Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrived in Oman yesterday to meet with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. Among other things, the two are discussing the war in Yemen and Iranian arms trafficking through Omani territory to Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Since the Yemeni conflict broke out in 2015, U.S. warships have intercepted several Iranian weapons shipments intended for the Houthis. Likewise, the Saudi-led coalition opposing the Houthis has worked to disrupt Iran’s maritime supply routes along Yemen’s western coastline, near Houthi-controlled territory.
In addition to sea transfers, Reuters reported in 2016 that much of Iran’s arms smuggling into Yemen occurs through overland routes from Oman. Indeed, in September of that year, allies of Yemen’s government found weapons intended for the Houthis on trucks with Omani license plates. The shipments via Oman have included anti-ship missiles, surface-to-surface short-range missiles, small arms, and explosives. All shipments of weapons to the Houthis are violations of the UN Security Council arms embargo imposed in April 2015.
Oman’s Dhofar province and Yemen’s Mahrah province share a 288-km long – and porous – border. Saudi and Yemeni officials suspect that weapons have been stored at the Salalah airport in Dhofar and on small islands off the coast, and then are smuggled into the Shahan district in Mahrah. There is no evidence of Omani authorities assisting Tehran in its weapons smuggling, although Saudi and Yemeni officials believe Muscat has overlooked pro-Houthi activity in Dhofar.
U.S. officials have also conveyed their concerns to Omani authorities. Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi, however, denies there is any arms smuggling: “There is no truth to this. No weapons have crossed our border and we are ready to clarify any suspicions if they arise.”
However, Oman has a history of lax enforcement. When Iran was under severe sanctions prior to the 2015 nuclear deal, Omanis living in the coastal town of Khasab were known to ferry goods across the Strait of Hormuz to the Iranian island of Qeshm. Omani authorities were aware of the issue but reportedly feared hurting the local economy. Today, Oman’s trade in the area along its border with Yemen is growing, and Omani authorities are trying to balance securing the border without disrupting the new growth.
Oman has cultivated a reputation as a neutral mediator of conflicts in the region. Following the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), it mediated talks to restore ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. During the Obama administration, Oman served as a back channel for nuclear negotiations with Iran. Since the Yemen conflict began, Oman has negotiated the release of hostages and is now set to host a new round of talks to find a “peaceful and political solution to the conflict.
It will be important for Secretary Mattis to convey U.S. concerns about Iranian weapons travelling through Oman and to pressure Sultan Qaboos to launch a vigorous effort to halt them. Neutrality is acceptable, but not at the expense of illegal arms trafficking. The key now is for Washington and Muscat to work together to monitor the waters near Dhofar and the popular land transit routes. Only when the Houthis stop receiving Iranian weapons will Oman have a chance to facilitate a “peaceful and political solution” to the war in Yemen.
Nicole Salter is a project manager at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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