The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic ties on March 10 was surprising to many, but not entirely unexpected. Important signposts, including rounds of Saudi-Iranian talks in Iraq and Oman since 2021, and a Saudi desire to disengage from the war in Yemen, pointed to an engagement with Iran at some point. The wildcard, however, was the role of China as broker, as it demonstrated Beijing’s willingness to further its direct involvement in Gulf politics. Could this foreshadow an increased diplomatic role for China in Yemen?
China has a long history of relations with Yemen, beginning in 1956, when the Mutawakelite Kingdom of Yemen became the first country in the Arabian Peninsula to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Over the following three decades, Beijing cultivated diplomatic and economic ties with both North and South Yemen and helped fund critical infrastructure projects. China began a project to build North Yemen’s first asphalt road in 1958, linking Sana’a and Hudaydah, which was completed in January 1962. Support to communist South Yemen during the 1970s included the largest Chinese aid program in the Middle East and long-term interest-free loans to finance multiple development projects. Its balanced relationship between North and South facilitated constructive relations after unification, focused on bilateral trade, investment in infrastructure, and access to oil. Then-President Abdo Rabbu Mansour visited China in November 2013 and received pledges from Beijing to fund major development projects in Yemen over two decades, including signing a US$500 million deal to expand and develop the Aden port; these plans were scrapped following the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen in 2015. At this point, China converged with the Saudi position, showcased by its support for UNSC Resolution 2216 and the 2019 Riyadh Agreement, but it remained open to engagement with all parties.
China’s historic ties with Yemen and its positive relations with Gulf countries could position it as an acceptable mediator in the current conflict among both regional and local actors. Regionally, both the Saudis and Iranians are willing – or obligated – to engage with China. Riyadh and Beijing have agreed to investment deals worth tens of billions of dollars since December, while China is Iran’s most important economic ally and number one trading partner, giving Beijing strong leverage with Tehran. For Yemen’s internationally recognized government, Chinese development and economic investments have the potential to rehabilitate road networks, revitalize ports, and revive the oil sector, in which China has heavily invested since the second half of the 1990s. The Houthis have also demonstrated a willingness to engage with China, sending a delegation led by chief negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam to Beijing in early December 2016, shortly after they formed a government in Sana’a. Another player, the Southern Transitional Council, may try to hark back to the strong ties that existed between South Yemen and China in its push to recreate an independent southern state.
China could play a pivotal role in the reconstruction of post-war Yemen, weaving the country into its vast Belt and Road Initiative. This project, the centerpiece of China’s vision to economically connect over 150 countries from Asia to Europe, has had difficulty gaining traction in oil-rich countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which are capable of investing in their own infrastructure projects. The opportunity to rebuild roads, ports, and airports and revitalize the energy sector in Yemen offers China an enticing new foothold in the region that could be difficult to pass up. There is also a security rationale for increased investment in Yemen: China has already established a presence in the Horn of Africa, opening its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 and ramping up its naval presence since 2018. Strategic engagement with Yemen could promise China further influence in the Red Sea, through which over US$700 billion worth of trade flows each year region, including near the Bab al-Mandab Strait.
China’s motivation and ability to negotiate the détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia make it an international actor to watch in Yemen. Moving forward, it will be necessary to assess not only how China interacts with Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also its relationships with local Yemeni actors.