Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Yemen: A tragic battleground will get bloodier amid US-Iran tensions

Iran is likely to use the Houthis to give Saudi Arabia and by extension the US, a bloody nose - ruining any chance for peace in the process.

*Last week witnessed a significant escalation between the Saudi-UAE coalition and the Houthi rebels, eroding around six months of discussions in Yemen following the Yemen Peace Talks in Sweden at the end of 2018.

The latest deadly episode in the four-year conflict was a Saudi-UAE airstrike attack on Sanaa, in retaliation for Houthi drone strikes on Saudi oil tankers off the coast of the UAE, near the Straits of Hormuz, and drone attacks on two Saudi oil pumping stations west of the capital Riyadh.

The Houthi Defence Ministry stated that the recent drone strikes came as the first shot of a military operation which includes a list of 300 targets in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Even the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who is known to be optimistic, expressed serious concerns about the Houthi attack on Saudi oil facilities, and admitted that recent developments “affect the political process".

“Affect” seems too soft a word to describe the potential fallout from the recent military confrontations, especially when one places it within the context of the war of words raging between the United States and Iran, and Washington’s efforts to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero.

Recent developments have severely undermined all peace efforts following the talks in Sweden, and have revealed the true nature of the military sophistication of the Houthis.

The huge focus on resolving the conflict in Hodeidah has only posed as a distraction from the other major emerging conflict in the country. The UN recently announced that the redeployment of forces from Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa ports has begun and in parallel both the Houthis and the Yemeni government have initiated discussions over the economic provisions of the Hodeida Agreement.

These steps would seem positive ones only if new major fighting fronts did not emerge; such as the Houthi drone strikes against Saudi Arabia, the ground fighting in Hajjah, Taiz and Al Dhale, among other areas in Yemen, causing more civilian casualties, and the fact that the fight against famine and cholera is still not over.

The failure to completely resolve the Hodeidah battle means that we are now back to square one. UN peace efforts will remain limited in what they can achieve because international dynamics tend to play a more decisive role in the trajectory of the conflict and its resolution.

We have seen that with the Qatar Crisis and Al Jazeera, unshackled from Saudi-UAE pressure, broadcasting nonstop coverage on the atrocities in Yemen, eventually influencing public opinion.

The Jamal Khashoggi killing and the international movement and sentiment that followed has played a significant role, along with many other matters, bringing about peace talks in Sweden.

Nothing enhances or undermines peace efforts in Yemen as much as external factors do.

Evolved military capacity

While UN peace efforts have been impeded, there has been an opportunity for the Houthis to reposition themselves and improve their ballistic missile technology - primarily obtained from assassinated former president Saleh’s air munitions.

In other words, crippling peace efforts helped the Houthis buy time to enhance their military force.

In November 2017, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile at Saudi Arabia’s capital, which was intercepted. In July last year, Houthis attacked two Saudi ships near the Red Sea’s Bab al Mandeb strait without inflicting significant damage. Then, in January this year, the Houthis launched drone strikes attacking a military parade run by the Yemeni government in Yemen’s southern province of Lahaj, killing several military officials.

Recent Houthi drone strikes, however, are different. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of 'ordering' the attack, something the Saudis didn’t do in the previous incidents. The geopolitical dimension in this war is slowly coming to the fore.

Stuck between the US and Iran

Amidst the economic, proxy, and information wars between the US (and its close allies, Saudi Arabia and UAE) and Iran, Yemen is a battleground for them all. Iran’s desire not to go into a direct military confrontation with the US or Saudi Arabia has only meant that it has a desire to confront through proxy, with Yemen and the Houthis as its trump card.

With little or no evidence that Iran was militarily supporting the Houthis, the Saudis imposed themselves in this war. As it raged on, the Saudi claim has come true.

Iran’s influence throughout the war has dramatically increased - which is crucial to understanding the conflict’s direction. An investigation by Conflict Armament Research points out that some “Iranian technology transfers to Houthi rebels”.

In his first interview with his channel, al Masirah TV, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al Houthi last month did not deny or confirm direct military support. He asserted, however, that Houthis receive 'how-to' military teaching from some friends.

Objectively, whether militarily or diplomatically, the Saudi-UAE coalition enjoys global goodwill and support while the Houthis have only the support of Iran and Hezbollah. Attacking Saudi oil facilities – claimed by Houthis – and the Iran-US crisis is connected. It's impossible to believe the timing is coincidental.

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are “highly likely” to have facilitated the attacks, as a Norwegian insurers’ report indicates. For Iran’s convenience and in line with its cautious strategy, it wants to show a military operation which is strong enough to shock but not pull them into a full-scale military confrontation. There is no better tool for that than Yemen and the Houthis.

