China and the Saudi-Iran rapprochement: Implications for Yemen

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The conclusion of the China-brokered Saudi-Iranian détente on March 10, which aims to thaw long-standing enmity and manage competition between the two regional arch rivals, has multi-layered implications for Yemen. For Saudi Arabia, Iran’s role and influence in Yemen, with which Riyadh shares a 1,458-km-long border and Red Sea coastline, was once non-negotiable but can now be handled within the framework of managed tensions. For Iran, having secured significant strategic gains through its long-term security, military, intelligence, and economic assistance to the Houthis, it is unlikely to concede them just because the two countries have agreed on a preliminary roadmap for normalization. In fact, Riyadh and Tehran’s threat perceptions and ambitions for regional hegemony remain very much the same as Iran’s role and influence in Yemen continues unchecked eight years on from the Arab coalition’s military intervention in March 2015.

However, both Saudi Arabia and Iran now support — at least publicly — an expanded truce, if not a cease-fire, in Yemen, followed by intra-Yemeni peace talks and the formation of “an inclusive national government.” While this formula might, on the most basic level, offer Saudi Arabia a way out of the military phase of the conflict, it would also enable Iran to maintain its position in Yemen and offer the Houthis a number of opportunities. In principle, Saudi Arabia, which has seen limited results from eight years of military intervention and suffers from war fatigue, and Iran, which is capitalizing on its increasing regional influence and leverage over the past decade, have agreed to manage their differences and share influence to an extent.

For the Houthis, the attempt to disentangle the regional Saudi-Iranian layer of the conflict might mean it becomes increasingly localized going forward, enabling the rebels to focus on crushing local actors one at a time. As Taleb al-Hassani, an editor for the Houthi-run Al Masirah news channel, told CNN, “If Saudi Arabia continues to wait for a Yemeni-Yemeni agreement before it leaves, then it will wait for many years.” The Houthis’ March 2023 offensive in Harib District in Marib Governorate and the regular military contact in Taiz and al-Dale’a between the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) and Houthi forces underscore that the Houthis’ military operations are far from over. They are, in fact, set to escalate. In 2015, Nabeel Khoury, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote, “Saudi Arabia launched its war on the Houthis in March 2015; the Houthis launched their war on the rest of Yemen in September of 2014.” Eight years on, as Saudi Arabia’s war on the Houthis has almost come to a close, the Houthis want de-escalation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but not necessarily with the rest of Yemen, as their latest escalations have made clear.

The joint trilateral statement issued by Saudi Arabia, China, and Iran offered little detail on confidence-building measures, but it included a collective “affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of [Arab] states.” Iranian non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab states has been a long-held demand by Saudi Arabia and most other Arab countries. Yemen has been the priority for Riyadh in its talks with Tehran, given the efforts by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah to supply arms, equipment, and ammunition to the Houthis, along with military advisors, missile and drone experts, and free oil, among other things. The Houthis owe their strategic capabilities, which they have used against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the ROYG as tools of compellence, blackmail, and deterrence, to the IRGC and Iran’s network of paramilitaries in the region. The Saudi-Iran détente faces a long and difficult road ahead; for Saudi Arabia “the big test lies in Yemen,” as Saudi writer Abdul Rahman al-Rashed has rightly stated. For now, the Saudi-Iranian agreement to restore full diplomatic relations within two months remains far from a full-fledged reconciliation.

Timing and context

The Saudi-Iranian agreement might have come as a surprise, but the ramping up of multi-track talks, including on Yemen, since 2021 indicated intent and direction. In 2021-22, Iraq, under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, facilitated five rounds of Iranian-Saudi talks, and Oman’s role increased after Kadhimi left office. In these talks, the Yemen file was certainly one of Saudi Arabia’s major priorities, if not the leading one, given concerns over Iran’s “subversive” role on its borders, not to mention that Saudi-Houthi talks occurred — at times — in tandem with the Saudi-Iranian ones.

The Saudi-Houthi talks, which have accelerated since the Houthis refused to extend the six-month-old truce in Yemen in October 2022, have not reported a breakthrough despite Tehran’s continuing involvement. Now that Saudi Arabia and Iran are attempting to develop a preliminary region-wide understanding, it is highly likely that Tehran will use its leverage to pressure the Houthis to at least engage in an expanded truce or cease-fire.

