Yemen War, Women & Paths to Peace: Shireen Al-Adeimi interview

This weekend marks the eight anniversary of the Saudi Arabia led coalition bombardment of Yemen. The United Nations has described the Yemen conflict as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. More than 23.4 million people, or three-quarters of Yemen’s population, require assistance, including 2.2 million youngsters who are acutely malnourished. Earlier this month, Liberation caught up with Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni-American scholar and activist who spoke at a Liberation event on the Yemen War a year ago. Since we spoke to Shireen there has been a Chinese brokered agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which the UN has welcomed as an opportunity to end the Yemen conflict.

Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background and your connection to Yemen and how you became involved in activism against the war, and specifically your activism against the US role in the conflict.

I was born in Yemen, raised for part of my childhood there, and remained connected with a lot of us in the diaspora. We still remain connected with relatives and family in Yemen. So I didn’t really get into activism about anything publicly until this war started. At the time, I was a doctoral student and I was just looking for ways to raise awareness. There was a feeling of helplessness about what’s happening. And I think there’s always a feeling of helplessness about what’s going on in parts of the world. But in this particular case, I knew that the US, where I’ve been living for the last several years, was directly involved. They weren’t calling it direct involvement because technically that’s illegal, but the Obama administration at the time announced the Joint Planning Cell. There were weapon deals and transfers, there was logistics and intelligence sharing and all sorts of ways that the US was involved in supporting the war. Yet the discourse about this US involvement wasn’t really there; it remained very quiet. I was thinking, well, I’m Yemeni American, I oppose this intervention and in general other interventions as well, such as the Iraq war, Afghanistan, and so on. I thought maybe I’d write a letter to a Senator and get others to do the same online to try to raise awareness. I wanted to really be politically active so that our representatives in Congress do something about this, particularly end US involvement. All of it really started with a petition and a desire to raise awareness that came from just sheer helplessness at the time.

I’d like to ask a couple of questions about the role of women in the war. Could you talk a little bit about the impacts of the war in Yemen on women as well children in the country?

The very simplistic thing I can say is that men start war and women and children suffer most. In this particular situation, Yemeni women are not very well represented politically. This is a very male dominated society. The political structure that ended up supporting the foreign intervention in Yemen is mostly made-up of Yemeni men. Yet women bear the consequences along with children, so most of those affected and displaced have been women and children. You see starvation in children and mothers. Over the years, documentary films have recorded the unique impact that Yemeni women have faced, in particular Hunger Ward, which was an Oscar nominated documentary that came out a few years ago and highlights the plight of women and children in ways that are really difficult to imagine. Whether it’s displacement or starvation, many women and children end up bearing the brunt.

While women are disproportionately impacted by war, it is important to highlight the role of women in war as more than just victims. In your view, what role have women played in Yemen itself regarding issues such as raising international awareness about the war, rebuilding and dealing with the consequences of the war, as well as working towards a lasting peace?

Women have not been complacent. To the degree that it’s possible within a male dominated society, women have been able to raise awareness for their own plight and gain momentum and force their way into places of decision making. Those of us outside of the country have also led the efforts toward peaceful resolution for the war. I’m just one of many Yemeni-American women who have decided to take this on. We don’t do it as a career; we’re not journalists, writers or politicians, but have decided to highlight the non-interventionist [role] that this country should take and, and that’s something that gives me pride. But a lot more needs to happen in Yemen in order for Yemeni women to feel safe and to have the opportunities to be able to voice their views and their concerns.

Would you say there’s a sizable group of Yemeni women abroad, who are advocating for peace and non-intervention?

I wouldn’t say it’s sizable, but I would say it’s been critical. So, it’s not necessarily a numbers issue, but an issue of impact. Certainly, many Yemeni American women in the diaspora, particularly in the US, have been able to influence discourse and political action, such as the War Powers Resolution that was passed in 2019. A lot of it was written in consultation with the Yemeni American women and the support for that has been led by Yemeni American women, among other allies and activists as well.

What do you think progressives who are concerned about the war and US involvement in it, and also governments in the US, UK and Europe, should be doing to help stop the war and secure peace?

I’m going to draw a parallel. Your average person here in the US hears about Ukraine and has a position on the conflicts; they hear about it on the news every single day. Yet the average person doesn’t know about Yemen. We are supporting the Saudi and the UAE side that is illegally occupying and starving Yemeni civilians. It’s not a very convenient narrative, of course, but I would hope that people understand that what’s at stake here is people’s lives. The politics don’t matter as much; there is right and there is wrong. Occupation, murder, starvation and blockade are wrong in Ukraine and also wrong in Yemen. I would hope that they would keep that in mind when we talk about what needs to be done in Yemen.

