The war in Yemen looks like it’s coming to an end. U.S. media reported on Thursday that a cease-fire extending through 2023 had been agreed to, but those reports also included Houthi denials. On Friday, Al Mayadeen, a generally pro-Houthi Lebanese news outlet, reported optimism from the Houthi side that the deal is real and the war is winding down. Reuters later on Friday matched Al Mayadeen’s reporting, confirming that Saudi envoys will be traveling to Sana’a to discuss the terms of a “permanent ceasefire.”
What’s startling here is the apparent role of China — and complete absence of the U.S. and President Joe Biden — in the deal-making.
“Biden promised to end the war in Yemen. Two years into his presidency, China may have delivered on that promise,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Decades of militarized American foreign policy in the Middle East have enabled China to play the role of peacemaker while Washington is stuck and unable to offer much more than arms deals and increasingly unconvincing security assurances.”
“Biden promised to end the war in Yemen. Two years into his presidency, China may have delivered on that promise.”
The U.S. always backed Saudi Arabia to the hilt and vociferously opposed the Houthis, who are backed by Iran. Now China has extracted concessions from the Saudis that made the cease-fire talks possible. The Saudis seem like they are fully capitulating to the Houthi demands, which include opening the major port to allow critical supplies into the country, allowing flights into Sana’a, and allowing the government to have access to its currency to pay its workers and stabilize the economy. Reasonable stuff.
“The Saudi concessions — including a potential lifting of the blockade and exit from the war — demonstrate that their priority is to protect Saudi territory from attack and focus on economic development at home,” said Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, which has been working for an end to the war in Yemen for years. “This diverges from the approach preferred by many Washington foreign policy elites who continued to hope that the Saudi war and blockade could force the Houthis to make concessions and cede more power to the U.S.-backed Yemeni ‘government.’”
The Yemen deal is undergirded by another China-brokered deal for rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers met in Beijing to finalize an agreement that reinstates direct flights between Riyadh and Tehran, reopens embassies, and expands commercial cooperation.
“The full scope of this appears to have been unlikely without the Saudi-Iranian normalization brokered by China,” Parsi said. “Whether China played a crucial role in the Yemeni dimension is unclear. Beijing will, however, get some credit for it because of its role in bringing Riyadh and Tehran together.”
U.S. policy toward the Yemen conflict has been so hostile to peace it managed to do the impossible: make Saudi Arabia appear reasonable in comparison. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the U.S. is deeply frustrated at how reasonably various parties are behaving:
In an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this week, CIA Director William Burns expressed frustration with the Saudis, according to people familiar with the matter. He told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that the U.S. has felt blindsided by Riyadh’s rapprochement with Iran and Syria—countries that remain heavily sanctioned by the West—under the auspices of Washington’s global rivals.
This is all part of a larger program of Chinese diplomacy — as opposed to U.S. saber-rattling — in the Middle East. The Iranian minister of foreign affairs said publicly that he also held an expansive, two-hour meeting with his French counterpart while she was also in China. The meetings come ahead of a planned regional summit that will be organized by China and include both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
With the Saudis no longer backing militants in the Yemen war, those rump factions won’t have much capacity left to fight, though there will still probably be some clashes before a final peace is reached. Some observers said the U.S. could still aid efforts to bring the war to its ultimate close.
“Now is the time for the United States to do everything it can to support these negotiations to finally end the war and support robust humanitarian funding to address the suffering of the Yemeni people,” said Hassan El-Tayyab, the legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “If Washington rejects regional power-sharing and obstructs a world in which other nations have a vested interest in peace, it risks jeopardizing America’s own economic and security interests and its international reputation. Now is the time to prioritize and reap the benefits of diplomacy, not reject those who advocate for it.”
The way the war is ending also underscores just how illegitimate the U.S.-backed “government” of Yemen has been the last several years. In reality, it’s a group of exiles living in hotels in Riyadh, fully propped up by and under the thumb of Saudi Arabia. For a while, Saudi Arabia was referring to it in official documents as “the Legitimate Government of Yemen,” though it did no actual governing and had no legitimacy outside its hotel.
The exiled “government” is now led by the “Presidential Leadership Council,” and look at how the news was delivered to the “Legitimate Government of Yemen,” according to Al Mayadeen: “The sources stated that Riyadh informed the Presidential Leadership Council of its decision to end the war and conclude the Yemeni file permanently.” Such was the ignoble end of the U.S.-recognized government of Yemen.
“The Saudis are smart to cut their losses, end their complicity in this human rights nightmare, and refocus their attention to their own economic development.”
“While the Houthis are a deeply flawed movement, it is both immoral and ineffective to try to counter them by pushing tens of millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation,” said Sperling. “The Saudis are smart to cut their losses, end their complicity in this human rights nightmare, and refocus their attention to their own economic development.”
The Chinese may find, however, that running a constellation of satellites is harder than it looks and that brokering peace may be more difficult than keeping it. This week, Iran-allied groups in Lebanon launched airstrikes on Israel in response to a raid on Jerusalem’s holy Al Aqsa Mosque by Israeli police. Israel, which has moved increasingly closer to Saudi Arabia, responded to the rockets by attacking both Gaza and Lebanon. President Xi Jinping will have no shortage of disputes to work out at his upcoming summit.