China’s Yemen Diplomacy and a Multipolar Gulf

Since it first emerged as an economic powerhouse in the 1990s and early 2000s, China has consistently adhered to the principle of neutrality and non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs. As it gained economic clout and a growing market share throughout the Middle East, Beijing preserved its reputation as a neutral market, conducting trade with all nations and remaining aloof from regional politics. Given this background, the announcement in March of a China-mediated diplomatic normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran—the Gulf’s two primary geopolitical foes—after years of the rivalry came as a shock both to Middle Eastern and Western experts. The Saudi-Iran détente could contribute to the de-escalation of deadly tensions, particularly in the Gulf region. Riyadh and Tehran are engaged in prolonged and bloody proxy wars in the Middle East—most notably in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has led a military coalition against the country’s northern Houthi rebels for eight years without success.

Amid a broader wave of rapprochement between Gulf rivals—notably including the Al-Ula Agreement in January 2021 restoring relations between Qatar and its neighbors—Saudi Arabia and Iran have quietly sought to improve ties, which have been severed since the attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran after the execution of Saudi Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr in 2016. However, several major obstacles have prevented progress in their talks. Saudi Arabia has long viewed Iran’s regional interventionism as a major threat to regional stability, while Iran views its proxy warfare strategy as vital to its security. In this regard, the first serious litmus test for the Iran-Saudi thaw will be whether the two sides can “share Yemen,” where they have backed opposite sides for nearly a decade. Even if the two countries normalize their diplomatic relationship and resume bilateral high-level official visits, it is extremely unlikely that Iran, which secured significant strategic gains through its long-term assistance to the Yemeni rebels, will be willing to concede them and retreat from its positions.

Dragon Diplomacy

Against this backdrop, China took a moderate stance on Yemen after the negotiated Saudi-Iran normalization agreement. The Chinese government expressed its willingness “to continue making efforts to promote regional peace and stability and realize lasting peace in Yemen.” Indeed, even before it secured the Saudi-Iran deal, Beijing had quietly worked toward a peace deal in Yemen, using its credibility as a neutral power to its advantage. By 2023, China’s chargé d’affaires at its embassy in Yemen, Shao Zheng, had held five separate meetings with members of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), a body formed in April 2022 to replace Yemen’s embattled pre-war leader, President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Beijing is keen to capitalize on public support within Iran and Saudi Arabia for an extended truce in Yemen and the establishment of an inclusive national government. Indeed, such an outcome would be the most viable option for Tehran and Riyadh to end the country’s costly and intractable war, as it would end the conflict while allowing both the Houthis and the PLC to claim a win. In line with this vision, China facilitated preliminary trilateral ceasefire talks between the PLC, Southern Transitional Council, and the Houthis in early April 2023. The positive atmosphere of the negotiations generated further discussion about China’s growing clout in the Middle East region. Moreover, Beijing’s pro-peace efforts in Yemen and its successful diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran earned it plaudits from the UN, giving its future efforts greater credibility.

On the other hand, the Houthi rebels have greeted Beijing’s role in the peace process. Some experts have speculated that the group’s reasons for doing so are less than altruistic; if Beijing successfully negotiates a withdrawal of Saudi forces from the conflict, it would potentially free the Houthis to launch an ambush against their internal rivals in the future. Whether or not this comes to pass, a Saudi withdrawal from Yemen would also serve Riyadh’s national interests in the short run by helping it to protect its territory and end the Houthi missile and drone attacks against its oil infrastructure. Between 2015 and April 2022, Saudi Arabia was hit by more than 1,000 missile attacks and 350 drone attacks, mainly by the Houthis (and to a lesser extent by pro-Iran militias in Iraq).

Better By Comparison?

Although the United States voiced continuous opposition to the Yemen conflict starting in 2014 and undertook a series of diplomatic initiatives to end it, its efforts were largely fruitless—making China’s diplomatic maneuvering appear more successful by comparison and raising concerns over Washington’s waning influence in the region. Although the United States has telegraphed its “pivot to Asia” for many years—an impulse originally associated with exhaustion from the conflict in Iraq and a perceived need to confront China in the Pacific—it has nonetheless sought to maintain close ties to its traditional Gulf allies including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Within the last decade, however, both of those nations have pursued closer economic relations with China, and recently extended feelers of peace toward the Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, and refused American requests to help lowering oil price after the Russian invasion of Ukraine—undermining the traditional “oil for security” bargain at the root of modern U.S.-Saudi relations. CIA Director William Burns’s recent visit to Riyadh to express the White House’s frustration over the kingdom’s seemingly contrarian foreign policy appears to have yielded no results.

If this trend continues, China will likely continue its involvement in the Yemeni peace process. As part of its effort to normalize with Tehran, Riyadh will re-route all its attention and resources to the Yemen conflict in conjunction with Iran. Tehran has no more interest in a protracted conflict in Yemen than Riyadh does, and it could use the leverage it has built up in Yemen to pressure the Houthi militants into a long-term truce. If these moves are successful, China might even act as the guarantor of the ceasefire, giving Saudi leaders a long-desired way out of the protracted conflict. Taking into account Iran’s close partnership with China, Tehran could also ask Beijing to persuade Saudi Arabia to halt anti-Iranian actions in the Gulf region and urge fair treatment for Shi’a groups in its immediate neighbourhood.

Ultimately, while Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China have sharply differing foreign policy objectives, their shared end goal is to further the declining influence of the U.S. in the region by establishing a multipolar regional dialogue in which Beijing would play a more prominent role. For this reason, all involved parties have a reason to welcome China’s deepening involvement in the Yemeni peace process—and to help it in resolving one of the most protracted and devastating conflicts in the Gulf.

This piece was originally published by Gulf International Forum

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