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Yemen's Houthis 'disappointed' by Netanyahu's visit to Oman

Oman is a key regional ally for the Houthis, but will Benjamin Netanyahu's surprise trip to Muscat affect that relationship?
The Houthi rebel group's slogan includes calls for 'death to America' and 'death to Israel' (AFP/File photo)

TAIZ, Yemen – Oman has walked a tightrope since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen to root out the country’s Houthi rebel group in 2015.

On one hand, it considers itself a friend to Riyadh. On the other, it has played host to much of the Houthi leadership currently battling the coalition.

The Saudis accuse Oman of allowing the Houthis to smuggle Iranian weapons through the country, and whether or not that's true, the Yemeni rebels certainly consider Muscat a close ally.

That's why last week's visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Muscat, where he met with Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said, has left the Houthis in a difficult position.

And while the Houthi leadership has kept silent on the surprise trip - the first time an Israeli leader has gone to Oman since 1996 - other members of the group have described the meeting as “disappointing”.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the Houthis’ revolutionary committees, condemned Netanyahu’s visit on Twitter, saying it aims "to isolate Oman from any further positive role in the future with its allies and friends (Houthis)".

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Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthis’ political and consultative councils, said the group doesn’t necessarily agree with all the policies of governments it is aligned with. The Houthis also “do not take responsibility” for the positions of allied governments, and vice versa, he said on Twitter.

In this case, al-Bukhaiti said Netanyahu’s meeting with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos was “very disappointing” and “absolutely unjustified”.

He said the Israeli leader’s visit is an attempt to stop Oman from playing “any pivotal role” in the region.

Still, al-Bukhaiti said the Houthis - who's slogan is, "God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam" - would not end their relationship with Muscat over the episode.

"We retain the right to condemn any steps towards normalisation with Israel by any Arab government even if it is the Sultanate of Oman," he wrote.

Friendly relations with Oman

The Houthis have a range of ties to Oman. Some Houthi leaders have been living in the Gulf country, and it remains a place from which members of the rebel group can seek medical treatment or travel further abroad.

Oman has also served as mediator on several issues between the Houthis and other parties. For instance, earlier this month, Oman helped reach a deal to release a French national who had been detained by the Houthis in Sanaa.

Back in Yemen, while some Houthi supporters said the rebel group is powerless to respond to Netanyahu’s Oman visit, others condemned the Houthi leadership for staying silent.

The silence amid the normalisation with Israel, by a country where some (Houthi) leaders live, is shameful

-Maher, Houthi supporter

Maher, a Houthi supporter in Sanaa who only gave MEE his first name, said he wanted Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi to speak out.

“After every major development in the area, we used to hear a speech by Sir Abdul Malik," Maher said.

"Although this is a very major development with an ally country and we should know the reaction of our leadership, we did not hear anything.”

Still, he admitted that the Houthis are in a tough spot because they cannot condemn Oman outright since the country remains one of the group’s key regional allies.

"I hope (al-Houthi) will talk soon because the silence amid the normalisation with Israel, by a country where some (Houthi) leaders live, is shameful."

Houthis more politically minded

A Houthi leader, speaking to MEE on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media, said the group “definitely condemns” any Muslim country that normalises ties to Israel.

However, that doesn't mean the Houthis will cut off its relationship with such countries, the official said.

“It is not our business to tell our allies what they (should) do and what they (shouldn’t),” the leader said.

Mohammed Ali, a Yemeni journalist based in Taiz, said it’s normal for Arab countries to pursue their own interests in their relationships with the United States and Israel.

However, he criticised the Houthis for accepting Oman’s decision to normalise ties to Israel. "If Netanyahu’s visit was to Saudi Arabia or another Gulf country, the Houthis would be criticising (it) and launching a strong campaign against that country,” Ali told MEE.

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The reason the Houthis aren’t raising a fuss, he said, is that they don’t want to lose their alliance with Oman.

The Houthis have also evolved from their start as a religious group that vowed to fight Israel and the US at all costs, to a more politically minded organisation.

Today, the Houthis are “a political group (that) understands the concept of political interests”, Ali said.

"This is a good development for the group and it is an indication that there may be a peaceful solution with the Houthis.”