Since 2011 the Western media has focused its attention on North Africa’s popular uprisings and their aftermath, while Yemen’s citizen-led protests went comparably unnoticed. Harsh government crackdowns on protesters, internal displacement, the spread of extremism and staggering poverty all followed the ousting of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yet few in the West have any idea about what went on before, during and after Yemen’s revolution. Al-Yemeni met with Yemen expert Anne-Linda Amira Augustin to discuss how the western media has covered Yemen’s crises and how the West might help the Yemeni people.
1. As a Yemen expert, could you explain the Yemen conflict and the parties involved?
We should describe the Yemen conflict as several conflicts in one. All parties are pursuing their own agenda, and have different reasons for being involved in the war. The Houthi militia, supported by military units led by former President Ali Abdallah Saleh—who himself marginalized and oppressed the Houthis for years—managed to drive the government under President Hadi into exile in March 2015. Hadi’s government could no longer withstand the pressures placed on it by the Houdis. Hadi stepped down in January 2015 and, after being under house arrest for six weeks, managed to flee to the southern Yemeni port city of Aden, where he handed in his resignation.
The Houthis gained control of large areas of the country last year, including the capital of Sana’a. In March 2015 they successfully reached former South Yemen. (Until 1990, South Yemen was a country in its own right, a former British colony and the sole Communist Arab state). The local militias, in response, joined forces with people’s committees and Southern Movement supporters to form the Southern Resistance, whose goal was to protect southern Yemen from invasion by the Houthi and Saleh militias. The northern military forces responded to civilians in the south with great brutality, particularly in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden. Today, large areas of the city have been reduced to piles of rubble. Saudi and UAE ground troops came to aid the Southern Resistance, and together they managed to free Aden and southern Yemen in July of 2015.
President Hadi and his government fled to Saudi Arabia in March. He received support there. Since that time, Saudi Arabia has been leading a multi-state military coalition (including, among others, the Gulf States, Sudan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Egypt, and Morocco). The coalition is attempting to combat the Houthi and Saleh forces within Yemen, and regularly violate international law in the process. Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as close allies of Iran.
2. How do Europeans view the Yemen conflict? Why do we hear so little about Yemen in the European media?
I think the European media’s portrayal of the events in Yemen—and throughout the Middle East—is often greatly oversimplified. Many people have a hard time understanding what the conflict is actually about and who is involved. The media quite frequently reduces the situation to a religiously motivated conflict, with Shiites on one side and Sunnis on the other, but it’s not that simple. The parties involved are fighting over influence, power, and resources, not religious issues.
Yemen is very far away from Europe. At the moment, people are coming to Europe from Syria and Iraq every day, so the conflicts there are receiving more attention than Yemen.
I think people in Europe prefer to turn away if they aren’t directly, personally affected. But Germany, in particular, should be looking more closely, because German-made weapons are among those being used in the war.
3. What kind of support could Europeans potentially offer the Yemeni people (for example, political, humanitarian, or developmental)? And what have Europeans achieved in Yemen thus far?
Official estimates say that 5,400 people have already lost their lives since March 2015, but the number of unreported casualties is likely higher. From a humanitarian perspective, the situation is catastrophic.
The best thing for European nations to do would be to adopt a neutral position and mediate between the conflict parties; a few countries are attempting to do this. At the beginning of October, the Netherlands presented the UN Human Rights Council with a draft resolution calling for a comprehensive international investigation into human rights violations and war crimes in Yemen since September 2014. The draft was withdrawn in response to pressure from Saudi Arabia, with the support of the U.S. and Great Britain. Instead, they adopted a resolution drafted by Saudi Arabia, which merely instructs the UN to support national investigative efforts.
The United States and Great Britain should try and use their influence on Saudi Arabia to compel Saudi Arabia and the rest of the coalition to seek out a peaceful solution. So far, unfortunately, this hasn’t happened at all. Quite the opposite, in fact: the U.S. and Great Britain are providing the military coalition with strategic support. Getting Saudi Arabia to lift their sea and air blockades, and negotiating a ceasefire, would be the first steps towards giving the Yemenis some breathing space.
4. Many Yemenis and foreign nationals have left the country. Can this be described as a refugee crisis? Will we experience a wave of refugees similar to the Syrian one?
I do not know the exact numbers on how many people managed to leave Yemen so far. An estimated several thousand Yemenis have reached Djibouti. Others were able to leave for Egypt or attempted to flee to Saudi Arabia or Malaysia, if they had relatives there.
You can call this a refugee crisis. An estimated 1.5 million Yemenis have been displaced within the country. People are fleeing from cities to villages, from one city to another. They are running away from the fighting, escaping to wherever things are peaceful at the moment. Only a very small number of them can afford to leave the country. The costs are just too prohibitive. Among Arab nations, people in Yemen are the poorest on average.
Based on numbers, the conflict in Yemen is currently the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Of the approximately 25 million Yemenis, an estimated 21 million are in need of aid and 13 million have not had enough to eat in quite some time. Because Saudi Arabia is blocking all air and land transportation routes as well as control over the sea routes, it bears a massive amount of responsibility for the degeneration of the humanitarian situation within the country.
5. How do you think people could help bring about the return of peace in Yemen?
A lot of it is up to internal players, but Saudi Arabia and the military coalition are the ones with the most influence. We can only attempt to get all the parties involved to sit down together and try to find solutions for ending this conflict. And it is particularly important to get the military coalition’s Western supporters to pressure Saudi Arabia into being receptive to discussion. Many of those involved are behaving stubbornly, and almost every attempt to negotiate has failed quickly because nobody is willing to find solutions.
In June, talks broke down in Geneva after just a short time. President Hadi set a precondition for the ceasefire as the Houthi’s withdrawal from the cities they have taken since September 2014. The Houthis refused to consider the demand. These days, both the Hadi government and the Houthis seem to be showing greater willingness to find a compromise: another round of UN-mediated talks may be held at the end of October.
6. In southern Yemen some people are calling for Yemen to be divided again. Would such a division be one possible method of defusing the crisis?
The majority of the southern Yemeni populace has been demanding South Yemen independence for years now. An estimated 90 percent of Yemenis in the south are in favor of breaking away from the north. Those voices have become louder over the past four years in particular, in response to increasing state repression of southern Yemenis and especially Southern Movement activists.
The war in Yemen has drastically escalated tensions between the country’s north and south. The northern militias’ brutality has reopened and deepened old southern wounds. In light of how Houthi and Saleh militias invaded in March 2015, slaughtering civilians and destroying cities and villages, dividing the country now seems practically unavoidable. The international community is extremely reluctant to support independence movements, though, so I don’t think that South Yemen will receive international recognition any time in the near future. Even so, things are already starting to happen within the country. North Yemenis left the south during the fighting, and today the Southern Resistance only rarely allows northern Yemenis to enter the south.
Anne-Linda Amira Augustin is a research associate in Middle Eastern Studies and Sociology in the research network “Re-Configurations: History, Remembrance and Transformation Processes in the Middle East and North Africa” at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Philipps-University Marburg. Her current research interests include the Southern Movement, youth and unrecognized statehood.