Yemen will be the yardstick against which the unexpected rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be measured. The agreement sponsored by China, which served to reopen diplomatic channels that have been closed since 2016, will have its first litmus test in this punished Gulf country: facilitating a peace agreement that will put an end to a proxy war in which both have been immersed for the past eight years. Yemen is currently experiencing the greatest humanitarian crisis on the planet, caused by a conflict that has claimed nearly half a million lives. The two regional powers, still vying for hegemony in the Islamic world, hold the key to finding a political solution.
"The situation [in Yemen] is fragile, but it continues on a positive trend," said the UN secretary general's spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, when asked at a press conference about the picture of the week, in which Chinese diplomatic chief Wang Yi, Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani and Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban were posing. They had signed the surprise reopening of their respective embassies. "We hope that this agreement will have a positive impact on this situation and others," Dujarric said, referring to Yemen.
In 2014, the Gulf country was plunged into a bloody civil war following an armed uprising by the Ansar Allah militia against the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi. The Zaydi Shiite group, with a long history of insurgency and under the orbit of Iran, managed to seize control of the capital, Sana'a, and oust the government in early 2015. Months later, a Saudi-led international coalition, backed politically and logistically by the United States, intervened with an intense bombing campaign on Houthi-controlled areas. The air strikes aggravated Yemen's isolation.
China’s top diplomat Wang Yi: The fate of Middle East should be laid in the hands of the people of Middle East nations. pic.twitter.com/kqgcOYe2he— Zhang Meifang张美芳 (@CGMeifangZhang) March 10, 2023
Iran, for its part, sought to take advantage of the uprisings in Saudi Arabia's 'backyard' to destabilise its regional nemesis. To this end, it chartered vessels to cross the Red Sea loaded with rifles, missiles and drones bound for Yemen. The Revolutionary Guards armed their Houthi partners to the teeth to further their territorial advances, according to UN expert reports. But the Ayatollah regime has persistently denied these allegations.
Yemeni insurgents used the material to attack strategic infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. They have also claimed attacks against the United Arab Emirates, although Abu Dhabi has never acknowledged them. The last such offensive took place in March 2022, when a missile struck a Saudi Aramco oil production plant in Jeddah, temporarily shutting down half of its crude oil production. On the same day, the country's second largest city was hosting the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Smoke could be seen from the curves of the circuit.
Iran wants to bury the hatchet. The Islamic Republic's mission to the United Nations expressed optimism about reaching a political solution to the war in Yemen. The head of Persian diplomacy, Hossein Amirabdollahian, assured Tehran's backing for intra-Yemeni talks in a meeting with the UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg. The problem is that some Ansar Allah militants have broken away from their orbit following the latest ceasefire agreement.
The bulk of the group, however, welcomed the news from Beijing of the rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran. "The region needs the return of normal relations between its countries, through which Islamic society can regain its lost security as a result of foreign interventions, led by the Zionists and the Americans," said one of the Houthi negotiators, Mohamed Abdulsalam.
Riyadh is primarily interested in ending a conflict in which it has made little progress. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan made it clear that his priority is a ceasefire. While Saudi Arabia's prime minister and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, who was once the main promoter of the intervention in Yemen, has recently verbalised plans to develop a series of multi-billion-dollar tourism projects on the Red Sea, which would be totally incompatible with an active war on the Wahhabi kingdom's southern border.
"The test for the current Saudi-Houthi rapprochement is Yemen, given Iran's role on Saudi Arabia's immediate borders and access to the Red Sea," Ibrahim Jalal tells this newspaper. "The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, as far as Yemen is concerned, includes an important attempt to address the regional angle of the conflict, but much remains to be done given the multifaceted nature of the conflict eight years on," the non-resident Middle East Institute (MEI) researcher qualifies.
"Not only in Yemen, but also in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon: all have suffered the consequences of Saudi-Iranian antagonism. Hopefully the normalisation of relations will lead to progress towards peace and political stability," notes analyst Annelle Sheline in conversation with Atalayar. "However, it is important not to overstate the implications for Yemen. This conflict is not a proxy war. Even if Tehran were to withdraw its support, the Houthis would not disappear; they are an indigenous movement that originated decades before the war".
The ceasefire agreement agreed in April last year, on the eve of Ramadan, expired in October. The Houthis' maximalist positions collapsed a truce that had given some breathing space to the civilian population. Riyadh relented with the lifting of the blockade on the port of Al Hudayda, vital for the arrival of oil and humanitarian aid, and the reopening of Sana'a's international airport. But the Houthis' demands to extend the ceasefire also included paying the salaries of the workers of the self-styled National Salvation Government, based in Sana'a, and of the soldiers in the areas under their control, who have not been paid since 2016. In other words, to fund the forces they are fighting.
Negotiations continue unabated in the Omani capital of Muscat and appear to be moving towards a mutually beneficial agreement. Despite the lack of full understanding, large-scale clashes have not recurred. This is why, among other issues, the rapprochement in Beijing between Riyadh and Tehran generated some optimism among interlocutors, as it could provide the final push.
Sheline qualifies that Saudi-Iranian normalisation will not make things worse in Yemen, and could even have "a positive effect". "Until now, Washington and Riyadh have been frustrated because they had very little leverage over the Houthis. But now, under the Iran-Saudi agreement, if the Houthis and Riyadh come to an agreement, Tehran is likely to put pressure on the Yemeni rebels to comply," explains the Quincy Institute's Middle East researcher.
Jalal agrees that "the Saudis are very likely to expect the Iranians to exert some pressure on the Houthis to renew and extend the truce, if they do not commit to a ceasefire soon, the terms of which have been negotiated since October, directly and indirectly through Oman."
But the Saudi-Houthi talks exclude many of the actors that influence the reality in the country. One of these is the so-called Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), the internationally recognised Yemeni government currently chaired by Rashad Muhammad Al-Alimi. This Aden-based executive, made up of eight Riyadh-placed appointees, is particularly weak, unable to survive without outside assistance, and openly divided over the way forward.
The negotiations also exclude the United Arab Emirates for the time being. The wealthy Gulf country, which is part of the Riyadh-led coalition forces, officially withdrew its troops in Yemen at the end of 2019, although it continues to fund a militia group on the ground. Abu Dhabi's main ally on Yemeni soil is the Southern Transitional Council (STC), the body that claims independence for the south of the country and controls strategic ports and waterways, as well as the Socotra archipelago and the island of Meyo in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
"The United Arab Emirates is preparing its delegation for direct dialogue with Sana'a in order to finally establish peace and regional change that has been brought about by the steadfastness of the Yemeni people [and their resistance]," said Yemen's Minister of State of the Government of National Salvation, Abdulaziz al-Bakeer. Abu Dhabi, for its part, has avoided commenting on the issue, while CTS claims that it has not been informed of the progress of the talks in Oman.