ODVV Interview: Reconstruction should begin in...
Almost seven years after the war on Yemen broke out, the situation in the impoverished Arab country has transitioned from bad to worse, and many of the global leaders appear to be looking the other way as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis remains unaddressed. In 2020, the number of internally displaced people spiked to nearly 4 million, and with a derelict economy compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
The US government, which is indirectly implicated in the war through supplying arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in large quantities, continues to be unsuccessful in bringing an end to the devastating conflict. In his first foreign policy speech as the US president in February, Joe Biden had pledged to end the war in Yemen. Yet, even though some of his gestures differ from Donald Trump’s standing on Yemen, hopes that his pursuit of diplomacy could move the ravaging military campaign toward peace have been dashed with renewed hostilities in the Arabian Peninsula.
Between March 2015 and July 2021, the Saudi armed forces conducted at least 23,251 air raids on Yemen, resulting in the death or injury of some 18,616 civilians. On February 28, the UN Security Council extended an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze against the Ansarullah movement for one year, in what many observers asserted was a lopsided response to the Yemen crisis. The resolution was sponsored by the Security Council non-permanent member UAE, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis.
Asher Orkaby is an associate research scholar at Princeton University’s Transregional Institute. A contributor to Foreign Affairs, The National Interest and International Policy Digest, Orkaby is the author of the 2017 book “Beyond the Arab Cold War: The International History of the Yemen Civil War, 1962-68.” He has researched the geopolitics of Yemen extensively through a number of research papers and scholarly articles.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Dr. Orkaby to discuss the ongoing fighting in Yemen, the brewing humanitarian catastrophe, the importance of reconstruction efforts and the role of external actors.
Q: When the military campaign on Yemen started, Saudi officials told the Obama administration the offensive would be concluded in about “six weeks.” Now, seven years after the fighting began, prospects for peace are bleak and the human cost is rising unabated. Do you anticipate a short-term resolution to the crisis and the beginning of reconstruction efforts?
A: When Saudi Arabia entered the war in Yemen, at the behest of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the internationally-recognized government in Yemen, there was a mistaken assumption that the airpower of the Saudi coalition could push back the Houthi offensive. The Saudis underestimated two elements: the weakness of Hadi’s legitimacy and the fighting capabilities of the Houthi militias. Seven years later, the war is no closer to an end than it was in 2015. At the same time, reconstruction efforts should begin even before the final peace agreement is signed. Any further delay risks sinking the country further into poverty and a deleterious cycle of long-term humanitarian aid dependency.
Q: In a 2019 article, you argued that the international humanitarian aid to Yemen has been insufficient to avert the cholera pandemic and preclude mass starvation, and instead “served to exacerbate the local conflict by creating a massive wartime economy and benefiting a select group of powerful individuals at the expense of the population most in need.” Do you believe foreign aid should not be allocated to the Yemeni population because it might be misused?
A: Foreign aid distribution needs to be localized. Yemen has a long history of vibrant civil society organizations and NGOs which operate on the local and district level.
Q: Between 2015 and 2019, the first five years of war on Yemen, Saudi Arabia was the world’s largest arms importer. In this window, its major arms imports spiked by 130 percent compared to the preceding five-year period. The United States procured 73 percent of Riyadh’s weaponry, and Britain supplied 13 percent of its imports. Some critics of the US foreign policy have called the Yemen war one that the United States owned. Is this a reading you would agree with? What are the US interests in Yemen, and why did two consecutive administrations subsidize the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign?
A: Claiming that the war in Yemen is a Saudi-US conflict is a gross misrepresentation of the regional and global involvement of the United States and Saudi Arabia.
US interests are two-fold: securing the Bab al-Mandeb strait for global shipping, and supporting Saudi Arabia’s efforts to secure their southern border. In fact, this southern border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen has been a source of conflict since the three disputed territories of Asir, Najran and Jizan were captured by Ibn Saud in 1933. Saudi Arabia fears the potential instability that might result from a strong centralized military state in Yemen, which is the Peninsula’s most populous country.
