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The beginning of de-escalation in Yemen, but certainly not the end

Apr 02,2023 - Last updated at Apr 02,2023

Expectations following the Chinese mediated reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia were that Yemen would be the first front to see positive impacts and de-escalation. However, there are already signs creating doubt that the deal, in its first phase, will put an end to Houthi escalation. Recently, Yemeni Defence Minister Mohsen Al Daeri survived an assassination attempt during which his convoy was attacked by an explosives-laden drone in south-western Yemen. Further, two other soldiers were reported to be killed in an attack on a military checkpoint and at least 10 others were killed in a renewed Houthi militia offensive in the central province of Marib.

This Houthi activism can be interpreted as a clear message to both Saudi and the UAE that any deal with Iran should necessarily include Yemen. Particularly since the main issue for the Gulf countries is the security and stability risks in the two rich Gulf countries because of the war in Yemen. The leader of the Houthis highlighted this in comments insisting they are committed to seeing the conflict through, and flagged they have gained experience in conducting operations in the sea and the sky.

This emphasises the objective of ending the war and reducing the risk to Gulf countries will not be easy. While the Iran-Saudi deal seems to have landed with Chinese mediation, the hard outcomes are not as straightforward. The kinetic conflict on the ground has attracted expertise from sympathetic groups and the use of sophisticated weapons including drones and missiles. This demonstrates, in almost a decade of conflict, the Houthis have massively uplifted its capabilities and created a network of regional cooperation.

Strategically, even if Iran is inclined to neutralise the hostile positions of Gulf countries towards it, giving them exactly what they want from the start of the deal would be imprudent. Particularly given some Gulf countries have already proceeded to develop deep relations with Israel. Any process of reconciliation should not be seen through a utopian lens, as any shift in position is based on interests and needs rather than a blossoming friendship.

For the Gulf countries, the need is to put an end to any source of insecurity The critical objective, and Iran knows it. The question is whether it suits the Iranians for threats to the Gulf countries to continue and perhaps escalate in order for their dependence on Iran to mitigate those threats to increase. This is balanced by the pressure on Iran and the risk of increased Israeli escalation towards Tehran, particularly given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s return. Iran is a canny player and will consider all the strategic angles that could have a global impact, including the energy market and stability of the Gulf.

Ending the war in Yemen is not an easy objective, but the Gulf countries must begin the process of defusing risks. Change is unlikely to be simple or quick and regional issues including the Israeli-Iranian conflict will have an impact, as well as international competition amongst the superpowers, as we have seen with the role of China as a mediator, and Saudi joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

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