Iran Saudi deal and its troubles
Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister embarked on a high-profile visit to Tehran, which garnered attention and accolades for the notable improvement in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, historic adversaries. During the visit, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat, stated at a news conference that the foundation of bilateral relations would revolve around “mutual respect, non-interference in the two countries’ internal affairs, and commitment to the United Nations Charter.”
Hossein Amirabdollahian, his Iranian counterpart, praised the re-establishment of diplomatic ties, highlighting its potential to enhance regional security. The meeting between the two ministers resulted from the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies, a breakthrough achieved through negotiations led by China in Beijing back in March. This diplomatic reconciliation marked a significant milestone in regional diplomacy.
However, according to many regional analysts, immediate trust and consistency are unlikely to materialize soon due to the substantial divergence in geopolitical and religious goals between the two regional powers. This divergence was evident on Saturday when the Saudi foreign minister declined to hold a joint press conference in front of a portrait of the late Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, who had overseen Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East for decades. As regional outlets reported, the Iranian hosts accommodated the minister’s request for a change of venue to prevent a diplomatic incident.
Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, observed, “The meeting shows us that despite minor delays, both sides are prioritizing deescalation as part of a new regional strategy aimed at tactical threat reduction.” However, she emphasized that despite the progress made, no comprehensive resolution has been reached between the two capitals. The existing agreement remains fragile and can only be strengthened through time, consistency, and trust building. Michael Stephens, an associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, concurred with this view, emphasizing that the process will take much longer than some observers anticipate. He cited various areas of tension, including the Yemeni conflict, where Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides, Iran’s use of proxy militias across the Middle East, and attacks on Saudi infrastructure by Iran-backed groups.
For years, Iran and Saudi Arabia have accused each other of destabilizing the region and perceived each other as grave security threats. Their opposing stances often position them on different sides in regional conflicts, such as those in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. Riyadh and Washington both hold Tehran responsible for several attacks on Saudi ships, territory, and energy infrastructure in recent years.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response to the execution of 47 dissidents, including a prominent Shiite cleric, by Saudi authorities. Nevertheless, the recent turning point indicates that both countries recognize shared interests that can be pursued through diplomatic engagement, understanding that they ultimately stand to benefit more from it.
“Economic imperatives motivate both Riyadh and Tehran,” noted Vakil. “Breaking the deadlock between them could reduce missile and drone threats over the kingdom—a priority for the success of Vision 2030—while Tehran, after months of protests, needs to break free from economic isolation and the grip of sanctions.”
During the visit, Saudi Arabia also emphasized the importance of maritime security in the Gulf region, a vital conduit for global oil exports, where incidents involving Iran seizing foreign ships occur relatively frequently. Prince Faisal underscored the need for cooperation between the two countries in ensuring the security of maritime navigation and called for collaborative efforts among regional nations to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Despite the persisting differences and ongoing regional conflicts, the visit is considered a significant signal of intent. “To my mind, this is exactly
There have been some positive repercussions in Yemen, as the climate has seen a period of relative peace and willingness to negotiate.
The latest round of talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthi movement concluded with a particular focus on the release of long-term political detainee Mohammed Qahtan. The negotiations, facilitated by the United Nations in Amman, Jordan, will resume after the Eid al-Adha holidays in early July.
Sources indicate that the Houthi movement has agreed to engage in negotiations regarding Qahtan’s release. Qahtan, a prominent politician associated with the al-Islah Party, was put under house arrest by the Houthis in 2015 and later disappeared while in their custody.
Previously, al-Islah criticized the government for not including Qahtan in talks with the Houthis during prisoner exchange discussions. A recent three-day prisoner exchange between the Houthis and the Saudi Arabia-backed government saw the release of approximately 900 detainees, including notable figures.
The upcoming talks will address Qahtan’s case and involve Saudi officials. These discussions have gained momentum following the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in a China-brokered deal in March. This development has spurred diplomatic activities among regional actors, including the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab fold.
No significant progress on the ground in Yemen
Despite the recent prisoner swaps, when looking at the larger picture, the Saudi-Iran deal has not shifted Yemen closer to a long-term peace solution or plan.
Yemen’s vice-president, Aidroos al-Zubaidi, emphasized that achieving peace in Yemen requires addressing the calls for independence from southern Yemen. Zubaidi holds influential roles as a member of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) of the internationally recognized Yemeni government and as the head of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist organization. The STC, backed by the United Arab Emirates, believes that the government is not doing enough to alleviate the suffering of Yemenis and seeks leadership changes that better represent the south.
Zubaidi stated during his visit to London that the solution lies in the independence of the south. The dissatisfaction among southerners stems from the outcomes of the truce agreement with the Houthi rebels, which eased the control of the Saudi-led coalition over Hodeidah port and Sanaa airport. The economic situation in the south has worsened, exacerbated by Houthi attacks on oil installations and the diversion of ships from Aden to Hodeidah.
While Zubaidi expressed a willingness to work with the PLC to address economic issues, he stressed that progress cannot be made without addressing the issue of southern independence. Yemen’s history of division between two states and the growth of support for southern independence since the current conflict began in 2014 were highlighted. Zubaidi welcomed the Saudi-Iran talks but emphasized that Yemen’s problems need to be solved internally.
It is worth noting that close allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE are reportedly in disagreement over various matters, including Yemen. The Houthi-aligned armed forces held a military parade, showcasing their strength near Taiz, which raised concerns and drew criticism from the Aden-based government. The implicit recognition of the Houthis by Saudi Arabia could embolden them in negotiations, potentially endangering Saudi goals in Yemen.
Despite the recent diplomatic reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, peace in Yemen remains a distant prospect. While this development has created a more favorable atmosphere for negotiations, the situation on the ground has not witnessed significant changes. There are indications that the Houthis are regrouping and strengthening their position. The path to peace in Yemen continues to be challenging and requires sustained efforts from all parties involved.