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A Chinese-mediated Saudi-Iranian reconciliation potentially casts a spotlight on fundamentally flawed security policies of regional powers, including not only the kingdom and Iran but also the United Arab Emirates.
While much of the discussion in recent years has focused on Iran’s strategy of creating a defense line far beyond its borders by nurturing and/or supporting aligned militias in various Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, and, even more so, the UAE, have adopted similar approaches.
To be sure, Iran has itself to blame for being the focal point of the debate.
Its nurturing and/or support of militias-cum-political organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and in Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, has been one driver of US and Arab efforts to contain the Islamic republic.
Even so, the Saudi-Iranian agreement could bring into sharp relief the challenges posed by what scholar Andreas Krieg has termed ‘surrogate warfare’ not only to the short-term resolution of conflicts like the Yemen war but also the long-term rejiggering of the Gulf’s overall security architecture.
Support for militias “empowers complex networks of surrogates…that…become increasingly actors in their own right who disrupt post-conflict resolution and state building… Security assistance to non-state actors…does not contribute to building institutions in recipient states but exacerbates conflict polarization and division,” Mr. Krieg said in a just-published study of UAE policy in Yemen and Libya.
It’s an approach that reduces conflicts to a zero-sum game and exploits weak institutions and governance rather than seeking to empower the state by building strong foundations and transparent and accountable authorities.
It also allows supporters of non-state actors to evade responsibility under the guise of plausible deniability.
Shielded by public relations and public diplomacy mastery, the UAE has long been able to keep out of the public eye the downside of its regional security strategy that shapes its defense, foreign, and soft power policies, including its militant opposition to political Islam and the quest to be the dominant power in defining what constitutes moderate Islam.
Much like what happened in Libya where the UAE, together with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others, support renegade Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar against the country’s internationally recognised government in debilitating civil strife, Emirati support for secessionist groups in Yemen could complicate if not thwart efforts to end its war.
In a sign of what could happen in Yemen, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army has refused to relinquish control of oil-rich swathes of eastern and southern Libya. Mr. Haftar has threatened to renew fighting if the country’s political stalemate persists.
Policymakers and analysts see an end to the Saudi-military intervention in Yemen as the litmus test of the recently Chinese-mediated agreement between the kingdom and Iran.
The UAE withdrew the bulk of its troops from Yemen in 2019 but continues to support the Southern Transitional Council (STC) that demands independence for South Yemen in what would be a return to two separate Yemeni states as they existed before unification in 1990.
In a first response, the Council welcomed the China-mediated agreement “as an embodiment of our keenness to strengthen relations between the peoples and countries of our region.”
The Council controls southern Yemen’s strategic ports and waterways, the UNESCO-protected Socotra archipelago, and the volcanic Mayun Island in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
The UAE is operating Socotra as if it were Emirati rather than Yemeni territory with infrastructure projects that link it to the Gulf state and Emirati immigration and social service policies.
The UAE strategy resembles Iran’s support for Arab non-state actors.
That may be one reason why the UAE was stepping ahead of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states such as Bahrain in rebuilding relations with Iran,. This included returning its ambassador to Tehran in 2022.
The UAE downgraded its diplomatic representation in Iran in 2016, but, unlike Saudi Arabia, did not break off relations in the wake of the ransacking of Saudi diplomatic outposts in the Iranian capital and the shrine city of Mashhad.
The missions were attacked by crowds protesting the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.
Moreover, the UAE sent Emirati coast guard commanders in 2019 to Tehran for discussions with their Iranian counterparts on maritime cooperation in the Strait of Hormuz.
To be sure, mounting uncertainty about the reliability of US pledges to guarantee Gulf security was the most immediate driver of Emirati outreach to Iran.
Uncertainty is also what governs the UAE’s engagement in surrogate warfare in a bid to project power and influence.
In that sense, the drivers of surrogate warfare are equally valid for Iran, which sees itself as encircled by hostile US-backed powers with varying degrees of security ties to Israel, and Saudi Arabia which views Iranian-supported non-state actors and Iran’s weapons programs as existential threats.
With Yemen as a litmus test, the Chinese-mediated Saudi-Iranian rapprochement offers an opportunity to reduce regional tensions more structurally by positioning surrogate warfare as a threat to long-term stability and security rather than a partisan issue that puts Iran but not others in the hot seat.
“One of the most concerning drawbacks of security assistance being provided to non-state actors that do not cooperate but compete with government authority is that it creates new fault lines in already polarized conflicts,” Mr. Krieg said.
He went on to say, regarding Libya and Yemen, that “rather than offering avenues for the integration of conflicting parties into an inclusive national framework that could assist with reconciliation,” support for non-state militias adds “additional layers of conflict to already conflict-torn countries.”
That is as true for Iranian and Emirate surrogate warfare and degrees of Saudi support for non-state actors as it is for direct Saudi military intervention in Yemen or Iranian involvement in Syria.
To be sure, dialling down the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran is in the interest of all parties.
So are inclusive security approaches that consider the concerns of all and strengthen institutions and governance rather than mitigate against reconciliation and reconstruction.
The ultimate valuation of the Chinese mediation will depend on the degree to which it contributes to sustainable conflict management, if not conflict resolution.
What is certain is that in the words of analyst Raffaello Pantucci “people will look at China’s proposals and its attempts at mediation as evidence of Beijing offering something new which, while not perfect, is at least not simply stoking the flames of conflict.”
Potentially, that is what offers an opening for a rethink of security strategies and the development of approaches that that could help create a more sustainable security environment.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.