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Implications of the Saudi-Iran Deal for Yemen

March 27, 2023
Marta Furlan


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Marta Furlan, a research and policy consultant at Auswärtiges Amt (Federal Foreign Office) in Germany, analyzes what the new agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran means for the civil war in Yemen, and whether peace is likely in the region.

In 2014, the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia armed group from the Sa’ada region of northern Yemen, aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been removed following the Arab Spring uprisings. Together, they defeated the government led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and established control over the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and the entirety of northern Yemen.

At that time, Iran began to progressively increase its support for the Houthis, seeing partnership with the group as an opportunity to advance its revisionist agenda in the region and establish its influence in the southern Red Sea, an area of immense strategic significance. Threatened by aggressive Iranian expansionism at its doorstep, in March 2015, Saudi Arabia entered the war alongside Hadi. As Iran sided with the Houthis and Saudi Arabia sided with Hadi, Yemen became the battlefield of both a domestic competition for power between different local factions and a regional competition for influence between Teheran and Riyadh.

The complexity that characterizes the Yemeni conflict is not unique. In the modern Middle East, countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya also experienced civil wars that developed into multi-layered conflicts involving local, regional, and international actors. In Syria, for instance, the confrontation initially involved the Assad regime, the secular opposition, a plethora of jihadist groups, and the Syrian Kurds. It grew, however, into a competition between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey over the regional status quo and a competition between the United States and Russia over influence in the Middle East. Despite the civil war scholarship suggesting that one-sided victories become harder with the passing of time, the Syrian conflict ended de facto with the one-sided victory of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia and Iran.

As far as Yemen is concerned, the conflict is still ongoing. A major development, however, occurred two weeks ago when Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic ties and reopen embassies within two months, seven years after they severed relations. Following the signing of the agreement, which was brokered by China, questions emerged as to whether the deal might have positive implications for the war in Yemen.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.