Friday, November 2, 2018

Light at the end of the tunnel?

The meeting with the UN Secretary-General (SG), Antonio Guterres was planned months ago by the Dag Hammarskjold journalism fellowship of which I am one of the grantees this year, along with my fellow Abdi Latif Dahir from Kenya and Amitoj Singh from India.

With the UN Secretary-General (SG), Antonio Guterres. 

When the US Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis made a call last Tuesday to end the war in Yemen and return to immediate peace talks in Sweden in 30 days, hopes soared. That was probably the strongest statement made by a US official in support of peace in Yemen in a long time.

I was lucky today to meet both the UN Secretary-General (SG), Antonio Guterres and the Swedish ambassador to the UN Security Council, Mr Carl Skau. Both shared a hopeful outlook on the potential peace talks in Sweden and felt they could indeed succeed where previous attempts have failed.

The meeting with the SG was planned months ago by the Dag Hammarskjold journalism fellowship of which I am one of the grantees this year, along with my fellow Abdi Latif Dahir from Kenya and Amitoj Singh from India. The meeting lasted for only 15 minutes and it was challenging for us to pose all the questions we had in mind. My focus was certainly Yemen and I posed questions about the likelihood that proposed peace talks in Sweden could actually lead to peace. I also addressed the question of accountability for the war crimes committed in Yemen. As a diplomats’ job is to always appear optimistic, the SG was typically diplomatic. Mr Guterres expressed his hope that the UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths would succeed in his ongoing communication with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Sana’a, and begin planning for peace talks in Sweden.

For my second meeting today at the Swedish mission to the UN office, I was fortunate that they welcomed my interview request from two weeks ago. I thought it was perfect timing that to speak with Mr Skau right after Sweden was proposed as the site for potential peace talks. So, I, of course, asked the Swedish ambassador about that.

With the Swedish ambassador to the UN Security Council, Mr Carl Skau

The ambassador had no information on the details of where the proposal for peace stood and if indeed the talks are to be held in Sweden. He confirmed nevertheless that Sweden has offered to host such talks on its soil and that in fact the offer was made before General Mattis suggested the idea. Sweden, he confirmed, is in close contact with the UN Special Envoy, whose efforts are supported and closely followed by the Swedish government.

Most importantly, the Swedish ambassador said, “we are working closely with the Netherlands and the UK on a humanitarian UNSC resolution on Yemen that we hope can be adopted in the coming weeks.”

Overall, there seems to be many factors coming together in favour of invigorating the peace process for Yemen. Both developments outside and inside the United Nations are crucial. Starting from the growing international pressure on Saudi Arabia regarding the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, to linking that to the atrocities committed in Yemen - all have influenced UN member states’ approach to the Yemen conflict. This gives me hope that the coming weeks may bring some happy news for Yemen.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Free Dawit Isaak

Happy birthday, Dawit! I just learned that you are turning 54 today and it pained me to realize that it's been 17 years since you have been deprived of freedom, of seeing your daughters grow, of seeing your second home in Gothenburg (which is, by the way, mine too) and above all, of writing. This, especially, I know how it hurts, it's a real torture to deprive a writer the ability to write.

Even though we never met (yet), but I first came to know about your case when Publicistklubben contacted me in 2014 & honored me with a prize named after you. I learned that about 20 years ago, you sought refuge in Sweden, escaping the oppressive & brutal regime of Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki. I was told that you continued covering Eritrea from Sweden, then a few years later you decided to go back & write (journalism, playwriting & open-letters to the president) more from Eritrea - then you were arrested.

I remember my first impression was "why I didn't know about this? why there is no global outcry about this?"

