The minuscule Shiite minority of the Sultanate of Oman -100,000 out of a population of 5 million – has been thrust to the forefront of a major power play in the Gulf region, due to its unique geography.
This minority, which is made up of Al-Lawatis, Bahrainis and Ajam, who trace their origin to Iran, dwells on the Al Batinah and Muscat coasts of the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The simmering military tensions between the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Yemen civil war brought Iranian Revolutionary Guards agents to Oman to set up smuggling rings based in those locations.
They now run Iran’s main pipeline for smuggling arms to the Yemen’s Houthi insurgents.
The contraband moves into Yemen along two routes – by sea through the Socotra archipelago in the Arabian Sea, which is part of Yemen, and overland, through the next-door Yemeni Ma’rib Governate (believed to be the site of ancient Biblical Sheba).
The Omani arms route for Tehran is more important than ever since Yemeni government forces, backed by Saudi and Gulf Arab troops, secured Yemen’s coastal city of Mokha on Feb. 7. They are now heading north to Hodeidah, the main port of entry for food imports for Yemen’s 26 million inhabitants.
The Saudi-led coalition already controls a sizeable stretch of Yemen’s coast between the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and Mokha. The capture of Hodeida, 185 to the north, would choke off all of Iran’s arms and other supply lines to the Houthi rebels, leaving the Omani Shiite smuggling network as the last remaining option.
Oman’s central government has not taken action against the Revolutionary Guards machinations within its Shiite minority or interfered with the illicit arms traffic for four reasons:
1. The long illness of the ruler, Sultan Qaboos, and his virtual disappearance from public view, have weakened central government. On Feb. 15, he made a rare appearance to welcome visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the al-Alam Palace in Muscat with a 21-gun salute. That was the first time he was seen after he returned from medical treatment in Germany last year.
2. Ruling circles in Muscat disapprove of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in the Yemen civil war, especially its air strikes against civilians.
3. The Omanis are strongly against United Arab Emirates’ military operations along Yemen’s Gulf of Aden coast and the Hadhramaut region. While those operations are directed against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), it is feared in Muscat that the anti-terror operation will evolve in a move to establish a separatist state in Yemen under the influence of Abu Dhabi on Oman’s western border.
4. By historical tradition, Oman maintains stronger ties with Iran than with its Gulf Arab neighbors. Those ties were found useful by Barack Obama when he needed a regional mediator as a back-channel between Washington and Tehran for advance talks to prepare the ground for the nuclear accord concluded with Iran in 2014.