Yemen does not come to rest. After the failure of the first round of peace talks in Switzerland on 20 December 2015 and even before their continuation scheduled for mid-January 2016, the war coalition headed by Saudi Arabia rescinded the armistice in early January.
In the following interview, the Secretary General of the Society for Austro-Arab Relations, GÖAB, Fritz Edlinger, comments on the background of this bloody conflict and the role of the states involved.
Current Concerns: Mr Edlinger, a merciless war has been raging in Yemen for a long time. International law is no longer respected, it is hardly possible to provide humanitarian aid anymore, and the Geneva Conventions are being violated. How do you see today’s situation in Yemen against the backdrop of the historical development of the country?
Fritz Edlinger: Yemen is not an uncultivated Third World country without a history but one of the cradles of humanity as well as one of the cradles of the Arab nation, or at least the precursor of the Arab nation. A few thousand years before Christ there was an advanced civilisation in Yemen, and this advanced civilisation has been handed down in its different forms and is directly the basis, also in the consciousness of the people of Yemen, for the present situation.
The Zayidis, for example, who belong to the religious current that has produced the Houthis, are essentially potentates, imams – religious rulers in northern Yemen – who have been in power continuously for about 1000 years. The Zayidi-Imamat, for example, originated in the 10th century and lasted till 1962. In so far the Zayidis and the Houthis – quasi as their current fighting organisation – are following on in the tradition of a thousand years of continuity of a certain kind of public order and they are not just any Islamist terrorist group that has only just got together somehow somewhere.
Can Saudi Arabia, the current aggressor in Yemen, also look back on such a long history?
Saudi Arabia as a state is barely 100 years old and is as such an entity without history and largely also without an identity. Without the oil wealth under the Saudi desert Saudi Arabia would never have emerged in its present form. I am a historian, and I believe that such topics play a role in the acts of persons and in their thoughts, that we reflect: Who am I, where do I come from and who is my enemy and where does he come from.
This is an incredible story in Yemen. Here it has become a reality that a nouveau riche parvenu loudly claims power in the region, that they want to be the masters over all others in the area, and thereby they completely ignore that they are complete newcomers in the historical sense.
That happened also in Iraq. Iraq was a nation based on an old civilisation and is now a “failed state”, not least due to the Saudis’ involvement. Ever since modern Saudi Arabia has been in existence, its policy towards Yemen has always been based on the principle of “divide and rule”. I’m not a psychologist, and certainly not a psychologist of the mindset of Saudi princes and kings. But I can imagine that these potentates intuitively have an overarching inferiority complex when dealing with countries such as Yemen.
Yemen is a country steeped in history. It is the larger country, and even the number of its inhabitants is larger. If you go to Yemen, you realise immediately that you are visiting a country of cultural heritage, and when you go to Saudi Arabia, you realise that you are visiting an artificial fabrication copied from somewhere.
How would you describe the current relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemen?
Saudi Arabia’s policy concerning Yemen is inherently destructive. So, for example, in the 1930s Saudi Arabia conquered the border province of Asir, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire and thereafter became independent by military force. This border conflict was ultimately settled in the 1990s, but, just due to the population structure, tensions persisted. This plays a certain role also in the current military conflict. Saudi Arabia has never supported Yemen as a whole, but in the different historical periods the Saudis have changed their coalition partners in Yemen.
At the moment they are, for example, fighting the Houthis as their main enemy. During the civil wars in the 1960s, the Saudis for the most part supported the conservative royalists, as opposed to the socialists of South Yemen, who were at that time supported by Egypt. Today, the situation is reversed. For years, the recently deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh was their man in Yemen, and they pampered, petted and bribed him. For years Saleh waged a war of extermination against the Houthis in Yemen in Saudi Arabia’s interest. Saudi Arabia has always had some enemy in Yemen.
What do you think the result of the current Saudi aggression will look like?
One of the results will surely be that South Yemen will secede again – and the Saudis are quite interested in South Yemen going its own way, because this would mean that Yemen as a whole is weakened. Whatever the result of this war, it is to be feared that in the end there will be another failed state. It cannot be assumed that the Houthis will prevail in a way being able to govern Yemen as a whole. It is also not likely that President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi, who was deposed by the Houthis and who is now living in exile and being supported by Saudi Arabia, will come back and seize power again. As a realistic option it can be assumed that we will have a more or less independent South Yemen, that the Houthis will dominate their own territory in the north – and in the middle there will remain a permanent war zone where terrorists like al-Qaeda and lastly IS/Daesh will battle local militias for supremacy. Unfortunately, Yemen can be expected to put itself to the growing list of “failed states” in the orient.
At present there are no attempts at a solution allowing progress to be made towards peace in Yemen?
If there is a rest, it will be a superficial calm due to the warring parties being tired, bled-out and exhausted. On short-term you can hardly assume, in my opinion, that the real underlying problems can be solved in a way acceptable to the important stakeholders and power blocks in Yemen. There are still the same power blocks in Yemen that have been in existence for decades.
Is that the reason why the Western countries are exercising considerable restraint when it comes to this conflict? Even on the part of the UN? They drag themselves along with resolutions, ceasefire is pronounced only for one side, the matter is pushed back and forth, although the Secretary-General of the United Nations is speaking of a humanitarian emergency. Even if peace talks are now held, one gets the impression that the Western countries and the international community are hanging rather heavily over this as a whole.