The ask in Yemen is not intervention; it’s not weapons to defeat the Saudis. We are not asking the US government to do anything but stop its involvement, its support for this coalition of foreign countries that decided to take over Yemen, and to stop providing assistance, maintenance, spare parts, weapons and intelligence sharing. We do not buy into the dichotomy of offensive versus defensive warfare. There is nothing defensive about waging a war in Yemen, thousands of miles away. I would hope that progressives and governments would focus on this one goal and one of the mechanisms that we can employ to end US involvement would be supporting the War Powers Resolution, which directs Congress to declare war, and not the President. Other measures can be related to supporting a defunding of war efforts through the National Defence Authorization Act, being aware of any kind of bills that have to do with weapon sales and opposing those, keeping this issue alive with our senators or Congress people to make sure that they know that we oppose further US intervention in Yemen. That is just step one. We can’t really think about resolution and reparation and justice until we stop this gushing wound, which would be to stop all forms of US involvement.

Which forces have been most supportive in terms of efforts to achieve sustainable lasting peace and which forces have been the most destructive in this regard?

The list of those destructive is so long that we can talk until tomorrow, but there are countries that have been involved directly. For example, the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco until a certain time, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and so on. There’s only one country that has not taken an offensive role in this, and that is Oman. Oman borders both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and they’ve been instrumental in initiating peace talks over several years. And in the latest wave of peace talks, they’ve managed to broker a truce. The truce is no longer in place but has still not really been violated by either side. There haven’t been air strikes in Yemen throughout most of 2022 and all of this year so far; this is due to the truce. So, Oman has played a good faith role, but I can’t really mention any other country. Countries like China and Russia, for example, have simply not interfered. They could have vetoed certain UN resolutions that came through but did not, so they have not applied any kind of diplomatic pressure to end the blockade on Yemen. Other countries that are not directly involved have benefited from weapon sales, such as Australia and much of Europe, if not all of Europe, the US and Canada and so on. I would say there is Oman on one side and then basically the rest of the world on the other, who have been involved or benefited in one way or the other, or at least simply looked away.

What is your view on the shape and policies of a future Yemen that meets the needs of its people? And would it be a unified Yemen or a federation? What does Yemen look like after the war?

First, for anything to happen, it would necessitate an end to any kind of foreign involvement. One could say that as the Saudis are not bombing anymore, there is no involvement. That’s not true because they are still funding various groups on the ground. They have appointed a presidential council consisting of four members with allegiance to the UAE and four with allegiance to the Saudis, so they are still directing these battlefronts on the ground with Yemeni faces at the forefront. The UAE still occupies the island of Socotra and it is trying to build a base near Bab-El-Mandeb Strait. So they are still very deeply involved in Yemen militarily, and as long as they are involved, the US could also turn around and become more involved should this truce fall apart or if the war takes on a different form. Assuming there’s no foreign intervention, I would hope that it’s up to Yemenis to decide whatever works for them best. Before this war, there were talks of a federation. There was a UN negotiated deal that was reached and it brought together all different parties, the Houthis, the southern secessionists, the Hadi government and so on. They were looking for a place to sign the deal, and according to the UN envoy at the time, Jamal Benomar, Saudi Arabia began bombing essentially 2 days after this agreement was reached and before it was signed. I know that Yemenis can put their differences aside and come up with a solution that works best for them. This is painful for me to say because I am from the South and I understand the southern needs and the goal to secede. Not everybody in the South wants a secession. But of course, many of them do. And given what transpired in the last eight years, I would say that a unified Yemen would be very difficult to achieve in the current moment given who is in power right now. I think there would need to be some nation building first before that prospect is fully realised. I also think that the initial unification in 1990 was rushed and too soon, and it fell apart pretty quickly. My guess is that unification is probably an ideal still, but not currently feasible, but I hope that whatever solution is in place is one that is for Yemenis, by Yemenis. Yemen is still a democratic state, unlike its neighbours, and I would hope that people have a chance to voice their wants and needs in the shape of voting.

Why do you think the war in Yemen receives such little attention in the media, especially compared to other wars such as the war in Syria or even the war in Ukraine, despite the fact that it is often referred to as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world?

That isa question that Yemenis have been asking themselves. We’ve been asking ourselves for the past several years: what is so different about Yemen compared to Syria? What is so different about Yemen compared to Ukraine? In the case of Ukraine, some of this was stated very explicitly. You know, “Ukrainians are like us. They share our values. They are fighting for democracy.” All of these ideals that are spewed are not only racist and problematic, but are also meaningless because in the end there is a known enemy, and that enemy is Russia, right? There is a clear enemy for the US. So, what do you do when a Western ally like the Saudis and the UAE, who are very much entangled in U.S. economy and European economies, through reliance on Saudi Arabia for oil, for example, invades? Well, you support them, which is what happened in Yemen.  We’ve seen what happens when they’ve invaded a country like Yemen and decided to bombard it to oblivion; it is shameful. This country touts its free press, yet they weren’t really acting like a free press for the most part. In reality, they were simply parroting governmental statements and not questioning decisions made by the Obama administration, the Trump administration, and then the Biden administration. I think it speaks to the failures of media and we’ve seen this before with the Iraq war. There were also regrets that were publicised about the Iraq war about the failure of media, saying that we would not let this happen again. Yet it happened again with very little reflection this time. At the end of the day, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. As strategically important, it makes sense politically for the US to ally itself with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It’s not about right or wrong and it’s not about democracy, because if we really care about democracy, we wouldn’t be supporting countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who are absolute monarchies against technically a democratic state like Yemen. None of these talking points really make any sense when you try to rationalise it. So, I think it just came down to who’s going to make a lot of money from these wars. Well, Saudi Arabia doesn’t make its own weapons; they import everything. The US needs to be on the good side of an ally as powerful as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is how these decisions were made and unfortunately the media, especially the mainstream sources of media, basically followed along, with very few exceptions.

