by Eleanor Beevor
Nadia Al-Sakkaf worked for several years as a reporter, she became Editor in Chief of the Yemen Times. She was appointed Minister for Information in Yemen in 2014, the first woman to hold the position. While in government, she live-tweeted the fall of Sana’a as Houthi rebels conquered the capital in 2014, at a time when other media outlets were unable to report. She is a well-known advocate for women's rights, and is now a PhD candidate at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, where she is researching gender politics in Yemen.
She talked to Al Bawaba about the humanitarian situation in Yemen, the role of outside players in the conflict, and what’s next.
We’re sitting here in the U.K. as you’re writing your PhD, and just after Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia met with PM Theresa May to discuss the situation in Yemen. What would you have liked to see the U.K. government say and do in regard to Yemen?
“I would like more committed involvement in terms of bringing solutions, rather than trying to point fingers or being indecisive in terms of finalizing what’s going on. The Yemeni problem has a regional and an international aspect to it. So if there were international pressures to put an end to this it would solve many more lives and make the lives of people who are suffering better.
For example, why not push towards having an international navy at Hodeidah Port to help with the blockade? The reason the Saudis are saying that they need to protect the port is that weapons are being smuggled into the country.
So for example, there could be a credible international force taking charge of Hodeidah Airport. It’s fine by Yemenis and I’m sure it would be fine by the Saudis since it would be a neutral organization, such as the U.N.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (L) greets Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) outside 10 Downing Street, in central London on March 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Tolga AKMEN)
I think that the U.K. as a leading power in the world should push towards international interventions, instead of letting it implode. It’s a no-brainer in a way. They’ve done this in Africa.
We have international peacekeeping troops; we have neutral organizations managing disputed areas. I have no idea why it isn’t happening. As a Yemeni, and as someone who has spoken to many Yemeni citizens across the region, I can tell you that they don’t care who’s controlling the port, as longs as things get in and (are) distributed.”
What can you tell us about the humanitarian situation in Yemen? Obviously this is a very complex matter given how different regions are controlled by different actors, but what are the most urgent steps for improving the relief efforts?
“We need to be careful not to only talk about aid when talking about improving the humanitarian situation. For a picture of the aid efforts, I’d refer people to the Independent Experts Committee’s report, which was released in January.
They have a very accurate picture of what is going on in Yemen and with the distribution of humanitarian aid. But the Yemeni people, in terms of sentiments, are feeling fear all across the country in terms of providing.
My friend in Sanaa was saying to me “How come it’s easier to access weapons, to buy a Kalashnikov, than it is to buy medicine? Or food?” There are so many stories of dignified people, people who used to have an income, are almost begging in the streets. So livelihoods in general are dependent on the economic cycle rather than aid per se.
Humanitarian relief can be distributed to maybe ten million people at best, and if you can do that that’s a miracle. But it’s importing and exporting, the economic cycle, having shops and small businesses, and cluster economies are going to be the only solution for the entire country to move forward. It’s not more aid.
For example, some people in Taiz are saying that this is very humiliating. Some say it has become a power of sorts, because the people responsible for distributing aid have leverage over others. And it’s destroying the normal social dynamics. Everyone is talking about aid, but there are so many aspects to aid, such as sustainability and the effect it has on culture.”
What’s your assessment of Iranian influence in Yemen at present? There have been suggestions that Iran’s influence has actually increased in the region as a result of the conflict - would you agree?
“Iran has had interests in the region as it is, because it’s a show of muscles. But Iran’s impact in the region is very dependent on how much space you give it. It’s like a fluid – it will fill voids, and the more space you give it the more it enters. Iran is not the thing that is destroying Yemen. I think we as Yemenis are actually shooting ourselves in the foot sometimes.
We are the ones who are not getting along together, and we have allowed influences to divide us. There was no such thing as Sunni and Shia ten years ago – nobody was talking about this, and now it’s on everybody’s mind.
So in regard to Iran, this is not like Syria. In 2013 in Syria, there was the moment that the international community was deciding whether or not it would step in.
And then when it didn’t, Iran stepped in fully – air power, ground troops, proxies. Syria is much more important to Iran than Yemen is. But now in Yemen, where there is instability and no rule of law, there is room for actors to expand their influence. Not only Iran, but rebel groups, Al Qaeda, and ISIS.
However, it was very minimal and it was not something you would worry about as a country. If you had rule of law and you had a good system you would not worry about a hundred people getting trained somewhere. If you had good anti-terrorism strategies and the like that would not be a problem, but when everything is falling apart even ten people can cause chaos.”