After facing an internal uprising and increased Western sanctions in 2022, against the backdrop of stalled talks over the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran now seeks a tactical thaw on any front to leverage de-escalation both within and beyond the Gulf region, including on the JCPOA. Yemen represents one of the easiest areas to show progress — at least superficially — in rapprochement efforts, given Saudi Arabia’s clear national security interests and desire to extricate itself from the conflict. For Iran, bringing the Houthis to the table by reviving an expanded truce, followed by the resumption of intra-Yemeni peace talks that could last for days, months, or years, is relatively straightforward. Implementing any agreement that might come out of the talks is an entirely different story, however, given the Houthis’ history of non-compliance with peace agreements, truces, and cease-fires.

Riyadh has been seeking a way out of the military phase of the conflict in Yemen since 2020, as was clear from its unilateral cease-fire announcements in 2020 and 2021, especially after the Iranian-backed drone attacks at Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019. For the kingdom to realize its Vision 2030 objectives, regional stability, especially on its borders, is a prerequisite. In February 2021, as the U.S. and Iran agreed to resume JCPOA talks in Vienna, the Houthis refused to engage in de-escalation efforts and instead escalated militarily in central Yemen with the hope of capturing the oil-rich governorate of Marib. At the time, Hezbollah’s leader and the pro-IRGC Iranian media outlet Tasnim News Agency highlighted the strategic significance of the Houthi offensive in Marib for Yemen and the region. In much the same way that it has used Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, Iran has leveraged the Yemen file as part of its broader efforts to realize its foreign and defense policy objectives. One consequence of this is that none of the regional actors engaged in mediation or facilitation efforts between Iran and Saudi Arabia could offer assurances and/or benefits that would be accepted by both Riyadh and Tehran — and this is where China came in.

What’s in the deal about Yemen?

The deal is not zero sum and offers multiple short-term gains for Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Houthis, but far fewer, if any, for the ROYG. Given Saudi Arabia’s national security objectives, particularly to protect itself from the Iranian-supplied drones and missiles used by the Houthis, Iran reportedly agreed, at least in theory, to discourage cross-border attacks into the kingdom by the Houthis and other pro-Iranian paramilitary groups in Iraq and Syria. Between 2015 and April 2022, Saudi Arabia was hit by more than 1,000 rocket/missile attacks and 350 drone attacks, mostly by the Houthis, as well as pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Riyadh’s existing American defense capabilities were not able to adequately address the threats posed by Iranian-supplied drones. Riyadh also expects Tehran to stop sending weapons and drugs to the Houthis to aid their remote warfare and war financing efforts.

Nevertheless, the interdiction by the British, American, and French navies of at least seven Iranian arms and drugs shipments destined for the Houthis between December 2022 and March 2023 casts doubt on Iran’s commitment to the arms embargo laid out in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216. Recent interdictions included more than 5,000 weapons, 30 anti-tank guided missiles, an estimated 1.5 million rounds of ammunition, and drugs (including methamphetamine and hashish) worth more than $80 million. Past shipments have included surface-to-air missiles, drone equipment, and land-attack, cruise-missile engines. It remains to be seen if Iran will commit to halting the arms transfer that it once publicly denied in either the short or long term. The fact that the IRGC has not commented on the Foreign Ministry’s latest moves raises further questions.

For its part, Iran expects Saudi Arabia to tone down, if not halt, its coverage of internal uprisings in Saudi-supported Persian-language media, to not allow its territory or air space to be used to strike Iran, and to advance normalization of relations with Syria. In addition to these aims, Iran is also pushing for the acknowledgement of realities on the ground in Yemen, especially regarding the Houthis’ position. On March 23, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Nasser Kanaani “rejected remarks linking developments in Yemen to Iran and emphasized the need for realism,” according to Iranian media outlet Tasnim. In effect, Iran is attempting to consolidate its gains in an adaptive, agile manner.

The two countries’ agreement to reopen diplomatic missions within two months rather than immediately, especially given the timing of the deal two weeks before the eighth anniversary of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, indicates that Riyadh expects an Iranian show of good faith in Yemen as it pursues a shift in relations with enemies and state and non-state actors across the Middle East. As Dina Esfandiary and Anna Jacobs of Crisis Group have noted, “Riyadh had made progress on the Yemen track a precondition for re-establishing diplomatic ties with Iran.”

