Mon - 01 May 2023 - 12:57 AM

written by : *Saleh Baidhani Writer Archive -

Thanks to its long links with the Yemen and with key political and social leaders, Saudi Arabia is fully aware of the complexities and challenges facing the country.

Riyadh has a full picture of the nature of the Houthi group, its ideological background and its external connections, especially with Iran.

The Saudi opening of direct channels of communication with the Houthis was not a coincidence nor just a ripple from its overture to Iran. Rather, it was the result of eight years of direct involvement in Yemen as the kingdom led the Arab coalition to support the internationally-recognised government. There was time enough for Riyadh to re-assess and recalibrate the goals of war and peace in a country full of contradictions.

Riyadh has begun a new phase in dealing with the complexities of the Yemen war. By opening wider horizons beyond the domestic intricacies of Yemen, it has placed the tangled issue in the context of regional and international dynamics. This approach is aimed at reducing tensions, eliminating outstanding problems and drawing a new roadmap to cope with the challenges affecting its national security. Foremost among these challenges is the role played by military proxies affiliated with Iran in the region, especially the Houthi group, which has spearheaded Tehran’s policies aimed at destabilising the region, blackmailing the world and escaping from its own internal crises.

The visit by the Saudi delegation to Sana’a where it met face-to-face with the Houthi leaders was not a sudden step nor an absurd leap into the unknown, as some would have us believe.

Rather, it was the outcome of many rounds of dialogue facilitated by Muscat and Baghdad between Riyadh and Tehran, culminating in China’s mediation as an international broker which holds many pressure cards capable of swaying the Iranian regime.

Iran deals with its militias in the region, including the Houthis, as local proxies attached to the Revolutionary Guards whose orders they obey in order to promote Tehran’s strategic interests.

The first sign of the Houthis’ willingness to yield to Tehran’s dictates came immediately after the Saudi delegation’s visit to Sana’a. The intensity of the Houthi media discourse died down to some extent and, after long obstructing the process, the Houthis forged ahead with the exchange of prisoners. They also began to dismantle the border shanty towns that they had erected in recent years to smuggle sub-Saharan African migrants into Saudi territory. Such steps are obviously not sufficient, but they are part of the confidence-building measures which it is widely believed, may require many more years of patient work.

It seems certain that within all this momentum, which appears to mean an end to the present Yemen war, Riyadh is not about to leave Iran free to exert its influence in the country, nor will it turn a blind eye to the long-term strategic dangers posed by the presence of an armed ideological group in the region.

Riyadh will closely monitor the behaviour of the Houthis and will work to assuage many of their declared and undeclared fears and suspicions. It will encourage them to open up to their Arab environment and will also strive to integrate them into the Yemeni political scene, drawing some of their more moderate elements away from Iran’s orbit.

The final word on the future of the relationship between Riyadh and the Houthis, and behind them Iran, will depend on regional and international policy shifts regarding Yemen. The behaviour of the Houthis in the coming period will also play a decisive role in shaping the way Saudi Arabia deals with this ideologically-driven group. Riyadh will comprehensively review the way the war has been conducted so far and seek to neutralise potential Houthi threats, including their drones and ballistic missiles along with the growing influence of Iran.

* Saleh Baidhani is a Yemeni Writer, journalist and an Arab Weekly contributor.
The article appeared first on The Arab Weekly on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. The views expressed represent the author alone.