All sides of the conflict have been accused of human rights violations. For instance, Houthi rebels have also been accused of massive human rights violations, including the use of landmines and using civilians as human shields. Are there any steps we can take to reduce these violations in rebel-controlled areas in the short-term?
“I think an approach to helping with human rights would be to take away the authority of those committing them, by taking away their influence on the ground.
I have two kids and they often fight. And if they’re fighting over something and I ridicule the object they’re fighting for, I take away its power. They start saying “You take it,” “No you take it!.”
So its significance is taken away. For Yemen, Sanaa is where most of the violence is taking place as the remaining members of Salleh’s party are hunted down. Because it’s the capital, everyone wants the capital.
But if people were to find another refuge, to travel elsewhere and found a new community, who’s to stop them? There is nothing left to keep people in Sanaa – no schools or hospitals or salaries, nothing that would keep people there.
So I don’t see why there is no project to find a liberated area, somewhere like Khoukha. It’s a port, it’s safe, there is not much infrastructure, but it does have access to the world. And if there was somebody smart behind any of those closed rooms, they would say “Why not make a new city at Khoukha?”
On the international front, we are seeing increased pushback against support for the war, particularly in the U.K. and the U.S., where there are bipartisan concerns about the humanitarian costs and the lack of an end in sight. Would the cessation of U.S. and U.K. intelligence support and arms supply to the Saudi-led coalition be a genuinely helpful step in bringing an end to the conflict?
“If you have money you can buy weapons from wherever. From living in the U.K., I can tell you that a lot of people here feel responsible. It’s an internal political thing between the hawks and the liberals, internally reflected using Yemen as the map.
Yemenis stand next to the rubble of a house that was hit by a reported Saudi-led coalition air strike (AFP)
People feel responsible, especially when they see ads on TV about malnutrition and so on. The guilt comes in and they say 'We are contributing to the catastrophe that is happening there.'
If this stops, the Saudis are going to find somebody else and they are going to import the weapons from there. It will help ease the emotional guilt. It will not help the U.K. economy, as the U.K. benefits from these sales, and the U.S. as well. It won’t help their prosperity. It might help their righteousness but it’s not going to do anything about the Yemen war per se.
Instead, I think the solution to this is not to say 'We’ll stop giving you weapons,' it’ll be to intervene directly in the country. I would like to see peacekeeping troops.
Looking long term, do you think we will see a transition to peace that involves Yemen as a united country? Or are we going to have to deal with this region by region?
“Region by region, definitely. It’s not a one size fits all solution. It’s going to have to be very local and very gradual. There’s a military tactic called the ink spot strategy.
When you have a hostile environment, you start creating pockets of peace. You know how ink spreads in a paper. You start throwing spots of ink at a paper in different places, and then they grow and merge. It’s a long term process and it will require a lot of time and a lot of support.
A lot of economic support, that does not involve aid but involves economy. One that empowers local people and the local government. And eventually a central government.”
Do you think Yemen will remain united or is there a serious chance of secession in the south?
I don’t see a secession happening in the next two years. A secession involving two countries. So much has changed since the two Yemens became one in 1990. The borders of that time would not apply to today.
For example, Hadhramaut would not accept to go back under Aden. The other thing is that you need to talk about resources. How much do they have on the ground in order to run an independent country?
Currency, borders, a central bank, security, even simple institutions like payrolls and parliament. There is so much bad blood between factions in the south.
Instead I see a federal system, it is a federal system. It is happening anyway whether we planned for it or not. The way Ma’arib is handling itself, Hadhramaut in a way too, as well as in Sanaa and some of the northern regions.
And finally, I’m interviewing you on International Women’s Day…
“It’s actually also my birthday!”
That actually seems very fitting! Happy Birthday! And you’re writing a PhD on the politics of gender in Yemen. Tell us your hopes for the future of Yemeni women and in shaping the country’s future.
"I definitely think women’s involvement, not only in the peace-making, but in the sustainability of the peace afterwards, is integral. Look at the Colombian experience. They had a conflict for fifty years and it was only when women came on board that they found solutions. So what does that tell you? Women rock! Women have to be part of it or otherwise the vicious cycle will not end.
Yemeni women wave national flag at rally to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2011 Arab Spring (Picture: Ahmad al-Basha/AFP/Getty)
Women always bring a different perspective on things. They are the peacemakers, the nurturers and they bring a creative side. I am a feminist, a hundred percent. And I believe that for my country particularly, women are key to its prosperity.
Unfortunately, the conflict has made it worse, especially for women. You hear some stories saying that because of the conflict now we know about the women heroes. No, they were heroes all through, but now they have become more visible because their lives have become harder. If they tell you to look at how Yemeni women are now earning income, how they have now become empowered economically, my answer is no."
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