Implications for Yemen

While Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China all wanted to underscore the diminished role of the U.S. in the region through the China-brokered deal for different reasons, any thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or even Iran and the U.S., would gradually reflect on the Yemen file, and more particularly the Houthis, for better or worse. Flexibility with Iran largely necessitates flexibility with Iranian-backed proxies in the region, particularly the Houthis, against whom Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition since March 2015.

Given the Iranian-Houthi relationship and Riyadh’s efforts to ensure a face-saving exit, Saudi Arabia may pursue a “quick fix” solution to its problems that would do little to address the actual roots of the conflict. Nadwa al-Dawsari, a non-resident scholar at MEI, told The Wall Street Journal, “Everybody is desperate for the Saudis to exit Yemen. They tend to confuse Saudi exiting the Yemen war with peace.” While the international community might view the geopolitical ripeness of the situation as an opportunity for a major breakthrough, the view from Riyadh is focused on the exit. The after-exit strategy remains unclear and a work in progress. This might result in the localization of the conflict rather than its durable resolution in the short term. Yazeed al-Jeddawy, a research coordinator at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, told the author that “while the Houthis are interested in a truce and de-escalation with Yemen’s immediate border, particularly Saudi Arabia, they are not interested in a sustainable de-escalation with the ROYG and the rest of the Yemeni fabric.”

The Houthis’ latest escalations corroborate such an assessment. In the run-up to the anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention and after the China-brokered Saudi-Iran deal, the Houthis sent five domestic and regional escalatory signals: a Houthi military operation in Marib’s Harib District; a swaggering military parade featuring naval mines in Hodeida by the southern Red Sea; a military drill using heavy arms, including missiles, drones, and helicopters, in al-Jawf Governorate by the Saudi border; a threat to suspend the U.N. special envoy’s work; and a drone attack targeting the convoy of the minister of defense, the chief of staff of the Yemeni Armed Forces, and the governor of Taiz while en route from al-Mocha to Taiz city. Through these actions, the Houthis are sending a range of messages, both internally and externally.

Most importantly, while the Houthis have pursued escalation on multiple fronts to highlight their decision-making autonomy and distance themselves from the Saudi-Iranian deal and Tehran in particular, the failure to reach a de-escalation agreement ahead of the China-sponsored deal undermines this endeavor. Their military parade by the Red Sea, which illustrated their attempts to build a basic naval capability and possession of naval mines, sent a clear message about potential maritime escalation. The Houthi military exercise by the Saudi border, akin to their drill in 2015, highlighted the military failure of the coalition while also underscoring their more threatening conventional and non-conventional capabilities today compared to eight years earlier. Taken together with the recent internal escalations, the Houthis are clearly signaling that any forthcoming concessions made by Saudi Arabia, either directly or indirectly, and the ROYG will not necessarily mean the end of the conflict. In fact, it may be merely the beginning of a new phase that is increasingly localized, as a conflict freeze, given the geographical fragmentation of control and influence, cannot hold for long.

Zooming out

In many ways, the Saudi-Iran deal is not zero sum and the various actors involved might want to play different roles moving forward. For China, its role in brokering the deal marks a growing shift in great power competition in the Middle East, where the U.S. remains involved yet needs to re-emphasize its regional policy. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran perceive China as a more neutral mediator and China views itself as a “reliable friend of the two countries.” In fact, China is the largest trading partner for the two countries, a major source of foreign currency for Iran, and has strategic relationships with both Riyadh and Tehran. Nevertheless, China’s sponsorship of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement “doesn’t necessarily mean that Beijing will intervene if Tehran decided to breach it,” Yasmine Farouk, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted. While Chinese diplomacy now faces a major test given its new role in the regional security architecture as a “sponsor” but not necessarily a guarantor, it is near certain that Beijing’s engagement will boost its soft power, prestige, and reputation as a force for stability in the Middle East. If successful, Beijing may be able to expand this to other files or regions, including Africa.

China’s strategic motives include ensuring greater uninterrupted access to both Saudi and Iranian oil vital for its continued economic growth and protecting its geo-economic interests, especially as it increases its investments in Saudi ports by the Red Sea, particularly Jeddah, in support of its Belt and Road Initiative. The recent announcement of a $12.2 billion Saudi-Chinese joint venture for an integrated refinery and petrochemical complex highlights the mutual interest in investment and trade. Another strategic objective for China is to raise further questions about the credibility and reliability of the U.S. role in the region — an objective that Iran shares. Riyadh, like Abu Dhabi, has been disappointed by what it perceives as inadequate U.S. security guarantees vis-à-vis drone attacks launched by Iranian proxies into the kingdom, especially following the attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019. As a result, the Saudi leadership appears to have reassessed its view of the risks and opportunities in the current regional landscape and chosen to leverage its relations to further its Vision 2030 goals by partly playing the great powers off against one another to maximize benefits and improve its bargaining position vis-à-vis the U.S., including on the issue of nuclear power.

Given China’s leverage over Iran, strategic expansion of ties with Saudi Arabia following President Xi Jinping’s visit to Riyadh in December 2022, recent sponsorship of the Iranian-Saudi deal, and its own strategic interests in the region, Beijing has the space to increase its diplomatic standing in Yemen, if it wants. Beijing, like Moscow, might eventually position itself to mediate or facilitate talks, including back-channel ones, between the Houthis, the ROYG, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Oman, especially if and when its interests are affected. China now talks with the regional sponsors and can leverage those relationships further if it chooses to. In recent months, the acting Chinese ambassador to Yemen, Chu Ch’ing, has intensified his visits to Yemen and held talks focusing on investment, in line with China’s previous intention of investing in the development of Aden Port per the agreement concluded between the Gulf of Aden Ports Corporation and China Harbor Engineering Company in 2013. In the long term, China would not want the Houthis to threaten any of its current or future investments in Saudi Arabia, especially on the Red Sea, or in Yemen either.

As for Saudi Arabia, through this move Riyadh seeks to maximize its strategic autonomy, diversify its external partnerships and security providers, and boost its relations with other great powers to reduce, not eliminate, the level of U.S. influence as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Joe Biden reassess and recalibrate Saudi-U.S. relations. At a time of heightened global instability, perceived U.S. unreliability, and diverse security threats, as well as ambitious economic prosperity agendas, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s pursuit of closer relations with China and Russia constitutes a hedge against a fragile unipolar world order led by the United States and a slow push for multipolarity. If the Yemen part of the deal falls apart, Saudi Arabia would have at least tried a different path.

As for Iran, the deal offers a necessary tactical thaw enabling it to rebuild its image domestically and internationally, attract economic support, and try to reduce sanctions. However, given Tehran’s track record with agreements, including its negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency, past Saudi-Iranian memoranda of understanding in the 1990s and 2000s, or the U.N. Security Council arms embargo against the Houthis to name but a few, there are plenty of questions about whether Iran can really commit to the rapprochement roadmap. Tehran could choose to maneuver by reducing its support for — while increasing pressure on — the Houthis in the short term to build trust. But it is unclear whether Iran would concede the strategic gains it has made in Yemen on its arch rival’s border, mindful of the IRGC’s military doctrine and the possibility that the Houthis might fully abandon Iran for Saudi Arabia. All of this suggests the ROYG is highly likely to face credible pressure, from both friends and enemies, to make major concessions in favor of the Houthis, a scenario that raises questions about what concessions the Houthis would make, if any, at this stage, and what it means about the prospects for a just, durable peace in Yemen.

Tackling the regional layer of the conflict in Yemen via Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, including through direct and indirect Saudi-Houthi talks, can help but is far from sufficient to ensure sustainable peacebuilding efforts given the domestic nature of the conflict and its drivers, as well as the multi-faceted layers involved. At the tactical level, there could be a breakthrough in the form of an expanded truce followed by a potential resumption of intra-Yemeni talks. Whether such moves would lead to a durable peace remains an open question, however. For peacebuilding efforts to truly gain traction in Yemen, they must address the domestic roots of the conflict, represent the forward-looking aspirations of the Yemeni people, and have both regional and international backing.

 

Ibrahim Jalal is a Yemeni security, conflict, and defense researcher; a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI; and a co-founding member of the Security Distillery Think Tank. Among his research interests are the U.N.-led peace process in Yemen, U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, and the rise of the Houthi insurgency. 

Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images


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