Reconciliation between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran on March 10 ending their diplomatic cut offs since 2016 came as a surprise to the world. But it was more astounding to witness that the deal between these two regional rival countries was not mediated by USA or any western country rather China, a rising global hegemon who hardly mingles in political issues in the Middle East. Though the normalization is yet to take place but it has spurred huge debate and discussion regarding the fate of Yeminis where Saudi Arabia and Iran are the main patrons in harboring deadly conflicts ongoing for last 8 years. Another wave of discussion is raging along with optimism for peace in region, entry of an influential power in the geopolitics of the Middle East restricting the regional order could prove a double-edged sword.
It should be reminded that internal conflict in Yemen is not a new phenomenon. Yemen only became a single state in 1990 under the President Ali Abdullah Saleh combining north and south Yemen. Despite unification, conflict between Northern and Southern Yemen continued specially during 2003 to 2009 when Northern Yeminis protested with the leadership of Houthi rebels. Being Shiites, Houthis were considered subordinated to Sunnis in Yemen. However, Arab Spring washed away Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule coupled with Al-Qaeda’s intensified onslaughts. Consequently, Saleh had been replaced with Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2012 who promised a constitutional democracy in Yemen but could not stabilize amid Houthi and Al-Qaeda attacks and ultimate seizure of Sanaa, capital of Yemen, by Houthi rebels with the help Saleh in September, 2014. This is the point where regional powers found a window of opportunity project their power and secure respective interest by supporting conflicting factions inside Yemen. Mostly, Saudi Arabia supported Hadi government considering Sunni ideology at risk in Yemen while Iran has been cultivating support for Houthis. UAE has also been in inconsistent with extending its supports towards other regional groups. Considering from broader geopolitical aspects, Saudi backed military coalition has been supporting running government through military intervention and Iran has been supporting Houthis through its multifaceted material and ideological supports. Both accused each other for the enduring conflict in Yemen.
However, the consequence of their affiliation in Yemini civil war has been resulted in the deaths of 377000 Yeminis during the last eight years due to war related distress according to an UN estimation while 80% of its citizens are in a humanitarian struggle due to the lack of access to food, water and health services. UN has tried to sponsor peace talks among conflicting parties but peace did not sustain for a long. Amid ongoing humanitarian crisis, rapprochement between backer Saudi and Iran gives an optimistic vibe among the Yeminis regardless Houthi supporters or pro-government followers. In fact, Oman has already taken initiative to mediate between Houthis and Saudi delegates in Sanaa. Prisoners exchange has already taken place to confide trust between Saudi and Houthis. Thus, political analysts are seeing hope that an agreement between Saudi and Iran could actually exterminate the initial obstruction in the way of bringing peace in Yemen.
Bringing lasting peace in Yemen may seem a daunting challenge despite Saudi-Iran normalization. Interestingly, Yemen is a point where both can test their confidence in advancing their strained relations. However, concerns are growing that conciliation between these two powers is not linked with any peace purpose in Yemen rather their own compelling interest actually helped to neutralize the political deadlock. Saudi’s eagerness to soothe conflict in Yemen has been driven by its security concerns posed by the drone attacks on its borders and oil installations by Houthi rebels while Iran is finding its internal situation very delicate due to western sanctions for its nuclear programme. Besides, negotiation between these two countries will simply take place among high officials and political elites leaving hardly any room for any negotiated comprehensive peace plan. Local realities in Yemen might be overlooked in the negotiation. Outcome of such incidence will not help to materialize any peaceful solution over Yemen conflict. It should be agreed that the conflict in Yemen is not solely sponsored by its powerful neighbors rather internal segregation, local grievance among people and constant power struggle among competing parties for political control of resources and territories are a few of the crude dynamics we must reckon. So, building local consensus between Houthis and government would be a matter of challenge along with other influential factions who control different segments of Yemeni society. Therefore, it is understandable that initial barricade might be overcome between Saudi and Iran but a lot has to be done to bring peace in Yemen.
Peace has always been an inferior agenda compared to high political issues including war and geopolitics. Probably this is why we are hearing more about the geopolitical reckoning of Saudi-Iran reconciliation. Above all, China’s inroads in the Middle Eastern politics has been pronounced more than anything. Inevitably USA has been playing the role of a single arbiter in deciding the fate Middle East since the British withdrawal from the region in early 70s. USA has strengthened its presence through Central Command in the region and consolidated more stronghold with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This power vacuum had proved USA with a blank cheque to do whatever it wished to do in the Middle East. Ultimate result of this freedom ensued in the eruption of uncontrolled violence specially in Iraq and Syria. USA has also harbored Israeli perversion in neighborhood through proxies and dissent cultivation to weaken Arab regimes. But the logic of realism says that international system will not remain under the harassment of a unitary actor as contenders must grow to defend the systemic hierarchy. Russian return with military offensive to liberate Assad regime in Syria was the first blow to US domination. And now the Chinese role in mediating the great divide in the Middle East nullifying US hegemony signifies a new ordering shaping in the Middle East. Obviously, US hegemony has been declined and distributed throughout these new developments.
It is interesting to note that the lack of interest among westerners specially in USA in bringing peace in Yemen is limited by two major factors. Primarily, China is the unlikely partner in Western views to mediate such conflict as it will profoundly elevate Chinese profile in the Middle East. Secondarily, Saudi Arabia is moving away from the Western orbit who has been a long due partner in extending Western interest and preserving the existence of Israel. Saudi Arabia’s recent proactive engagement with Russia and now with China under the de facto leader Mohammed Bin Salman has naturally caused deeper tension in US politicians. In addition, normal relationship with Iran means Israel is less safe in the Middle East. China putting two fighting lions in a cage has much to offer in terms of threats to the existing order and interest in the Middle East.
From Chinese point of view, its efforts as an honest broker is solely driven by the quest for peace. But from realpolitik angle, it has overt and covert intentions behind Chinese inroads in the Middle East. We have witnessed that as Ukraine war is prolonging and Western powers are being unable to pose any integrated answer to stop Putin, realization must have grown in Beijing to become proactive geopolitics putting its mercantile policy aside. Chinese thrust to become more assertive against the existing world order led by USA is becoming evident. China has already become a factor to US domination in Africa and South America while its presence is getting stronger in Asia time to time despite the presence of regional powers. Rationale behind its engagement in the Middle East politics is infused by several reasons. First of all, it has huge trade relations with most of the Arab countries. A stable Middle East implies a more robust market consuming more Chinese products. Secondly, Chinese demand for energy to accelerate its manufacturing is now more than ever. Political presence is vital for securing energy access and opportunities in this sector. Above all, China wants to provide an alternative to US perplexity. As regional peace has been fragile with the US presence for decades, states are turning towards China as frustration has been growing with USA. Countries like US ally Saudi Arabia has been seeking partner to counterbalance US who has been harassing the ruling in different stances. China is seizing the opportunity to leverage its political presence in the Middle East with the future intent to spread its influence over the whole region. For sure, Chinese rise in the Middle East will be at the expense of US decline in the region. This would potentially restructure the regional distribution of power. With the decline of US power, Israel will find itself with less funding and security guarantee from its western patrons in perpetrating offenses against Palestinians and other neighbors. US decline will curb Israeli arbitrariness and give way for stability in the region.
Author of this article is an international political economy analyst.