The Impact of Saudi-Iranian Reconciliation on Gulf Arab and Yemen Conflicts in the Arabian Peninsula
By: Khaled A. BaRahma
Credit by: crisisgroup.org
On March 10th, Iran and Saudi Arabia made an unexpected announcement in Beijing, China, regarding a Chinese-mediated agreement aimed at restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. The historical animosity between these regional rivals has spanned over four decades, experiencing periods of reduced tensions in the 1990s followed by heightened hostilities in the last two decades. Riyadh formally cut ties with Tehran seven years ago, further intensifying the strained relationship.
Although previous rounds of talks between Iranian and Saudi officials had been held with the knowledge of the public, facilitated by Iraq and Oman, the involvement of China in brokering the accord caught many by surprise. The speed at which the reconciliation process advanced was also unforeseen. Consequently, it remains uncertain to what extent the Joint Trilateral Statement, issued by China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, signifies a geopolitical shift, potentially allowing China to assume a larger role in a region traditionally dominated by the United States.
Another significant question arising from the Beijing agreement is whether it will play a role in managing or potentially resolving conflicts in other parts of the Middle East. The clashing regional interests of Riyadh and Tehran have contributed to catastrophic conflicts in Syria and Yemen and continue to fuel instability in Lebanon and Iraq. For several Gulf Arab states, direct threats or attacks from Iranian proxies and alleged Iranian support for dissident movements have long been a cause of concern. Additionally, Israel perceives Iran's nuclear program as a threat to its very existence. On the other hand, Tehran accuses Israel of sabotaging its nuclear program and Saudi Arabia of supporting ethnic opposition groups in Kordestan, Baluchistan, and other troubled provinces, in conjunction with hostile Iranian diaspora media.
Gulf Arab States
The recent accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran sets a timeline of two months to restore diplomatic relations, which could significantly decrease the longstanding hostility between the two nations. The agreement's rollout is reportedly progressing smoothly, with Saudi Arabia's King Salman inviting Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi to visit Riyadh and both nations' foreign ministers holding a meeting in Beijing on April 6th. Senior Saudi officials have expressed their intent to build on the positive momentum of the Beijing talks. The finance minister states that the country is ready to invest in Iran immediately. Both nations sent technical delegations to prepare for the reopening of their embassies, indicating that the timeline for the agreement remains on track.
In addition to its impact on bilateral relations, the agreement holds the potential to alleviate tensions in the wider Gulf region. Authorities in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman have all praised the deal, recognizing it as a step toward stability and prosperity that can bring benefits to all involved parties. According to a senior Qatari official, the accord represents a positive initial move, but it will take time for Saudi Arabia to rebuild a level of trust in Iran's intentions following years of hostility. Even Bahrain, known for its cautious approach towards Iran, has issued a statement welcoming the agreement and expressing hope for the resolution of conflicts through dialogue and diplomatic means.
The Saudi-Iranian agreement coincided with the eighth anniversary of Saudi Arabia's military intervention in Yemen, led by a coalition, aimed at removing the Huthis, also known as Ansar Allah, who receive support from Iran. The intervention turned out to be a costly failure for Saudi Arabia, as it did not achieve its stated objectives of defeating the Huthis and reinstating President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was ousted from the capital city of Sanaa by the Huthis. Furthermore, the intervention prompted Iran to increase its support for the Huthis, including military assistance, diplomatic backing, and providing a media platform for pro-Huthi voices in a part of Beirut controlled by Iran's ally, Hizbollah. Presently, the Huthis maintain a stronghold over the northern highlands, including Sanaa, where the majority of the population resides. Meanwhile, the Yemeni allies of the coalition are deeply divided on political and military agendas, further complicating the situation.
Since the beginning of 2022, Saudi Arabia has actively pursued efforts to bring an end to the war in Yemen, or at least reduce its involvement in the conflict. In April of that year, UN-mediated mediation resulted in a two-month ceasefire, which was subsequently extended twice and respected by all parties involved. Although it expired in October, the ceasefire continues to be largely observed. In January 2023, Oman played a facilitative role by establishing back-channel communications between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis. These contacts progressed to direct talks when a Saudi delegation visited Sanaa to engage in discussions about a potential permanent ceasefire agreement. Riyadh sees the recent agreement with Tehran as a means to maintain the positive momentum necessary to achieve its goal of disengagement from Yemen. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran may view a compromise in Yemen as an initial step towards a broader regional security arrangement that aligns with their respective interests.
The Yemeni war still has a long way to go before a comprehensive solution can be reached, and it remains unclear how much the China-brokered deal will aid in this process. Iran has yet to demonstrate a willingness to make concessions, particularly regarding the alleged supply of advanced weaponry to the Huthis. Even if Iran is willing to cooperate, their ability to influence the Huthis and persuade them to accept a political settlement with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or Yemen's anti-Huthi forces is stil uncertain. An agreement between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis alone would be insufficient to end the conflict as it would not include other political and military actors who support Yemen's internationally recognized government. As such, any initial deal between Riyadh and the Huthis would need to pave the way for intra-Yemeni talks.
Initial reactions to the Saudi-Iranian deal from both Huthi and government sources were positive. Huthi spokesman, Mohammed Abdulsalam, expressed hope that it would put an end to what he called the "destabilization of the area wreaked by the Zionist-American intervention". Meanwhile, the Saudi-backed Yemeni government cautiously approved of the agreement, but also expressed the expectation that Tehran would "change its destructive policies" in the country. However, some Yemenis warn that a deal between Riyadh and Tehran that excludes local partners will have little impact on the many actors involved in Yemen's conflict. They believe that any agreement must include the parties on the ground to make a meaningful difference.
In the upcoming weeks, there is a potential for political advancements in Yemen, providing some clarity on the prospects for progress. Extending the formal truce, leading to a permanent ceasefire, would be a crucial initial step. Encouragingly, between April 14th and 17th, the Huthis and the government exchanged over 800 prisoners. Earlier in April, Saudi Arabia invited members of the Presidential Leadership Council, their primary Yemeni partner, to discuss a negotiated roadmap with the Huthis. Sources from Crisis Group in Yemen indicate that the roadmap will be implemented in phases. The first phase involves a Huthi-Saudi agreement to fully open the country's ports and unblock roads. This step should facilitate intra-Yemeni negotiations and enable the payment of salaries to civil servants and military personnel in Huthi-controlled areas—an important demand from the Huthis that their rivals currently reject due to the de facto status of Huthi authorities. The plan outlines a two-year transitional period dedicated to intra-Yemeni dialogue concerning the country's political future.
However, it remains uncertain whether the Huthis will engage in talks with their Yemeni rivals and, even if they do, whether the various anti-Huthi factions can align with a unified set of demands at the negotiating table.