The logical conclusion is that the higher the tensions between the US and Iran, the more Iran will use Yemen as a battleground to antagonise the US and its partner, Saudi Arabia.

All UN diplomatic efforts seem futile, as international actors involved in the conflict continue to shape it through their rivalries. Unless we witness a drastic shift in these states, greater violence is coming.

*This aricle was first written for/published on TRT World website, 21st of May, 2019. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Saudi-UAE airstrikes against Sana'a

On Al Jazeera English yesterday, commenting on Saudi-UAE airstrikes against Sana'a today. Six civilians, including four children, had been killed and 52 wounded.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

why UAE-backed troops arrive in Yemen’s Socotra

On Al Jazeera English's News Hour with Folly Bah Thibault, May 9 2019, discussing how UAE has come to act as an occupation force in Yemen.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Yemeni Women: Making the Most of the Space Available

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(C) Reuters: Sana'a, 2011. 

During my early childhood in Sana’a, in the 1990s, the idea of gender equality was confusing to me. On the one hand, my mother was teaching me how women must fight for their rights. On the other hand, outside of the home, concepts like “gender equality” or “feminism” were portrayed in a negative light. I recall that, in secondary school, our female teacher told our class how “equality” between the sexes was a notion manufactured by the West to destroy Arab and Muslim communities. I also recall how my religious neighbour urged me to accompany her to a women-only Quran study group in the nearby mosque. We would go and listen to a sheikha (female religious leader) explaining how “gender equality” and “feminism” were against Islam, and how Allah wanted men and women to have different and unequal roles and responsibilities.

Raufa Hassan. 

When I started college, however, I became exposed to a different kind of discourse about women’s rights. Both the independent press and events about women’s rights, organised by pro-democracy local civil society organizations (CSOs), opened my eyes to Yemen’s feminist women. Women’s rights advocates in political positions or leading CSOs, such as Radhya Shamsheer, Amat al-Alim Alsoswa, Raufa Hassan, or Amal Basha, speaking eloquently about women’s activism in Yemen, have all been crucial in shaping my feminist consciousness. They were working on issues like child marriage, gender-based violence, discriminatory laws, and women’s political participation, among many other things.

The word feminism, though, was not always explicitly used because it was dangerous and antagonising.

For instance, in 1999, leading feminist figure Raufa Hassan was subjected to an aggressive religious attack over her work and was eventually forced to leave the country. The anti-feminist backlash from some influential religious members of parliament and conservative clerics compelled most feminists to adopt a more pragmatic approach to their activism and to use less antagonising labels, such as women’s empowerment advocates. Only a handful would fearlessly continue to call themselves feminists. They were all involved in the same feminist struggle, to be sure.

Yemen’s modern history has never seen a coherent and consistent women’s movement, but rather temporary and fragmented movements with different priorities, such as women’s struggle against human rights violations, and feminists’ focus on combating patriarchal tribal structures that discriminated against women. They all stemmed from genuine concerns for human rights and democracy.

In the country’s modern history, three major events have influenced these struggles and women’s political rights: 1) the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, 2) Yemen’s uprising in 2011, and 3) the war that has been ongoing since 2015.

When the two Yemeni states unified in 1990, a reform of the family law took place that was considered an advancement for Northern and a setback for Southern women, as the South had already introduced more progressive women’s rights than the North, for instance, legal equality in family affairs.

Then, in the wake of the 2011 uprising, women fought hard for greater and more effective political participation, eventually achieving an unprecedented 30 per cent quota for women in Parliament.

Women also took part in the Constitution Drafting Committee for the first time in the State’s history.


Yet, today, all these advancements in the name of women’s rights have been eroded. As the four-year-long war rages on, the political system as a whole has descended into chaos and the push for women’s representation has shifted from political institutions to diplomacy and advocacy.

During the time from the Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a in September 2014 to the Saudi-led military intervention in 2015, the formal political process has ground to a halt. Militarisation has meant a significant loss for women’s political voice and role in decision-making. In fact, the discussion of women’s political rights in Yemen right now, in its current apocalyptic state, seems an extravagant thought.

The conflict has made Yemen the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Millions of lives are threatened by famine, but the heaviest toll is taken on women and girls of childbearing age. Females are facing a rise in child marriages and a 63 per cent increase in violence against them. With dozens of women detainees held in Houthi rebel prisons, facing torture and abuse, the conflict has destroyed some of the tribal safeguards that protected women from abduction or imprisonment. In Taiz, women activists are a target of Houthi bullets. Across many cities, women agonise over their missing male relatives and are barely able to feed their starving children.

