CHINA may have delivered on the US promise to end the Yemen war is the eye opening commentary by Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible State Craft, on the situation unfolding in Yemen, post the Saudi-Iran deal. This seems to be the first dividend. The nine-year conflict which has caused unmeasurable human misery and was seen as a festering humanitarian crisis, sat a pause. The keyword is “cautiously optimistic”.
The militarized American foreign policy is now in a state of fatigue whether it’s for more arms deal or empty security assurances. The March 10th, 2023, China brokered détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran has multidimensional consequences for the Yemen war. It is no secret that Riyadh and Iran’s threat perception and desire for regional hegemony remains high, however, they are both now supporting and expanding the truce, there is a palpable desire on both sides to manage differences and share clout.
The Saudi-Iranian truce surprised many but the multi-track talks between the two have been on since 2021. In 2021-2022, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Khadhimi, facilitated five rounds of Iranian-Saudi talks. The talks featured Yemen rather prominently. Houthis can definitely be reined in by Tehran, is a fact not lost on the Saudis. For Tehran, the desire to seek a tactical thaw now borders on desperation because of several reasons including internal uprising, increased Western sanctions in 2022, an escalation of conflict both within and beyond the Gulf region, including in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Riyadh is also desperate to find a way out of the military phase in Yemen, indicated by its unilateral ceasefire announced in 2020 and 2021. If Saudi Arabia is committed to its Vision 2030, regional stability is a necessary prerequisite. Therefore, Yemen is a win-win. Yemen is also one of the easiest fronts to show progress. Change is definitely in the air; perhaps calmer times are ahead for the Middle East. “Iranians and Syrians are in Saudi Arabia on the same day, that’s totally crazy and was inconceivable a few months ago,” said a Riyadh-based Arab diplomat.
Yemen war started when the Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sanaa in 2014, resulting in Saudi-led intervention in 2015, often also referred to as a war between the richest and the poorest Middle Eastern countries. The conflict has raged on for nine years, the rapprochement may not or rather cannot resolve the conflict, which is largely about a collapsed economy, crippling aid dependence and significant Al-Qaeda presence. The Yemen conflict was domestically generated around issues of control, power, territory and resources. However, external factors have contributed to exacerbating the situation. If Iran and Saudi Arabia withdraw and are on the same page despite some issues and China continues to play the role of a broker while displaying real resolve to make it sustainable by investment promises in Yemen and real time economic collaboration between China and Iran, peace may become less elusive.
The fighting in Yemen has calmed down post-UN-brokered ceasefire in April 2022. It has remained intact despite the lapse in October 2022, indicative of war fatigue and a desire to move on. Omani sponsored secret talks between Saudi Arabia and Houthis have also been going on for months. Yet none of this is a guarantee for peace but rather steps in the right direction. If the potential benefits to intervening still outweigh the cost that they pay to gain control, maintain status quo, or simply feed the chaos, proxy wars will continue argued Peter Kraus and Tyler B Parker. This particular dimension may be changing in the Middle East and between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Long drawn conflicts always become more complicated over time and proliferate to many areas and are not confined to just the warring side. However, the importance of warring sides taking a step back and working for peace calls for cautious celebration. If for nothing else, then for humanity, the suffering endured by the Yemeni during the nine year conflict is horrendous. According to the report by the United Nations 2022 “Yemen is experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Approximately 4.5 million people, one in seven of the population, have been displaced. While 24.1 million people, eighty percent of the population, are in need of humanitarian aid and protection”. The UN estimated that more than 11,000 children are known to have been killed or wounded as a direct result of the fighting. The conflict in Yemen has caused over 377,000 deaths, with sixty percent the result of hunger, lack of healthcare and unsafe water.” The UN Development Programme 2021 reported that ‘a Yemeni child under the age of five dies every nine minutes because of the conflict’.
One wonders what’s in it for China, very obvious, its role in getting out a signed written document between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is no small feat, it’s a definite upping in China’s global stature as a peace builder, but there is more to it. This truce included doing the requisite groundwork with critical stakeholders to ensure sustainability. For instance, President Xi met the Chair of Yemen Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), Rashal al-Aminiin December 2022, to convey China’s interests, not only in peace efforts in Yemen, but also in investing in Yemen’s reconstruction effort, whenever the situation on the ground is conducive to that.
Apparently the geo-economic thrust of politics is the name of the game, China’s desire for leverage in Middle Eastern politics through rebuilding and investment as everywhere else, improved ties with Israel, the primary objective for China’s engagement with Israel is to acquire advanced technology and utilize Israel’s location for trade connectivity. It has boosted its average yearly investment in Israel, with the annual investment growing to more than US$200 million in 2022. Saudi Arabia wanting its Vision 2030 taking off and supporting Abraham Accords, Iran wanting to get out of the economic strangulation and diplomatic isolation, China and Saudi Arabia committing to investing in Iran, China leading Saudi Arabia following Yemen and Middle East may see better days. “Cautiously Optimistic”
—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences.