Oman takes on ambitious mediator role in Yemen conflict

Oman, long perceived as a neutral party in the Middle East, has spent the past few weeks attempting to get Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Houthi rebels to the negotiating table.

The aim is ambitious – to end the war in Yemen, or at least Riyadh’s involvement in it, which began in March 2015 in support of the Yemeni government.If reports are to be believed, the mediators may be close to success, and Saudi Arabia and the Iran-allied Houthis are “thrashing out terms for a peace deal”. Yet, despite Omani attempts, that may be wishful thinking.

“The bad news is that this hasn’t yet closed the gap between the Houthis’ and the Saudis’ positions. Until that happens, we won’t see much movement.”

The positions of both sides have moved little since a Saudi offer of a nationwide ceasefire in Yemen was rejected by the Houthis in March.

The Houthis say elements of that offer, such as the reopening of Sanaa’s airport and unhindered access to Hodeidah port, where the majority of Yemen’s food is imported, should be unconditional.

“After that, we will discuss a comprehensive ceasefire which should be a real halt of hostilities, not a fragile truce, and that would include the exit of foreign powers from Yemen to facilitate political negotiations,” Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthi spokesman, told Reuters news agency on June 21.

Those terms are difficult for the Saudis to accept, and despite six years of a costly war that have brought little success, Riyadh is unlikely to be willing to abandon Yemen with few guarantees over its own security, and with an ally of its greatest regional adversary, Iran, entrenched on its southern border.

“Until now the Saudis have wanted iron-clad guarantees on border security and Iranian influence in Yemen, and have wanted to have an ally play an influential role in politics going forward,” said Salisbury.

“That position may have moderated a bit, but ending the war with only, say, a deal on the border and nothing else, would be a bitter pill to swallow.”

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