Do you think the war in Ukraine has had, or will have, any impact on the US role in the war in Yemen, now that the US is so focused on providing weaponry and support to Ukraine? Is there a connection between the two conflicts?

It did have an impact in the sense that grain that was imported from Ukraine and imports generally, have basically been derailed in Yemen. Donations to Yemen through aid has significantly reduced because of the war. The other thing that we saw with the truce especially, was this need to refocus on something else and not focus on Yemen so much anymore. The truce took place last year after multiple years of negotiation and it is not a coincidence that the war in Ukraine was happening at the same time. It started in February and then by April there was a truce in Yemen. I think they’re related in the sense that the US doesn’t want to be entangled on many fronts. The Saudis are exhausted too. They have been spending, by some estimates, $200 million a day for the past eight years, and there’s not much to see for it. I think there is some relationship there, but I wouldn’t say definitively that the war in Ukraine brought an end to the war in Yemen, because at the end of the day, the war in Yemen is still not over. It has just taken on a different form.

Joe Biden has said that he would end US involvement in the war in Yemen. Do you have any hope that he will fulfil this promise?

Biden said that in February 2021, and then spent the next year defending this offensive versus defensive dichotomy that he created out of nowhere and then refused to provide any sort of clarification to Congress when they asked him multiple times. I don’t know what it means to be involved in defensive weapons. What are defensive weapons when the other side doesn’t have any control over their own airspace and have just a few old missiles and drones. Even calling it a war is really not accurate at all, given the Houthi capabilities or lack thereof. I also don’t know what defensive intelligence means when the Yemenis didn’t pose any threat to the Saudis or the Americans. They were fighting back, of course, when the war started, but there was no prior threat by the Yemenis. This was an internal conflict that foreigners got involved in. So no, I don’t trust Joe Biden’s statements. He was part of the administration that started this war, and he presided over one year of the war [as Vice President] where he was actively supporting the Saudis and their bombing of Yemen until Yemenis and Saudis reached a truce through direct negotiations in Oman. I think the US maybe wants to take credit for some of this, but I don’t think we should let them. The Saudis finally had an incentive to sit down with the Houthis because the Houthis started bombing certain places in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which they hadn’t been able to do successfully before. On the other side, the Houthis were incentivized to sit down because there was a stalemate, where they were unable to take over the province of Ma’reb, which is rich in oil and gas. There were frontline battles that have not been resolved for multiple years. I hope that Congress takes action to try to force Biden to fulfil the promise that he made during the campaign trail, but so far, we’ve seen a reluctance from Congress as well, which is disappointing given that this is the Congress that was willing to act when it was seen as Trump’s war.

I am interested to know whether you have family members living in Yemen at the moment and when the last time that you were able to go back there was?

Unfortunately, I haven’t been back since 2004. I had a flight booked in December 2013; this was after the Arab Spring, and the Yemenis started protesting during that time as well and deposed the president at the time. Then there was a series of attacks that happened that winter, one of which was a terrorist attack in the capital. So I ended up cancelling my trip, unfortunately. And then the following year, the war started. The Houthis took over Sanaa and then a few months later, the Saudis started bombing, so I haven’t been able to go back, but I’m in touch daily with family members and relatives there. I have family in Hodeidah, a port city that has suffered some of the worst of this war. 70% of goods to Yemen come through that port, but it’s been under heavy blockade, which is slowly easing, but it’s not lifted by any means. I have relatives in Taiz, which is a front line. The city is divided between Houthi control and the various other groups. There’s also family in Aden, which is a stronghold of the south and Sana’a, which is a stronghold of the north. So, I’ve got family across all sides of this war. Life does go on, and many of them are more privileged than the average Yemeni who doesn’t know where their next meal comes from. Those of us who are living abroad are able to support in whatever way we can, through cash transfers for example. Some of them who have businesses were able to continue, but overall, it’s been really difficult for most Yemenis.

Shireen Al-Adeimi is a US-based Yemeni-American scholar and activist.

Interview conducted by Adrian von Bonsdorff, a Liberation volunteer.

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