Thursday, March 30, 2017

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why the world ignores Yemen

Sanaa, Yemen [Photo: yeowatzup/Wikimedia]

I had this interview last January with Harvard School's journal of middle eastern politics and policy.


It’s a devastating Middle Eastern war in which millions of people have been forced to flee their homes. Regional rivals are using the conflict to expand their own influence, while al-Qaeda and the Islamic State seek to take advantage of the chaos. Bombing raids strike civilian areas with impunity, and torture is common.

Everyone knows that all this is happening in Syria. Yet many laymen are unaware that the same things are taking place in Yemen, too. So why have most people heard so little about the Yemeni war in comparison? What are the challenges journalists face in covering the conflict? JMEPP spoke with award-winning Yemeni journalist and blogger Afrah Nasser about media coverage of the war, and what lies ahead for her country.

Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy: How well would you say the Western media has covered the war in Yemen? What about Arab media outlets’ coverage?

Afrah Nasser: Comparing to other tragedies, like natural disasters or terrorist attacks or even the war in Syria, the western media coverage of the war in Yemen has been so little; and whenever there is, it is unfortunately often in the form of parachute journalism.

This is largely because it’s been hard to access Yemen, as Saudi Arabia has enforced a blockade on Yemen, and if you want to go you as a journalist (Arab or non-Arab) or as a foreigner, you have to have permission from the Saudis and the rebels, the Houthis. It has been like hell to enter or leave Yemen even for ordinary Yemenis themselves; a trip that usually would take you few hours might take days or weeks. I met my mother earlier this month in Ethiopia after she went from Sana’a to Aden, then to Cairo, then to Addis Ababa. She also had to take the same long and expensive journey back to Sana’a.

That’s being said, it’s costly and risky for journalists to access Yemen. And if you do enter Yemen, some western and Arabic media outlets might not buy your story because they are careful of annoying the Saudis. At the same time, inside Yemen, the Houthis have caused a major crackdown on all journalists. Houthis are ranked the second-leading abductors of journalists in the world after the Islamic State, according to the latest report by Reporters without Borders.

JMEPP: Would you say that the war in Syria is the main reason that the Yemeni war has received comparatively little attention, or are there other important factors at play?

Nasser: The war in Syria is partially a reason for the little attention Yemen has received: that is, the Syrian refugees pouring into the European coast helped Syrians get great attention and empathy. But Yemenis are trapped between the Gulf countries – who are bombing them – and the sea neighbouring other poor countries, i.e. Somalia and Djibouti.

Moreover, unlike the war in Syria, the Saudis are a direct actor in the Yemen war and this tremendously impacts the lack of reporting or the non-reporting on the Yemen war. As the war began in Yemen in early 2015, WikiLeaks released thousands of diplomatic cables from Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry, which included documents showing how Saudi Arabia is buying media silence, Arabic media in specific. Understandably, the oil-rich country, one of the world’s top economic powers, Saudi Arabia has cash that can buy anything and anyone. The problem is, Saudi Arabia is at war with not any country but the poorest Arab country, Yemen – which gives you an idea about the unequal power in this war.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Yemen War: Between Internal and External Interests

2015 - Saudi-led coalition’s airstrike hits Yemeni Capital, Sana’a. Courtesy: Reuters.

*The war in Yemen is often described as a forgotten war and when/if it is remembered, it is not seen with a holistic lens recognising the full picture of the conflict – and this automatically leads to flawed conclusions. Great focus is often paid to the geopolitics of the war in Yemen, i.e how Yemen has become the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while a lesser focus is paid to the domestic politics. The internal eco-political dynamics between the different local political and tribal actors is to a great extent the fundamental driving force of the war in Yemen. That is, the local political landscape is dominated by survival politics and checks and balances which influence the geopolitical relation between Yemen and countries involved in the conflict. More importantly, not giving a complete consideration to Yemen’s domestic politics by the international community hinders reaching any peace process for Yemen’s 2-years-long war.

Hopeful Uprising
A good starting point could be in understanding that there have been three stages to the ongoing conflict in Yemen. In the wake of Yemen’s 2011 uprising, it was a conflict between ousted Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh and his opponents – particularly those who helped topple him. By mid-2014 it was a conflict between an alliance formed by Saleh and the rebels, the Houthis against Saleh’s successor, Yemen’s transitional president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his government. Then, in March 2015, Saudi Arabia declared a war against the Houthis.

2011 - Yemen’s 2011 uprising marked its sixth anniversary this month. Photo Courtesy: Afrah Nasser.

To understand the origin of the ongoing conflict in Yemen, it is essential to go back to 2011 when Yemeni youth joined the wave of revolutions happening across the Middle East and North of Africa (MENA). I vividly remember seeing how youth gradually took the streets in 2011 starting gradually from the front gate of my university, Sana’a University, which later was dubbed Taghyeer (change) square. The demand was the overthrow of ousted Yemeni president, Saleh, despite that overthrowing Saleh’s 32-years old regime was a dream my generation and I would have never imagined would come true. We understood, though, that this was the first step in fragmenting the great grip Saleh used to have.

Following a couple of months of protest, Saleh’s opponents, like one of Yemen’s most influential politicians, Hamid al-Ahmar and some allies, like one of Yemen’s top army-men and actually Saleh’s half-brother, Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar – opponents and allies alike joined the uprising and worked also hard to end Saleh’s rule. The greatest blow against Saleh was when several influential tribal and political leaders switched sides in the aim of weakening Saleh’s power. Perhaps, Saleh was more upset of his allies turning tables, than the real revolution against him by his people.

