houthi militia is Iranian support which creates conditions prior to any possible peace talks. "Neither Oman nor any others will be able to achieve a breakthrough in settling the Yemeni conflict peacefully as long as Houthis see no need to compromise. They think they are in a better position and are not accepting negotiations."
While US-Iran talks in Vienna are ongoing and Washington plans on re-joining the nuclear deal, the Arab Gulf countries might be seeking their own route to a new chapter in relations with Iran. That would be the first step in sorting out the Yemen crisis and similar issues in the region where Iran and its proxies are involved. As the British commentator put it, "An Iranian president leaning to the right might be the person to make peace with Gulf neighbours. Look to Israel for example: leftist governments always 'talked' about peace with Arab countries, but it was always Likud governments that 'made' it."
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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