What I lament the most is that pre-war Yemen, with all its institutional injustices against women, had nevertheless overtaken Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in its advancement of women’s rights – progress that today is basically undone. Over the course of the Yemeni war, women in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have witnessed some positive developments, such as the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia and an increase in women’s political representation in the UAE, while Yemenis are facing the decline of their rights and freedoms. This is a very important comparison as the disastrous bombing of Yemen is carried out by no other than its neighbours: Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Independent press and CSOs have disappeared as a venue to raise awareness about women’s empowerment. Journalists, activists and aid workers have been harassed, attacked, and/or made to disappear by all warring parties. The space for civil action has shrunk drastically. Voices that dare to speak out in support of women’s rights are effectively being silenced.


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Yemen Peace talks in Kuwait, 2016.

Meanwhile, women are pushing back. At the grassroots level, with some 12,000 men arrested and more than 3,000 forcibly disappeared, mothers, sisters, and daughters of those abducted have begun to gather in front of the central prison or police stations across major Yemeni cities in search of their sons, fathers, or brothers. They have organised themselves as a collective named “Mothers of Abductees Association.” At the political level, UN Women has supported the establishment of the Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security, which calls for women’s inclusion in the political dialogue and peace process.

In addition, Yemeni women’s political activism has been supported by the three UN Special Envoys for Yemen, Jamal Ben Omar, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and currently Martin Griffiths, over the past eight years. In accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 – on the full involvement and equal participation of women in conflict resolution processes – Griffiths has ensured the presence of women in the Yemeni peace talks in Kuwait, Geneva, and Stockholm through consultancy groups.


Even though Yemen has not witnessed a strong women’s movement in recent history, women have become an important pillar in the formation of a new democratic Yemen since the 2011 uprising. Their activism under the difficult circumstance of continuing conflict has played an important role in shedding light on gross human rights violations and in peace advocacy. The future of Yemeni women depends on the future of Yemen. Women activists will therefore not rest until the country is back on its feet and peace prevails. Within the space available to them, Yemeni women are looking to achieve something that is worth the world’s solidarity.

*This article was written for and first published in Goethe Institute's website, on April 2019. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Why is supporting Yemeni journalists important?

With Yemeni activist and lawyer, Huda al-Sarari at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, 2017.

I was very delighted to hear the news that Yemeni activist and lawyer, Huda al-Sarari won the 2019 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity for her brave activism and speaking out against the torture in secret prisons in Southern Yemen. The Aurora Prize, awarded on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, is an annual international humanitarian award recognizing individuals or organizations for humanitarian work.

It's such a bittersweet moment for Huda - who I have the fortune to call her a friend - because the award comes less than a month after the passing of her teenager son in Aden following a serious bullet injury he sustained during a violent protest in Aden in March this year.

Huda has done outstanding work under extremely difficult conditions. While documenting cases of grave human rights abuses in secret prisons in the south of Yemen, Huda faced death threats, harassment and brutal defamation campaign. Referring to the danger Huda has been subjected to, the Aurora Prize cites a Middle East Eye-feature titled "Yemeni woman activist refuses to give up following death threats" that I authored in 2017 about Huda's work.

A demonstration in Aden demanding "Justice for the prisoners and justice for the innocent" with pictures of those detained held up (Photo courtesy of Huda al-Sarari).

I've been working as a journalist for more than a decade, experiencing work as a full-time staff reporter and as an independent freelance journalist. The latter type has been the most difficult because it has so many challenges.

Writing that piece about Huda was very important for me but it took so long time until my editors were convinced about the significance of the story. Very often, like what happened while pitching this story, I'd spend 70% of my time convincing some of my editors. Meaning, the process of writing one feature, like the one about Huda, won't only consist of writing the story. No. I'd need so long time (days or weeks) to convince my editor to approve commissioning the story - and then, I'd start writing. That often leads to an extreme delay in getting the story out and burning me out.

I am so so happy that Huda is receiving this recognition as it also makes me feel happy that my perseverance in pushing for her story to be out didn't go in vain.

Yemen isn't underreported in media just like that. It's underreported partially because there is a deliberate decision to ignore it - and dismiss its people's stories. I have so many stories about many Yemenis doing great things but I am frustrated with how I must push so hard to get just one story out, like Huda's story.

I am also fortunate to have some of the most supportive and understanding editors whom I cherish very much. Thank you so much, guys.

I think it's important for editors and publications to believe, trust and support Yemeni journalists who typically would bring untold stories about their community so people like Huda could also receive the recognition they deserve.