Then, I learned that you have a dual citizenship (Swedish-Eritrean), & that allows the Swedish government to have less responsibility and have the "right" to not show the same protection if you were only a Swedish citizen.
This is crazy, right? Had you been a Swedish citizen -not of a Two citizenship- Swedish government could have done more to release you. That's like saying: dual citizenship in Sweden equals less than a solo Swedish citizenship. I guess that's another dark side of Sweden that not many know about. I worry that today it's you & tomorrow it's me when I decide to go back to Yemen. Your imprisonment, Dawit is so personal to me. The Swedish government's attitude towards you: its inaction, reflects a greater problem.

This is really unfair. The Swedish civil society -headed by Free Dawit IsaakCampaign, among many others-, however, has done everything possible to shed light on your case. Dear Dawit, please do know that there's a huge effort being done to pressure the Swedish government & help release you.

I pray for your release!

And once more, happy birthday, our dear Dawit Issak!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis Persists, Despite Humanitarian Funding

When over $2 billion was pledged for the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP) earlier this year, it was considered not only a success but also the best funded response plan worldwide according to anonymous aid workers who spoke to the author during the UN General Assembly. So far, 65% of the pledged funds have been delivered. The delivery of the remaining funding is expected throughout this year.

Despite all of the aid allocated to Yemen, the country remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Famine-like conditions remain, while two-thirds of its roughly 29 million people need humanitarian assistance, and about 8 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from. Cholera and other infectious diseases continue to threaten millions of people amidst a collapsing health care system.


While there are about 183 United Nations (UN) agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGO)s working together across Yemen’s 23 governorates, all coordinating together the delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of people, they are struggling to meet the people’s growing needs.

One UN humanitarian aid worker in Sana’a, who prefers to remain anonymous, told the author, “As the conflict nears its fourth year, Yemen’s economy has collapsed and its health care system is devastated. The number of internally displaced persons increases and more humanitarian needs emerge. Humanitarian needs have increased, often outstripping the capacity to respond and putting pressure on humanitarian organizations that have to provide for failing social services which are beyond their mandate.”

Two major events this year have impacted the country’s massive humanitarian crisis. First, an on-and-off again battle in Hodeidah in May led to large numbers of civilian casualties, the displacement of thousands of people, the shelling of a World Food Program (WFP) warehouse, and threatened humanitarian assistance to the city and other neighbouring cities. A few weeks ago, the Yemeni Rial hit its lowest value in history. As a result, 3.5 million are food insecure due to high-cost basic food commodities and two million are at a heightened risk of famine.


The humanitarian crisis is further exacerbated due to the conflict and the hurdles to conduct and maintain humanitarian work. “Since the Saudi-led coalition closed Sana’a airport, the only possible way to fly aid to Sana’a is through UN planes, which are often limited,” explains Patrik Olsson, Yemen Program Officer at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). “Estimates put most of Yemen’s 29 million population in the northern part of the country. With limited access to the north, we are not able to provide the full extent of urgent assistance needed to the most vulnerable groups” says Olsson. 

Most of the international humanitarian organizations that spoke to the author, complained about the difficulties of obtaining visas to the country. For instance, Olsson recalls, “The de-facto government in Sana’a sometimes requires our CVs and academic transcripts in order to obtain a visa, and very often they require that we have a visa issued from the Yemeni government in Riyadh before they give us a visa to Sana’a.”

Humanitarian work faces further structural problems that hinder or slow down the process. According to an anonymous aid worker, the Houthis’ de facto government in the north requires that transported aid be taxed—a process that slows down the distribution of humanitarian aid to vulnerable groups in northern areas. The fragmentation of the Yemeni state in the course of the ongoing conflict has allowed the emergence of other non-state actors who disrupt the work of international aid groups. For example, according to the UN Panel of Experts’ report, proxy forces of the Saudi-led coalition have obstructed humanitarian operations or the distribution of aid.

Access to different areas across the country is also undermined by the spread of violence. For instance, after one of its staff was killed in Taiz last April, the International Red Cross pulled seventy-one staff members out of Yemen; impacting the crucial assistance it provides for people in need. Recently, Doctors without Borders had to suspend its activities in Ad Dhale governorate in southern Yemen following an attack against staff housing.


