Yemen: A calamity at the end of the Arabian peninsula

By Vincent Durac, University College Dublin

At the tip of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen’s disastrous war has been raging for nearly two years. Somewhat overshadowed by the devastating crisis in Syria, it is nonetheless a major calamity: according to the UN, more than 10,000 people have lost their lives, while more than 20m (of a total population of some 27m) are in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 3m people are internally displaced, while hundreds of thousands have fled the country altogether. There are reports of looming famine as the conflict destroys food production in the country.

So how did Yemen get here – and what are the prospects for turning things around?

This war has its roots in the popular uprising of 2011. That rebellion unseated the country’s long-time president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose General People’s Congress (GPC) has dominated the country’s political life since Yemeni unification in 1990. But what really triggered the conflict that began in in 2015 was the years of failed transitional negotiations that followed Saleh’s ousting.

The protest movement spread quickly across the country, its youth protesters soon joined by established opposition parties, as well as southern Yemeni separatists and the Houthi movement.

The Houthi movement emerged in the early 2000s; in brief, it’s a Zaydi Shia revivalist movement that seeks to redress the marginalisation of Yemen’s significant Zaydi minority, whose opposition to the Saleh regime erupted in outright violent conflict on six separate occasions between 2004 and 2010.

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Women defy Saudi restrictions in music video

 

The New York Times reports: Three women in black niqabs covering their hair and faces skateboard down a street, their scarves and colorful dresses flowing behind them. A catchy tune with provocative lyrics — “May all men sink into oblivion” and “If only God would rid us of men” — plays as the women alternately glide on in-line skates, cruise on scooters and parade down the street in vibrant outfits, all things taboo for women in Saudi Arabia.

The music video has rapidly spread across social media, viewed more than three million times since it was uploaded to YouTube two weeks ago, and it has prompted debate over the role of women in Saudi society. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen’s children starve as war drags on

The Associated Press reports: As the first light of dawn trickles in through the hospital window, 19-year-old Mohammed Ali learns that his two-year-old cousin has died of hunger. But he has to remain strong for his little brother Mohannad, who could be next.

He holds his brother’s hand as the five-year-old struggles to breathe, his skin stretched tight over tiny ribs. “I have already lost a cousin to malnutrition today, I can’t lose my little brother,” he says.

They are among countless Yemenis who are struggling to feed themselves amid a grinding civil war that has pushed the Arab world’s poorest nation to the brink of famine. The family lives in a mud hut in northern Yemen, territory controlled by Shiite Houthi rebels, who are at war with government forces and a Saudi-led and U.S.-backed coalition.

The coalition has been waging a fierce air campaign against the rebels since March 2015, trying unsuccessfully to dislodge them from the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north. A coalition blockade aimed at preventing the Houthis from re-arming has contributed to a 60-percent spike in food prices, according to an estimate used by international aid groups.

During the best of times, many Yemenis struggled to make ends meet. Now they can barely feed themselves. [Continue reading…]

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Ousted after the Arab Spring, a former dictator is back

The Washington Post reports: The slim, brown-suited man with the handlebar mustache nodded approvingly.

He stood behind a chair at a ceremony in the summer, watching as his loyalists and rebels signed a power-sharing deal to rule the country. Never mind that peace talks were underway at the time, or that the United Nations had expressed concerns that the deal violated the constitution.

Yemen’s former longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was back.

Ousted during the Arab Spring uprisings, one of the Middle East’s wiliest politicians has risen up again. He is taking advantage of the chaos of conflict and the political inexperience of the rebels to deepen his influence, officials and analysts say. [Continue reading…]

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How Syria defeated the Sunni powers

Emile Hokayem writes: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, three of the Middle East’s major Sunni powers, once equated their standings in the region with the outcome of the war in Syria. Since the uprising broke out in 2011, they have been stalwart — if often divided — supporters of the rebels in their fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

In the last several months, it became clear they were on the losing side. Recent events, including the fall of eastern Aleppo this month, are compelling these countries to adjust their strategies. A cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey and announced on Thursday has only made it clearer that in the Middle East, force drives diplomacy.

The mainstream rebel groups that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed since 2011 are now morphing into a rural insurgency. This will mean they are less of a threat to the Assad government, but more vulnerable to being defeated by jihadist groups — or lured into joining them. Supporting these rebels will soon become even more difficult, especially if President-elect Donald J. Trump follows through on campaign pledges to end American aid to rebel groups and to work more closely with Russia to fight jihadists in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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‘Sometimes the baby dies, sometimes the mother’: Life and death in Yemen’s hospitals

The Washington Post reports: The infant was barely breathing when his uncle brought him to the hospital in a cardboard box. He was wrapped in a blue towel, and wads of cotton were stuffed around his frail body to keep him warm.

