Thursday, July 4, 2019

Former American diplomat, Nabeel Khoury: ‘Houthis are open-minded, willing to listen to advice on how to make friends in the U.S.’

Despite his past work in so many Arab countries like Jordan, Morocco and Egypt, Yemen holds a special place in the heart of former Arab-American diplomat, Dr Nabeel Khoury. The former U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa (2004–2007), Khoury is a prolific columnist on Yemen, reflecting on U.S. policy in Yemen among many other aspects. Last week, Khoury was on a short trip from the U.S. where he resides to Oman. There, he met with Omani officials and several Houthi leaders. Here’s my interview with Khoury about his recent trip:

Afrah Nasser: What’s your general impression after your trip to Oman and meeting Houthi leaders?

Nabeel Khoury: Oman is a fascinating country with a unique foreign policy. On Yemen and on U.S.-Iran relations there is so much potential good they can do and helpful things they are already doing but their voice is seldom heard in the U.S. and Europe. As for the Houthis, I met several members of their political council — I found them open-minded, willing to listen to advice on how to make friends in the U.S. and interested in learning about U.S. foreign policy.

AN: Why did you do the trip? Why was it a necessary mission for you?

NK: As a student of Yemen and someone who cares deeply about the Yemeni people and their plight, I want to make sure I know all sides of the conflict. I already have many friends and contacts from the Hadi government and the Islah party with whom I have regular contact, but had not, up to now, gotten to know the Houthis. I decided that a face-to-face meeting was the best way to assess their readiness for peace.

AN: What can you tell us of what was exactly your talk with the Houthis?

NK: In one three-hour meeting we covered the reasons for the war, the reasons for U.S. support for the Arab coalition, the uniqueness of the Trump administration in mixing ideology with the profit motive in politics. They were interested in knowing the potential for a better relationship with the U.S. government.

We did talk briefly about their (Death to America) slogan, something that I was familiar with from my days in Sanaa, 2004–2007. My conclusion is that it is more of a motivational tool for their rank and file supporters rather than a reflection of real policy.

AN: Many Yemenis would wonder, did you discuss anything about Houthi takeover of Sana’a in mid-2014?

NK: Yes, in answering my critique of their takeover of Sanaa in 2014, they said they felt betrayed by Hadi and were concerned in particular that he decided on a six-region federation without their approval with the intention of encircling them in a land-locked area in the north.

July 2019 — Muscat, Oman by Nabeel Khoury.

AN: How does Oman play a role in Yemen war?

NK: Oman hosts Yemenis of the major factions, Houthis, GPC and Islah. They also host ordinary Yemenis and allow them to invest in business opportunities and find jobs in Oman while waiting for their country to find peace. Oman does not take sides in the war and is therefore ideally situated to help Yemenis find peace.

AN: You once wrote a column titled “can one make peace with the Houthis.” After your recent meeting with some of their leaders, don’t you think that’s a mission impossible?

NK: No, Where Yemenis are concerned, nothing is impossible. I am convinced that a vast majority of Yemenis, including the Houthis, want this war to end. A national unifying leader has yet to appear and unfortunately, foreigners, including Yemen’s neighbours, are not treating the Yemeni people with the respect they deserve.

AN: Many accuse you of being a pro-Houthi person. What’s your response to that?

NK: It’s an amusing accusation. I recall I was once accused of being a Nasserist while serving as an American diplomat in Egypt in the late eighties. I have a knack for being sympathetic to the least understood side in a conflict. I do not support a Houthi takeover of Yemen, I believe in a unified decentralized republic in which all regions and political parties are fairly represented. I must say, I am the least sympathetic to those who besiege, starve and bombard the people of Yemen in the name of liberating them. That, in my opinion, is a war crime.