Reports show that food has been used as a weapon of war in Yemen. As a result, humanitarian workers have had to negotiate the delivery of aid to hard-to-reach areas. Two of the leading international actors in the conflict—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—pledged a combined total of $1 billion in April 2018, raising questions about the contradiction between their generosity and their military activities in the country. “We avoid partnering with countries directly involved militarily in Yemen because they politicize their assistance,” said one humanitarian worker who prefers to be anonymous. “That goes against the three fundamental principles of humanitarian actions: independence, neutrality and humanity.”

Humanitarian access has been a major issue facing humanitarian actors. By February 2018 it was estimated that there were constraints in 90 per cent of districts in Yemen. This has required more humanitarian negotiation efforts to ease difficulties. Humanitarian diplomacy has been a key element in facilitating international humanitarian work in Yemen. “We work in a difficult operational environment; we are constantly involved in humanitarian negotiations with all warring sides to ensure we have full access and can assist the most vulnerable groups,” says the UN humanitarian aid worker in Sana’a.

The WFP has managed to feed about eight million people per month, scaling up their targeted population of last year’s 3 million people.

“If it wasn’t for the international and local aid community in Yemen, many more lives would have been lost already,” says the UN humanitarian aid worker in Sana’a. “When we face attacks and obstacles, it doesn’t mean that we have to stop our work, but it’s a reminder that warring sides have to abide by the international humanitarian law and guarantee the safety and security of humanitarian relief personnel.”

Among humanitarian aid workers, the consensus seems to be that the aid system is broken in Yemen. Those most in need rarely receive basic assistance due to the unique restrictions on all but one of the airports being closed, lengthy visa processes, obstruction of aid deliveries by regional state actors, as well as targeting of staff. Many of these limitations are not unusual to the providing of aid in a conflict zone, what is unique is that Yemen includes all of these factors in addition to being a poor population prior to the conflict with erratic media coverage. All these factors exacerbate conditions on the ground that aid workers continue to navigate seemingly with their hands tied behind their backs.

This article was written for and published in The Atlantic Council's website today. 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Yemen at the UN General Assembly 24-28 Sep 2018

Yemeni President, Hadi was highly criticized for his picture in New York with a cake, celebrating the
anniversary of the September 26 Revolution of 1962; while a widespread starvation is hitting Yemen.

This week, the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) annual debate began and, as I predicted in my review of last week, all eyes were on the American president Donald Trump - which has shifted the focus away from more serious global issues. This week has also been bad timing for Yemen, as almost all American press attention has been focused on the all-American if historical hearing in Washington, Ford-Kavanaugh Senate hearing.

Overall, Yemen for UN officials remains a top humanitarian concern while it remains solely a political issue for the Yemeni-Saudi-Emirati block. Between Trump’s misleading claims about Yemen, the Yemeni government’s continuous obsession with Iran’s role in Yemen, and the Saudi-UAE well-planned and well-funded PR work in New York, discussions about the conflict in Yemen remain highly selective and focused on more war rather than peace. Despite the fact that Yemen is on this year’s UNGA agenda, no substantial progress was achieved this week in the security council. However, a glimpse of victory was achieved for Yemeni victims of war in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council, when the council voted to extend an inquiry commission into war crimes in the country.

Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan

The week began with a high-level session on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen organized by the UN office (watch here), headed by the UN Relief Chief, Mark Lowcock. The session included remarks made by Lise Grande from OCHA in Yemen, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from the World Health Organization, Kelly Clements from the UNHCR, Helle Thorning-Schmidt from Save the Children, Mai Al-Eryani from the Yemeni Women’s Union. All have painted a bleak picture of the unspeakable human suffering in Yemen. However, I found the speeches shying away from denouncing the weaponization of aid by the warring sides. The speakers might have been intimidated to express so fearing the consequences.

Sep 24 - UN high-level session on Yemen.