Muhammad Haithem was just hours old, born two months premature.

His mother had gone into labor when an airstrike by a Saudi-led coalition hit near their home in the town of Abs. The hospital there was destroyed by an airstrike in August. So the baby’s uncle put him in a pickup truck and drove three hours to the nearest government hospital, recalled Ahlia Ashumali, a nurse who received the baby.

A week later, Muhammad was still teetering between life and death. He weighed four pounds and was being fed through tubes.

Surviving even birth is a struggle in Yemen. After nearly two years of war, thousands of children and adults have died from easily treatable diseases, illnesses and injuries as the health-care system collapses. [Continue reading…]

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The secret wealth of the royal family running ‘Al Saud Inc’

The New York Times reports from Tangiers: Behind a tall perimeter wall, studded with surveillance cameras and guarded by Moroccan soldiers, a sprawling new palace for King Salman of Saudi Arabia rose on the Atlantic coast here last summer.

Even as the Saudi government canceled a quarter of a trillion dollars’ worth of projects back home as part of a fiscal austerity program, workers hustled to finish bright blue landing pads for helicopters at the vacation compound and to erect a tent the size of a circus big-top where the king could feast and entertain his enormous retinue.

The royal family’s fortune derives from the reserves of petroleum discovered during the reign of Salman’s father, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, more than 75 years ago. The sale of oil provides billions of dollars in annual allowances, public-sector sinecures and perks for royals, the wealthiest of whom own French chateaus and Saudi palaces, stash money in Swiss bank accounts, wear couture dresses under their abayas and frolic on some of the world’s biggest yachts out of sight of commoners.

King Salman serves as chairman of the family business unofficially known as “Al Saud Inc.” Sustained low oil prices have strained the economy and forced questions about whether the family — with thousands of members and still growing — can simultaneously maintain its lavish lifestyle and its unchallenged grip on the country. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen conflict: The view from the Saudi side

BBC News reports: Saudi Arabia is at war.

You wouldn’t know it on the peaceful streets of its capital, Riyadh, but hundreds of miles to the south the civil war that has torn apart neighbouring Yemen is spilling over the border into Saudi towns and villages.

Saudi officials say more than 500 of their citizens have been killed by the Yemen war, a number dwarfed by the thousands killed in Yemen itself, but still a shock for this otherwise tranquil kingdom that is home to the holiest sites in Islam and is also the world’s biggest oil producer.

We visited the ruins of a girls’ elementary school in the village of Khawber, hit by a Houthi missile in the middle of the night.

In the shattered classroom the school clock lay on the floor, its hands stopped at the moment the missile exploded.

We met badly injured villagers, maimed by flying shrapnel when a Houthi rocket struck their mosque, and we were given rare access to a Saudi army Patriot anti-missile battery, placed in the desert facing Yemen, that has been intercepting ballistic missiles fired at Saudi Arabia’s southern towns.

These Soviet-era missiles are aimed at the towns of Najran, Abha, Gizan, Khamis Mushayt and even, according to the Saudis, at the holy city of Mecca.

These ageing but still deadly Russian-made missiles belong to a stockpile amassed by the Yemeni army over the years and now taken over by the Houthis.

The weapons include Scud B missiles with a payload of nearly one tonne of high explosives, and the smaller Tochka with a payload of 482kg of explosives.

Saudi officers showed us the remnants of a downed Tochka, still bearing Cyrillic writing on its fuselage.
Between 6 June 2015 and 26 November 2016 the Saudi authorities have recorded 37 ballistic missiles fired from Yemen across the border into Saudi airspace.

Yet the damage to Saudi Arabia pales before the destruction next door in Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. fingerprints on attacks obliterating Yemen’s economy

The New York Times reports: For decades, Mustafa Elaghil’s family produced snack foods popular in Yemen, chips and corn curls in bright packaging decorated with the image of Ernie from “Sesame Street.”

But over the summer, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia sent warplanes over Yemen and bombed the Elaghils’ factory. The explosion destroyed it, setting it ablaze and trapping the workers inside.

The attack killed 10 employees and wiped out a business that had employed dozens of families.

“It was everything for us,” Mr. Elaghil said.

The Saudi-led coalition has bombed Yemen for the last 19 months, trying to oust a rebel group aligned with Iran that took control of the capital, Sana, in 2014. The Saudis want to restore the country’s exiled president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who led an internationally recognized government more aligned with its interests.

But instead of defeating the rebels, the campaign has sunk into a grinding stalemate, systematically obliterating Yemen’s already bare-bones economy. The coalition has destroyed a wide variety of civilian targets that critics say have no clear link to the rebels.

