Will the Saudi-Iran deal lead to a solution to the Yemen crisis?
Saudi Arabia and Iran have come to an agreement, with the help of China, to restore their bilateral relations, which have been at a diplomatic impasse for several years. The two nations have also agreed to reopen their embassies, marking a significant breakthrough. The negotiations were led by Saudi national security adviser Musaad Al-Aiban and his Iranian counterpart Ali Shamkhani, and were supported by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The agreement is based on respecting the sovereignty of nations and not interfering in their internal affairs. The countries have also agreed to strengthen their ties across various sectors.
The joint statement, which was released by the Saudi Foreign Ministry, expressed gratitude to China, Iraq, and Oman for sponsoring previous talks between the two nations. It was signed by Aiban, Shamkhani, and Wang Yi of the Chinese Communist Party’s Political Bureau.
The two countries have had a long history of animosity, which has included proxy wars and allegations of meddling. One of the most significant issues between them has been the Yemeni civil war, where Iran backs Houthi rebels who are fighting the government backed by a Saudi coalition. The Houthis have also attacked Saudi Arabia. Although a ceasefire between the two sides expired last October, the situation has remained relatively stable.
Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf states and Israel, has expressed concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and its missile capabilities.
The reestablishment of relations is the culmination of years of discussions and the intervention of China and Iraq. In 2016, Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Iran after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in response to the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. In 2021, Iraq facilitated talks between the two nations, which continued throughout the year before eventually stalling.
Xi Jinping’s diplomatic initiative shows that Beijing sees a central role for itself as a new power broker in the Middle East, a strategic region where the U.S. has been the most influential outside player for decades. No longer focused exclusively on energy and trade flows, China’s foray into the region’s politics signals a new chapter in competition between Beijing and Washington.
The Saudi-Iran deal, hashed out behind closed doors in Beijing last week, takes on some of the most sensitive issues between two countries that have been on opposite sides of proxy conflicts across the Middle East for years.
Optimism for Yemen
The Chinese-mediated agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume diplomatic relations after a seven-year hiatus is widely expected to de-escalate conflicts across the Middle East, especially in Yemen.
Although details of the deal reached during five days of talks in Beijing have not been made public, many analysts believe they include an understanding on bringing the eight-year war in Yemen to a negotiated close.
A Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened militarily in Yemen in 2015 to support the internationally recognised government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Alongside an Iraqi militia, the Houthis have unleashed several drone and missile attacks on the kingdom and its energy installations.
Most analysts believe that Riyadh wants to end the Yemen conflict as it embarks on an ever-ambitious plan of economic development, which needs security.
Furthermore, the Iranian mission to the United Nations revealed on Monday a promise made by Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian regarding ending the crisis in Yemen.
“Amir-Abdollahian,” tweeted the mission, “promised the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to host talks that would put an end to the crisis in Yemen.” The promise was apparently made during an earlier visit to UN headquarters in Geneva.
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani stated that Yemen holds significant importance for Tehran and is among its top priorities. He made this remark while praising the diplomatic efforts that led to the resumption of bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia.
Kanaani also mentioned that the agreement with Saudi Arabia would have positive implications for the region’s overall relations, including Iran’s ties with other nations. The announcement of the agreement was made last Friday after negotiations sponsored by China in Beijing. As part of the deal, both Tehran and Riyadh will reopen their embassies within two months.
Why things could get worse
Despite the apparent positive implications of the deal on the Yemen war, the latest agreement could not lead to a change, and could actually worsen the conflict, as both Iran and Saudi Arabia could appear to be increasingly involved in negotiations between each other, excluding the parties in Yemen.
The Saudi-led coalition government and other local actors, such as the Southern Transitional Council (STC), have expressed concerns about their lack of influence during the latest round of negotiations, feeling as though they are on the outside looking in. STC official Amr al-Bidh, son of the last president of South Yemen, has criticized the group’s “friends in Riyadh” for isolating everyone and leading to skepticism among friends and stakeholders. The STC, backed by the UAE and in control of Aden, has little knowledge of the closed-door discussions.
The Yemeni government is also worried about potential concessions made to the Houthis during negotiations. Yemeni President Rashad al-Alimi has tried to allay fears that his government is being sidelined by Saudi Arabia, but the circumstances of his accession to the presidency have led some to question his legitimacy.
Despite their absence from the negotiating table, the Yemeni government and the STC should not be underestimated, as each party has its own goals and interests that they will not compromise. While they may require external support on the battlefield, they can still press on without it. All parties should be included in future negotiations to prevent a pre-arranged agreement that does not serve their objectives. It should not be assumed that a Saudi withdrawal from Yemen will put an end to the fighting.
The Sana’a Centre, Yemen’s forefront thinktank, joined the STC in warning of the dangers of exclusively Saudi-Houthi talks in an editorial published at the weekend. It said that “left to their own devices, there is every possibility the Houthis and Saudis will make a deal that suits their interests alone, and not those of Yemen and its citizens. Instead of peace, the result might be the institutionalization of an unstable political configuration, which will ultimately invite further violence”.
It adds the current format “openly delegitimises the internationally recognised government. While hardly a representative body, further emasculating the fragile domestic coalition is an invitation to further dissolution and disaster”.