Next, we heard from the Yemeni foreign minister, Khaled al-Yamani, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, the UAE minister of state for international cooperation, Reem Al Hashimy and other European countries. The most striking remark was made by al-Mouallimi,, who with a straight face stated that, “Yemen is not a man-made disaster, it’s rather a Houthi-made disaster.” Outrageous, right?! Saudi Arabia has mastered the blaming-game in the course of Yemen war, and the Hadi government has just followed along. 

Both the Saudi and Emirati officials minimized the problem of limited access for aid operations to Yemen, stressing that it wasn’t important to open Sana’a airport as other entries are opened. This implies that the UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths’ recent wish to open Sana’a airport soon is only a wishful thinking.

The good news is that both Denmark and Canada said during the session that they will add new funds for the humanitarian aid fund; about $20 million from Denmark and $28m from Canada. I also finally managed to do an interview with Sweden's Special Envoy for Yemen, ambassador Peter Semneby who attended the session. I say “finally” because both my two previous interview request emails were had gone unanswered. The interview will be published soon.

Trump on Yemen

Tuesday was day one of UNGA’s annual debate and it began with the most truthful moment in this year’s UNGA session so far consisting of the audience laughing at Mr. Trump’s first sentences in his speech. It was difficult to expect any hopeful comment from Trump about American efforts for a peace process in Yemen, as he was busy bashing Iran and globalism. Next day, Trump made another awful misleading claim, this time about Yemen, during a major press conference held on the sidelines of the UNGA. Unfortunately, I had nasty flu and couldn’t attend the press conference, but hundreds of journalists attended the conference and none of them posed a single question about Yemen. Questions mainly were focused on American domestic affairs; especially the Ford-Kavanaugh Senate hearing. Despite the lack of questions on Yemen, Trump mentioned Yemen once in his 80 minute-long press conference when he was speaking about Iran. “Yemen is a mess, but it’s getting better,” said Trump. No journalist dared to challenge him about his false claim about the soon-to-be world’s largest famine.

Saudi-UAE PR Work

One might think UNGA is the most powerful diplomatic event of the year but I’ve been observing how events happening on the sidelines of UNGA are rather more important events. There are about dozens of events happening outside the UN organized by Saudi Arabia, United Arab of Emirates, the Yemeni government, Qatar, the US state department, where stronger messages are conveyed via controlled narratives.

The annual “United Against Nuclear Iran” summit; for instance, has been taking place since 2008 on the sidelines of UNGA to bash Iran and all its supporters. This year’s summit included an explosive speech by the National Security Advisor of the United States, John Bolton - one could leave the room believing a US war against Iran is surely on its way.

Both the Saudi UN ambassador and the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir held separate conferences on the sidelines of UNGA. These events are attended by invitation only, sent to influential officials and media outlets. Not to mention that Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar have each its own media groups working with it. Hence, it’s not only a diplomatic war but also a media war. Each country seems well-prepared with its UN events, outside-UN events, its media outlets - all geared to shaping the international public opinion.

Where is the Yemeni government in all of that? The Yemeni government remains a puppet in the hands of the Saudi-UAE coalition's hands. Evidently, Yemeni president, Hadi’s speech on Wednesday was one written by Saudi Arabia.

My takeaway from this week is that media is a weapon both KSA and US have used very well because of their great economic capability. They can control newspaper coverage, and direct their own TV channels and organize well-publicized press conferences, thus sending their well-crafted messages to the world from - in other words, money speaks loudly!

As an independent freelance journalist, I don’t know how long I can survive in this media landscape. Last year, I founded “Sana’a Review” aiming to provide independent critical stories on Yemen with a group of Yemeni writers. I’ve been looking for funds and have knocked on Swedish and Danish doors, but all my requests have been unsuccessful so far. I am calling on you, dear readers, to forward any tips you may have on potential funding sources, specifically for Sana’a Review, or even if you would personally like to support this publication, please contact me: (