It has hit hospitals and schools. It has destroyed bridges, power stations, poultry farms, a key seaport and factories that produce yogurt, tea, tissues, ceramics, Coca-Cola and potato chips. It has bombed weddings and a funeral.

The bombing campaign has exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country, where cholera is spreading, millions of people are struggling to get enough food, and malnourished babies are overwhelming hospitals, according to the United Nations. Millions have been forced from their homes, and since August, the government has been unable to pay the salaries of most of the 1.2 million civil servants. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s ties to its chief benefactor, Saudi Arabia, are starting to unravel

The New York Times reports: In the tumultuous two years since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt came to power, one ally has kept the Arab world’s most populous country from economic ruin: Saudi Arabia pumped more than $25 billion into the faltering Egyptian economy, dwarfing aid from the United States.

The Saudis may have thought they were buying loyalty. But Egypt’s vote last month for a Russian United Nations resolution on Syria threatens to unravel Mr. Sisi’s relationship with Egypt’s most crucial benefactor.

Shortly after the vote, the Saudi ambassador to Egypt left Cairo for an unscheduled three-day visit to Riyadh. The state-owned Saudi oil company, Aramco, postponed a promised shipment of 700,000 tons of discounted oil in October, and the spokesman for Egypt’s oil ministry said the fate of November’s shipment remains unknown.

Then last week, the Saudi head of a major Islamic organization, who has since resigned, publicly mocked Mr. Sisi, exposing the rift in a new way.

Ahmed Moussa, a prominent Egyptian talk show host and staunch supporter of Mr. Sisi, was one of many Egyptian commentators who reacted angrily.

“They want to make Egypt kneel,” Mr. Moussa said of the Saudis, then offered his own threats. “Don’t you ever think you can pressure Egypt into backtracking,” he said. “Its decisions are sovereign. We don’t owe anyone anything. We are the ones who are owed.”

The fraying of the alliance between the two most influential Sunni nations is unfolding amid increasing sectarianism across the region. And the potential loss of Saudi support could hardly come at a worse moment for Egypt, whose economy is crashing amid a devaluing of its local currency, reduction in imports, and tourism tailspin. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. calls for end to airstrikes in Yemen while it continues to provide Saudis with military support

The Guardian reports: The US has called for an end to airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen at a UN security council meeting, but critics pointed out that Washington continues to supply arms and provide other military support to Saudi Arabia.

The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, condemned missile attacks by Yemeni Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia and said the kingdom had a right to defend itself.

But she added: “It is also incumbent on the Saudi-led coalition and the forces of the Yemeni government to refrain from taking steps that escalate this violence and to commit to the cessation of hostilities.

“After 19 months of fighting, it should be clear that there is absolutely no military solution to this conflict. Airstrikes that hit schools, hospitals and other civilian objects have to stop. In many cases these strikes have damaged key infrastructure that is essential to delivering humanitarian aid in Yemen.”

Despite severe criticism of Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK continue to supply it with munitions and provide airborne refuelling for its warplanes. Over eight years, the Obama administration has offered a total of $115bn (£94bn) in arms sales to the kingdom.

Louis Charbonneau, the UN director of Human Rights Watch, said: “The US ambassador’s call for an end to indiscriminate airstrikes in Yemen would be more compelling if the US didn’t provide Saudi Arabia with some of the weapons that end up being used in these strikes.” [Continue reading…]

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‘I live in a lie’: Saudi women speak up

Mona El-Naggar reports: “We’re not allowed to even go to the supermarket without permission or a companion, and that’s a simple thing on the huge, horrendous list of rules we have to follow.” — DOTOPS, 24

“The male guardianship makes my life like a hell!! We want to hang out with our friends, go and have lunch outside. I feel hopeless.” — JUJU19, 21

“I don’t mind taking my dad’s approval in things he should be a part of. These very strong social bonds you will never, ever understand.” — NOURA

These are three of the nearly 6,000 women from Saudi Arabia who wrote to The New York Times last week about their lives.

We had put a call-out on our website and on Twitter in conjunction with the publication of “Ladies First,” a Times documentary I directed about the first Saudi elections in which women were allowed to vote and run for local office.

Saudi Arabia is an incredibly private, patriarchal society. While I was making the film, many women were afraid to share their stories for fear of backlash from the male relatives who oversee all aspects of their lives as so-called guardians. We wanted to hear more about their fears, their frustrations, their ambitions.

Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest rates of Twitter use, and our posts rocketed around. We were overwhelmed by the outpouring.

Most of the responses focused on frustration over guardianship rules that force women to get permission from a male relative — a husband, father, brother or even son — to do things like attend college, travel abroad, marry the partner of their choice or seek medical attention. Some women talked about the pride they had in their culture and expressed great distrust of outsiders. But many of them shared a deep desire for change and echoed Juju19’s hopelessness. [Continue reading…]

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