Sanaa, Yemen – Like thousands of Yemeni parents, Ali Mohammed has lost children fighting in the country’s protracted war.
But in his case, one son, Fahd, died fighting for the Saudi Arabian-backed Yemeni government in 2018, while the other, Nashwan, died the following year fighting for their enemies, the Iran-linked Houthi rebels.
Now Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to restore diplomatic relations after years of tension, leaving Yemenis like Mohammed surprised and confused.
“Today they are ready to be friends, to make concessions to satisfy their interests, while our country is flooded with trials,” said Mohammed, a resident of the capital Sanaa, which has been under Houthi control since 2014.
The rapprochement through Chinese mediation that Saudi Arabia and Iran announced in Beijing last week came about after several rounds of talks, including in Iraq and Oman.
It will lead to the reopening of their respective embassies within two months and the activation of a security cooperation arrangement under which the two regional superpowers pledge to respect state sovereignty and not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs.
But while Riyadh and Tehran may have moved to bury some of their differences, it’s unclear whether the same will happen in war-ravaged Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has been leading a military intervention in Yemen since 2015 in support of the internationally recognized government fighting the Houthis. Iran, meanwhile, has said it supports the rebels politically but denies sending them weapons, as claimed by Saudi Arabia and others. The Houthis have targeted a number of oil facilities and airports in Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, in recent years.
On Monday, the Yemeni government and the Houthis announced they had agreed on a prisoner exchange that would also include the release of 15 imprisoned Saudis. It was not immediately clear whether the timing of the announcement was coincidental or not, but questions remained about other confidence-building measures following the Beijing deal.
Adel Dashela, a Yemeni political researcher and author, said he did not believe Saudi-Iran’s normalization would turn Yemen into a stable country overnight.
“I don’t think the deal between Saudi-Iran and the Yemeni issue will have a major impact,” Dashela told Al Jazeera. “It is not easy to end the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, recover seized state weapons and force them to cease using weapons.”
Commenting on the possible motives for reaching an agreement, he pointed to Saudi Arabia’s security needs and Iran’s “internal crises” and the consequences of the sanctions imposed by the United States.
“Therefore, the two sides agreed to make concessions and resume relations.”
The war in Yemen has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions and created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations. More than 23.4 million people, or three quarters of Yemen’s population, are in need of assistance, including 2.2 million young people who are acutely malnourished.
Abdulrahman, a 53-year-old retired military officer in Sanaa, said the Saudi-Iran deal reminded Yemenis that their country’s plight is due to the lack of united leadership.
“If the country had seasoned and wise political leaders, we wouldn’t plunge into this chaos in the first place and let foreign powers control our destiny,” said Abdulrahman, who declined to give his full name.
He said the massive casualties after years of fighting have exacerbated the hostility of the warring factions.
“The Yemeni plenipotentiaries have been willing to commit to the instructions of their regional backers in pursuit of military and political victories. That is why our country has been a center of humanitarian suffering.”
Meanwhile, both the Houthis and the Yemeni government welcomed the Riyadh-Tehran detente and expressed their desire for peace.
“The region needs the resumption of normal ties between its countries,” said Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator.
Likewise, the government said it is always confident in dialogue and diplomatic approaches to resolving disputes. In its statement, the government hoped that the Saudi-Iran deal would usher in a new phase of regional relations.
Such statements came as no surprise to Abdulrahman.
“They (Houthis and the government) are obedient forces, who are not opposed to the Saudi and Iranian initiatives and plans.”
He said it is normal for a country to forge alliances in its region and beyond, but added that “these relations should not subordinate our country to a foreign power.”
“That’s what Yemen’s elites haven’t done,” Abdulrahman said.
Mohammed, meanwhile, said he felt Yemen had been betrayed.
“They burned Yemen for seven years to pursue their conflicting agenda,” the grieving father said. “Today they are embarking on a new chapter of collaboration and partnership. So what were they fighting for in Yemen?”