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Saudi-Iran deal no ‘magic wand’ for Yemen, experts warn

Saudi Arabia and Iran’s surprise rapprochement is no “magic wand” for Yemen, analysts say, warning there are no easy solutions for the complex conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country.

The move to restore diplomatic ties has raised hopes of an easing of tensions across the region and especially in Yemen, where the heavyweight rivals have been fighting what amounts to a proxy war.

Iran-backed Huthi rebels seized control of the capital in 2014, prompting a Saudi-led intervention the following year and fighting that has left hundreds of thousands dead and caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

But in a country that has long endured upheaval and is fractured along confessional, regional and political lines, even the withdrawal of Saudi and Iranian influence would not solve all the problems.

“The Saudi-Iran deal is a constructive step, but it won’t in itself resolve the Yemen conflict, at least not in the short term,” Elizabeth Kendall, a Yemen expert from Cambridge University’s Girton College, told AFP.

“This is because the Yemen conflict was ultimately domestically generated around questions of who controls power, territory and resources.”

Yemen’s problems range from a collapsed economy with millions dependent on aid to a significant Al-Qaeda presence and breakaway moves in the south, which was a separate, communist-ruled country from 1967 to 1990.

The Huthis, who adhere to the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam and come from a northern region bordering Saudi Arabia, control large swathes of the country where they are tightening restrictions, particularly on women.

– ‘Will not prevent war’ –

The Saudi-backed government, forced south to the port city of Aden, cautiously welcomed Friday’s announcement, expressing hope for “a new phase of relations in the region, starting with Iran’s cessation of interference in Yemeni affairs”.

Huthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdel Salam stressed that “the region needs the return of normal relations between its countries”.

Reaction from the Yemeni public appeared mixed. Altaf Ali, a woman from the Huthi-held capital Sanaa, told AFP: “God willing, the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be a good sign for the Arab world and the world, and in particular for Yemenis and Yemen to end the War.”

But in the besieged government-held third city of Taez, Abdulhakim Mugalis said: “I do not think that any (diplomatic) relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will make a comprehensive peace (in the region).

“It may make a temporary truce according to certain agreements for a short period, but it will not prevent war or make a comprehensive and lasting peace at all in Yemen.”

Fighting in Yemen calmed down markedly after a UN-brokered ceasefire came into effect last April, and has remained largely on hold even after the agreement lapsed in October.

Saudi Arabia has been holding behind-the-scenes, Omani-sponsored talks with the Huthis for months, according to Yemeni and regional sources who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

– ‘Proxy war to agency peace’ –

According to Maged al-Madhaji, director of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, the Saudi-Iran deal is not a “magic wand” for the problems facing Yemen.

“The solution to Yemen will only come through a multilateral dialogue with the presence of Saudi Arabia, the UAE (an important member of the Saudi-led coalition), the Huthis, Iran” and others, he said.

Ahmed Nagi, a researcher at the International Crisis Group Institute, also said the Saudi-Iranian d├ętente does “not mean a complete end to all the complexities of the conflict”.

Yemen is witnessing “a multi-layered war, and this deal will contribute to addressing the regional dimension of it, but the local motives of the conflict will remain present and it will require more time and multi-track solutions to end them”.

“Unless there is support for the Yemeni political process in order to achieve a real and sustainable Yemeni-Yemeni peace, this reconciliation between Tehran and Riyadh is nothing but a transition from the mentality of proxy war to agency peace.”

Kendall said the path to peace is particularly complicated “because the conflict has proliferated into more than just two warring sides”.

“Even if the Saudis and Huthis reach a peace deal, various domestic actors remain and serious controversies are likely to erupt over who controls power in Yemen, particularly in the south where southern separatists continue to push for an independent state,” she said.

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