Rarely a week goes by without more depressing news concerning the Middle East. This week has witnessed two especially dramatic events, the first the killing by Houthi rebels of the Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh as he sought to flee Sana’a, and secondly President Trump’s announcement that the United States of America had decided to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. Both events were greeted with alarm and outrage in many quarters. Clearly each event will have consequences, some of which will be far reaching. Those who are concerned with the causes of conflict will pour endlessly over the details and seek to draw conclusions much in the same way that those who engaged in haruspicy did in ancient times. For most there is little sign of hope in the region at present. Opinions are so polarised that rational discussion is rare, and signs of promise such that Classical scholars might recall the words – cum mula peperit – when a mule gives birth – a rare event indeed.
Yet in all the apparent gloom there is a surprising light, albeit a small one, in the form of the Sultanate of Al Mahra and Socotra, a place that for many is aterra incognita. Though relatively poor and underdeveloped in economic terms , the local traditions and family ties have ensured a collective spirit of well-being and self-dependence that has helped the Sultanate survive against the odds. The Mahri people know something of what it is to be put upon, and yet have held fast to their identity. They are a proud and noble people, who whilst stoical in some respects, seek to protect all that they hold dear. Their indomitable spirit has helped them to survive whilst much of Yemen has imploded. Theirs is a small yet significant voice, one that deserves to be heard in a region where others only speak the language of revenge and destruction. In the quest for peace Sultan Abdullah Issa Al Afrar has been in London this last week working assiduously to articulate the concerns of the Sultanate and his people. Amongst others he met with representatives of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, DFID, Royal United Services Institute, the Arab League, the Council for Arab-British Understanding and the House of Commons. For some this was the first time to hear about the Sultanate, its aspirations, hopes and fears. Others too need to hear this story, and ensure that lessons are learned, and every effort made to help the Sultanate maintain its remarkable, if fragile peace. Whilst terrorism and the much of the horrors of war have been kept at bay, life for local residents has become increasingly difficult, a matter made worse by the fact that the usual channels of possible international assistance have been closed due to the conflict in Yemen. The Sultanate has taken in many refugees, and is itself now in desperate need of aid.
Gulf Cooperation Council countries need to be particularly sensitive of this delicate situation. It is imperative that the Emiratis and the Saudis do not seek to interfere with the veritable cordon sanitairethat is the Sultanate of Al Mahra and Socotra. Currently the Sultanate is a remarkable haven of peace, and should external forces seek a presence in this region they will almost certainly bring trouble in their wake. Thus far the Sultanate of Al Mahra and Socotra has proved an important buffer that has helped firewall Oman from the incendiary events taking place in much of Yemen. It is rightly anxious to preserve its integrity, cultural identity and its status as a haven for all those locally who seek peaceful coexistence. At least here in some respects is some positive news in an otherwise gloomy week.
Mark T. Jones