As the protests grew, Saleh started to go into public speeches warning about a coup or a civil war. In March 2011, Saleh warned, “those who want to climb up to power through coups should know that this is out of the question. The homeland will not be stable, there will be a civil war, a bloody war. They should carefully consider this.”

Change without Justice

Consequently, Saleh’s forces intensified its crackdown on the protesters and killing has become the norm. To cease the bloodshed, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiated a power-transfer plan in April 2011. After many long negotiations, Saleh accepted to step down. And that was the point when the unspoken countdown for the civil war which Saleh warned of began.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sign and share! Syrian Statement in Solidarity with the People of Yemen

Yemeni children play in the rubble of a house destroyed by a Saudi-led airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen on Sept. 8, 2015 (Credit: AP/Hani Mohammed).

I don't know how, despite all the trauma and pain, some Syrian activists took the initiative to pull this together. So noble, so brave, so solidaristic. I signed and this is a call to sign/share here



While we bond first and foremost over our pursuit of justice, our shared, painful reality also brings us together. Civilians in both Syria and Yemen have borne the brunt of the violence, our schools, hospitals and markets bombed by Assad, Russian, Saudi and American aircraft; our communities withering under siege, dying a slow and painful death; and the delivery of our humanitarian aid politicized by international actors. For almost two years, Yemen has suffered under a naval, air, and water blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, restricting the flow of food, medicine, and, importantly, information to and from the country. Our demands for the Assad regime to lift its sieges on Madaya, Daraya, Al-Waer, and countless other towns and neighborhoods ring hollow unless we make the same demands of Saudi Arabia and Ansar Allah (hereafter referred to as Houthis). End the sieges, now.

We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with the people of Yemen and their aspiration for freedom, democracy and social justice. Like other communities and cities in the region, thousands of Yemeni protesters took the streets in mid-January 2011 to protest peacefully the corruption and authoritarianism of the governments and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule. As Syrian revolutionaries, we fully support the Yemeni people’s struggle for freedom, social justice, safety, health and dignity.

We as Syrians who seek democratic and genuine secular change in Syria see how regional power dynamics between Iran and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) have had catastrophic consequences on both Yemen and Syria. Without drawing false analogies between the Yemeni state and the Assad regime, the Houthis and the armed Syrian opposition, it does not escape us how the power struggles for Syria and Yemen includes the same regional actors and a mounting civilian death toll.

Specifically, KSA commits war crimes in the name of supporting the state in Yemen while Iran is responsible for large scale destruction in Syria through its support of the Assad regime. Furthermore, both KSA and Iran are responsible for supporting armed non-state actors (certain armed opposition groups in Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen respectively) without a strategy for de-escalating violence, ensuring accountability measures, and protecting civilians and their basic human rights. It is clear to us as Syrian revolutionaries, who took the streets peacefully -- not as Muslims or Christians, Sunnis or Alawites, Kurds or Arabs, but as people attempting to claim their citizenry as Syrians -- that these countries’ interference does not stem from their support of the people’s demands for social change, but rather from the exploitation of the people’s struggle, and the consumption of local human capital and natural resources to exercise control, maintain power, and build power.

Like in Syria, the international community’s inaction has failed Yemen. The UN has become a mechanism to uphold systematic violence, and the rising military presence of regional and international powers has contributed to prolonging the conflict and hindering the process of finding just and sustainable solutions.

Political Points

Foreign intervention in both countries has caused the people more sorrow than justice. We fiercely condemn KSA’s use of internationally banned weapons, use of cluster bombs, targeting of schools, hospitals, weddings, funerals among many other civilian inhabited neighborhoods. On this point, It should be clearly stated that KSA’s relationship with the U.S. has also been fueling war crimes in Yemen. Likewise in Syria but on a different level, the KSA and other Gulf countries’ support to some undemocratic groups and warlords in Syria, like Jaish Al-Islam in Ghouta, enhances counter-revolutionary forces that have been accused of kidnapping and assassinating activists in besieged Ghouta by several families, activists and writers. In addition, the Iranian-backed Houthis have been disrupting the political transition process and went against the popular Yemeni wish to remove Ali Abdullah Saleh. We equally condemn their mass atrocity crimes against civilian and minority communities in Yemen.

We echo the demands of Yemeni civil society activists to implement UNSC Resolution 2216, which calls on an end to violence by all parties in Yemen, Saudis and Houthis alike. The cessation of hostilities in Yemen is the first step to peace in the country; it will allow space for Yemeni to Yemeni negotiations.

So too do we stand with the people of Yemen in their quest for accountability and justice, a necessary step on the path to reconciliation and stability. Yemeni civil society and international human rights groups have repeatedly made calls for an independent investigation into war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict. This is a critical first step toward accountability. Saudi Arabia last year successfully blocked a UN Human Rights Council resolution to establish an international commission of inquiry, which would have undoubtedly primarily incriminated the Gulf state. Syrians are no stranger to the politics of such demands --although the Human Rights Council established a commission to investigate war crimes allegations in Syria dating back to the start of the revolution in March 2011, Russian and Chinese UN Security Council vetoes have blocked meaningful action in the form of a referral to the International Criminal Court. All state and non-state actors in Yemen and Syria should be held accountable according to
the dictates of international law. No exceptions.

My co-talk in "US Travel Ban & Syria, Libya and Yemen" virtual conference

I co-participated in this conference titled, "A Virtual Conference on U.S. immigration policies with leading activists from Libya, Syria & Yemen" at Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, 1st March 2017.