Saudi Arabia’s security concerns have contributed to a tense and, at times, combative relationship with Yemen during numerous times in its modern history: 1960s [coinciding with] Egypt’s occupation, 1970s [which is the time of] Ibrahim al-Hamdi’s centralization of authority, 1990s [the era of] Yemeni unification, and 2004-2022 [marking] Houthi popularization and militarization in the north along the border with Saudi Arabia.
Q: Different estimates have been given on the human cost of the Yemen war. The University of Denver researchers believe the war has been responsible for nearly 377,000 deaths by the end of 2021, and the United Nations Development Program has projected the hypothetical economic losses incurred by Yemen since the outbreak of the conflict to stand at USD126 billion in potential gross domestic product (GDP) contraction. With the substantial damage and destruction caused by this campaign, is it realistic to expect accountability for the parties that have created and exacerbated the crisis?
A: The Saudis and Emiratis have promised to support Yemen’s post-war reconstruction. In fact, they are the largest donors to the humanitarian aid efforts since 2015. Beyond reconstruction, Yemen would benefit from a closer economic alliance with the GCC and perhaps even formal membership.
There is an inherent danger in a Saudi-led reconstruction effort, in that this money could potentially become a source of Saudi patronage funding. An international body should be appointed to oversee the fair and equitable distribution of reconstruction funds.
Q: Do you think the United Nations, as the primary body responsible for maintaining international order, has been able to fulfil its mission and deescalate the conflict through its different mechanisms, including the office of special envoy for Yemen (OSESGY) and the United Nations Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA)?
A: The OSESGY and the UN mission to Hodeidah have failed to deescalate the conflict. Both offices have run up high costs with minimal results. There remains potential for Qatari mediation, similar to the Doha agreement efforts during the 2004-10 conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.
Q: In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch chronicled that the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen has produced serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and illicit transfer of detainees to Saudi Arabia, coupled with a deadly blockade that has hampered the daily functioning of the national economy and starved at least 85,000 children to death. How should these abuses be investigated?
A: Both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis should be held accountable for violations. The challenge of an investigation of either party is that it may be difficult to find an objective party that does not already have an opinion of Saudi Arabia or Iranian and Hezbollah involvement with the Houthis. One might also need to ask to what end these investigations will be undertaken? The country is in desperate need of reconciliation, rather than a battle over accountability.
Q: The current stalemate in Yemen is mostly the outcome of a power struggle which has turned out to be quite intractable. What is the best way out of this vicious cycle? How is it possible to ensure a peaceful future for the Yemeni people, and how does a face-saving exit from this impasse look like for the warring sides?
A: The Yemen that we knew in 2012 may no longer be the Yemen that emerges from this conflict. Saudi Arabia can no longer withdraw from Yemen without being concerned for further Houthi dominance over South Arabia, supported by Iranian benefactors. Similarly, the Houthis will not agree to retreat back to the northern capital of Saada without receiving guarantees of long-term political power in any future Yemeni government. The ensuing country may indeed emerge as a federalist state with three or even four regions, representing the various different parties of interest.
Q: In 2017, the UN Human Rights Council founded a group of eminent international and regional experts on Yemen to document human rights abuses in Yemen without being swayed by external influence. The creation of the initiative faced mounting objections by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and under their pressure, the group of experts was eventually abolished in October 2021. Why did the mechanism face resistance by the coalition countries and was eventually dissolved?
A: UN-affiliated organizations have not succeeded in aiding Yemen’s post-2012 transition. If anything, the former envoy Jamal Benomar might be partially responsible for the current political crisis in Yemen. The prospect of a group of foreign experts actually gaining access to the Yemeni hinterland under Houthi control is ludicrous. From the Saudi perspective, the kingdom likely perceived this council as part of an anti-Saudi coalition rather than an objective observer.
By: Kourosh Ziabari