There are already enough conflicts in the world. The world has not been waiting for a new one in the depths of the Middle East, especially since this conflict really touches no one except those directly affected, howsoever they feud with each other locally in Yemen and however inhuman the war being waged there. This is so similar to Faust: What do I care about the wars far away in Turkey.
No Western country has significant economical and currently also any geostrategic interests. The situation with the strait and Aden as a base, as a port, this is no longer quite as significant as it was in the time of colonialism, when the British simply took Aden to use it as an important naval base. Today, the technology is different, today the enforcement of interests works in a different way.
Is that also true for the United States?
Americans have been active in Yemen for a long time. Yemen is not only the country from where the leadership of al- Qaeda originates. Bin Laden was a Yemeni from Hadramawt, many of his original, first-generation followers also came from Yemen, and in recent years desert areas in Yemen have become a haven for al-Qaeda. There was the attack on the USS Cole in the south. So this reached an alarming magnitude. Therefore the US has been carrying on a war against terror, against al-Qaeda in Yemen, and in a manner to make it backfire now.
Still under the regime of Saleh the Americans built up their own anti-terrorist forces with enormous financial costs. Thousands of soldiers were recruited, trained and armed. The command was put in the hands of Saleh’s son. But now Saleh and his son are enemies of the Saudis, who in turn are the major US allies in the region. In other words, the whole anti-terrorist policy of the United States in Yemen was, and is, like much of what they are doing in world affairs, in any case in the Middle-East, absolutely contradictory and was regularly bypassed, in some cases even by their own local coalition partners. Evidence emerged time and again that the anti-terrorist forces, in fact, did not fight against al-Qaeda, but often federated and collaborated with them. This is another example of the mistaken US policy in the region.
But other Western states have no strong interests in Yemen. Therefore the conflict, as it is being fought out now, may go on for quite some time. And neither will it be an issue in the UN, because if it comes to any UN resolutions, in the imminent situation, they will definitely be in the interest of the Saudis.
The UN resolution of the summer 2015 mirrored the position of the Saudis in every way: absolute withdrawal of the Houthis, unconditional recognition and reinstatement of Hadi and his government. These are in fact the war aims of the Saudis and of Hadi, and that can never be the position of a mediator. The UN mediation initially focused on winning the various warring parties over to direct talks. To be sure, the relevant UN resolutions remained unchanged, but de facto it was assumed that they would then be amended in any case. So if these negotiations actually come about, we will see where they are leading. But I personally think that a breakthrough is hardly possible because the interests of the various acting participants are hardly compatible.
Not only the persisting differences inside Yemen have to be observed here, but doubtlessly also the regional and international ones. Therefore it is to be assumed that the world is unconcerned with the conflict in Yemen even despite terrible things are happening there. This is, amongst others, due to the situation in Syria and Libya, which is classified as far more menacing than the situation in Yemen.
Can you give us an example?
The horrible crimes happening have already been well documented.
The Saudi Air Force is behaving like former colonial armies that simply wiped out entire villages – at that time still with napalm and the like. Sa’da, for example, the capital of the Houthi province in the North, has been razed to the ground, and this is, after all, a city with about 150,000 inhabitants. There is not a house there still standing. This is known, it is simply acknowledged because no-one is interested in intervening there.
Amongst other things, because there are huge risks?
The Saudis have been trying for months to find coalition partners who will assist them with ground forces, because the Saudis know as well as those who are planning and directing their war that they cannot win by Air Force alone. Anyone – having been in Yemen or looking closer at the geology of Yemen – knows it as a huge country with mountains and canyons, where you have to fight against an opponent native to the country, who knows every nook and cranny. If one goes in there with an occupation force, it is likely that this will become the attacker’s Vietnam. Therefore, Pakistan has categorically refused the Saudis’ request to send troops and even Egypt has rejected this wish, because they know what would be threatening them. Are now the British or the Americans to send troops? Nobody wants that, and that is why things are left to slide. Therefore the Saudis and the Emiratis are now using zillions of mercenaries from around the world. It is no question at all that terrible war crimes have been committed in the meantime. This has already been documented. It is a very, very dirty war that is taking place there. But the world puts up with it.
There was a brief period of hope for more democracy in Yemen, a national dialogue had begun ...
... That started with the demonstrations against Saleh. This was cushioned by Saleh being deposed and his former deputy Hadi becoming his successor. Of course this was a pseudo-solution, because Hadi still was a formal member of Saleh’s party. But concurrently there were really demonstrations in the streets, especially of the young. This was comparable to Tahrir Square. The young people, including many women, took to the streets against the wishes of their fathers and their families, and said: We want finally things to change in this country, because that is our future.
A change for more democratic conditions?
For more democracy, for more economic development, also for a less regressive interpretation of religion.
The country was partially very isolated and secluded by its big mountains. Until 1962, the situation was comparable with that in neighbouring Oman, where it was the rulers’ aim to prevent western contacts. [The Kingdom (Imamate) of Yemen lasted until 1962; from there on Yemen was called Yemen Arab Republic.] Because that would have meant modernisation, and modernisation would lead the subjects astray from the right path as submissive subjects.
For only a few decades Yemen has known something like a pseudo-democratic option, but that was immediately undermined by certain centres of power, by powerful and wealthy families and by Saleh himself. There were three or four centres of power dividing the power between them. In the years 2011 and 2012, there was indeed an opportunity, but at first it was completely destroyed by conflicts in Yemen itself, and then by the intervention of the Saudis. Now the country might even be further thrown back than it was before.
Thank you for the conversation. •
(Interview by Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller)
The interview was conducted in July 2015 and supplemented at the beginning of December 2015
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