In the Arabian Peninsula, strategic borderlands tell much about Gulf monarchies’ level of disunity and how this can indirectly favour Iranian interests, in times of risky escalation among Iran, the United States and Saudi Arabia. This is the case of Mahra (Yemen) and Musandam (Oman).
As a matter of fact, the subtle but persisting rivalry between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman is not only a regional politics affair, with Abu Dhabi supporting Riyadh’s anti-Iran, anti-Qatar stances and Muscat opting for a pragmatic mediator role.
This competition has direct impact also on neighbourhood relations: the UAE is trying to enhance its geopolitical leverage in areas of traditional Omani influence and, conversely, the Sultanate works to preserve current balances, thus containing the Emirati strategic expansionism.
Recent developments in UAE-Oman relations underline this strained trend. On November 2018, Sultan Qaboos issued a Royal Decree to ban non-Omani citizens from owning agricultural land and real estate proprieties in strategic border areas, including Musandam and Dhofar (except for the port city of Salalah), plus heritage sites. This action was reportedly taken to cope with the repeated purchase by Emirati nationals of proprieties within the Omani borders, especially in Musandam and Northern Oman.
On April 2019, a new UAE spying cell, comprising of five Emiratis and one Omani citizen, was sentenced to jail in Oman: a first alleged Emirati spying cell was discovered in the Sultanate in 2011. Also the phone of the Omani minister responsible for foreign affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, was spied in 2017 by an Emirati intelligence cell.
Two porous borderlands are at the centre of the Emirati-Omani rivalry: Mahra (the most Eastern governorate of Yemen at the frontier with Oman) and Musandam (the peninsula next to Iran’s coasts which is an Omani enclave in the UAE). These territories are strategic grey areas: social fluidity, militarization and informal economy networks are not contradicting realities here.
The Iranian variable adds saliency to the picture: Tehran has direct (Musandam) and indirect (Mahra) connections to these zones. For this reason, the Islamic Republic is able to geo-strategically profit on the political fissure between Abu Dhabi and Muscat, by enhancing its -already existent- penetration in these borderlands.
According to the 2017 UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, Iranian-made missiles components delivered to the Huthis were smuggled into Yemen through Mahra region, along “the land routes from Oman or Ghayda and Nishtun in Al Mahra governorate, after ship-to-shore transhipment to small dhows”. This same route had already seen “limited seizures of anti-tank guided weapons” by the Saudi-led coalition intervening in the country. Due to the conflict in Yemen, the UAE sent troops in Mahra, a region not touched by the war nor theatre of the Huthi insurgency, in order to tackle smuggling at the Yemeni-Omani border and contain Iranian infiltrations. In late 2017, Saudi Arabia negotiated an agreement with local protesters, angered by the Emirati presence, foreseeing UAE’s troops withdrawal. But later, the Saudis replaced de facto the Emiratis on the ground.
Oman looks with worrying and mistrust at the Emirati-Saudi military build-up in Mahra, with Saudi-run check-points now located also in coastal areas and Saudi-backed Salafi preachers from Dammaj (Saada region) active through the governorate. Mahra is traditionally an Omani area of influence, with Mahri and Dhofari tribes shaping a cultural and linguistic ecosystem despite the political frontier humanitarian aid, double citizenship and patronage are the traditional vectors of Muscat’s border leverage.
In Musandam (Oman), the Southern and Arabian side of the Hormuz strait, Khasab port is the epicentre of smuggling with Tehran since 1979, although hosting many Oman’s military outposts. As for fishing boats, dhows (small boats) led by Iranians arrive daily with goods from Southern Iran, especially through the island of Qeshm, leaving in the evening the Omani shores with goods in some cases shipped from Dubai. The local government of Musandam has regulated the activity, collecting commercial taxes, organizing deliveries and thus institutionalizing this informal practice which is not illegal for Muscat. Historically, trade and intermarriage unite this Omani peninsula with the Iranian Southern coast, as the Kumzari dialect, a syncretic language mixing Farsi, Arabic, Portuguese and Hindi still spoken in Musandam and in the neighbouring Iranian islands.
In reaction to the surge of Emirati purchase of land and properties in Musandam, the Royal Decree issued by Oman includes the duty to sell them by November 2020, otherwise they will be confiscated by Oman’s authorities. Moreover, the Sultanate has just granted a licence to Marafi Asyad, the national port management company, to operate both the Khasab and Shinas ports in Musandam, with the purpose to invest in the international, touristic development of these infrastructures, protecting them, at the same time, from foreign operators’ interests. As a matter of fact, overland crossings around Musandam all border with the UAE: Wadi Sham (west, Ras al-Khaimah emirate), Dibba (east, Fujairah emirate) and Wadi Bih (south, Ras al-Khaimah emirate in the Hajjar mountains).
Tribes in Musandam have cultural, family and economic linkages with the Emirates and show differences with the Omani mainland in terms of religion (with a significant presence here of Sunni and Shia communities beyond the national predominant Ibadi sect). The Shuhuh tribe spreads across both the UAE and Oman: the Internal Security Services of the Sultanate summoned and/or detained tens of its members in latest years for “national security” reasons. Omani-Emirati borders were officially demarcated only in 2008.
The rivalry between the UAE and Oman opens new spaces for further Iranian interferences in the Arabian Peninsula: this affects borderlands, as Mahra and Musandam, which are strategic and already exposed to Iran’s direct or indirect external penetration. In Mahra, still a significant route for arms delivery to the Huthis, Tehran may capitalize on an increasing divided social fabric (although populated by Sunnis), with Emiratis, Saudis and Omanis vying for patronage vis-à-vis local tribes who are willing, instead, to preserve political, security autonomy and have historically lean on smuggling to support local communities. In Musandam, smuggling activities have declined since 2015 due to the Iranian nuclear deal and the partial removal of sanctions against Tehran’s economy: this means the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is likely to foster a resurgence of informal, Iranian-linked economic activities in the area.
Recent skirmishes between the Emiratis and the Omanis have also a cultural side, with popular-debated disputes on the origins of the al-Azi sung poetry, the typical dagger (khanjar) and the geographical belonging of the same Musandam. But if we look at borderlands, the strategic implications of Abu Dhabi and Muscat’s divergent paths are already present and may become critical in the medium-long term: they weaken a lot Gulf monarchies security with respect to Iran, contributing to erode what remains of the Gulf Cooperation Council region, in times of regional showdown.