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Villains Playing Innocent and the Future of Yemen

26 May 2023
By Dr Kamilia Al-Eriani
War in Yemen. Source: Aida Faillace/

Has peace finally arrived in Yemen? While all parties directly involved in the civil conflict call for an end to the bloodshed, there are nefarious reasons for maintaining the status quo.

On 10 April 2023, roughly a month after talks between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran to restore diplomatic ties, Mohammad Al-Jaber, the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, arrived in Sana’a. The next day, Al-Jaber asserted in a tweet: “As part of the KSA’s perennial effort to end the Yemen crisis and in support of the Kingdom’s initiative proposed in 2021, today we visit Yemen with an official delegation from Oman to maintain the truce, support exchange of prisoners, bring Yemeni parties to dialogue towards a sustainable and comprehensive political solution in Yemen.”

In another statement, he stressed that the “Yemen crisis” is “a Yemeni matter.”

These statements are not only absurd for their attempt to highlight KSA’s neutrality and inculpability in Yemen’s war, they seek to represent the KSA as a mediator and a peacemaker rather than a party to it. It’s deployment of wealth and its long-standing fraternal commitment to rebuilding Yemen (on which more is below), is in fact troubling. The KSA sees its role as benign and persistently burdened by the “fraternal” consciousness “to save” Yemen from its prolonged and deep crisis.

So long as the KSA (and other regional powers) refuses to acknowledge its culpability, past and present, in the Yemen crisis, its call for peace will be meaningless. That the KSA attempts to claim innocence in the war alludes to its desire to continue to exercise power and influence over the small country, even if that means maintaining the status quo.

Generosity, the Historical Weapon 

The profuse scenes of Saudi generosity and fraternal care for Yemen’s future are epitomised in the current rebuilding of Yemen via various projects, carried out by the Saudi Development and Rebuilding of Yemen Program in Yemen (SDRYP), established in 2018. Al-Jaber, who monitors the SDRYP, retweets images capturing the different sites where rebuilding and the repairing of infrastructure like roads, schools, and hospitals is taking place. The SDRYP home page has one message, “It has been our endeavour to contribute to the country’s and human development. A continuous journey towards contributing the development of the Republic of Yemen, in which the bonds of brotherhood, culture, and geography bring us together.” This self-depiction clearly obscures its involvement in the aggression against Yemen and its contribution to the very destruction it claims to undo or ameliorate.

Such scenes and narratives are not novel; rather, they are old techniques the KSA has used to exercise its power over the economically disadvantaged Yemen. Since the rise of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1962 (the only republic in the Arabian Peninsula among six neighbouring monarchies), development and security aid from the KSA and other Gulf states has played an important role in shaping its political reality. Using aid as a political tool is not new. It emerged after the World War II as an instrument by colonial and emerging powers to influence newly independent states. During the Cold-War, the domains of violence were not confined to ideological battles and proxy wars between capitalism and communism, but included also the public good of development and security aid.

Fear of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialism in North Yemen and of Communism in the newly independent South Yemen (previously a British colony), made the country an important site for pumping in development aid by both the US and the USSR. Until recently, the aim of both the KSA and the US has been to ensure that Yemen remains “friendly.” The urge or necessity for a “friendly” regime in Yemen is vital to ensure the stability of the Saudi monarchy and, by implication, US oil and geopolitical interests.

The UAE in Yemen: Conflicting Agenda

While the KSA has remained one of the main donors in Yemen, other Gulf states, including the UAE, have over the decades contributed to Yemen’s development. However, the UAE’s development aid took a more insidious turn in 2015, when the latter joined the Saudi-coalition in its war against Ansar Allah – the Houthi movement. This alliance was however short-lived and confrontation between KSA and UAE forces erupted in 2018, making apparent the diversion of their political goals.

Moving from a primary agenda of restoring the internationally recognised government and preventing Iranian expansion on the Peninsula, the UAE found in the intervention an opportunity to secure coastlines and commercial and security interests in Yemen by pushing a southern separatist project. Under the pretext of fighting Islamic terrorism, the UAE bolstered its military support to the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – a secessionist organisation in South Yemen.

Like the KSA, Leaders in UAE depicted their project as providing much needed humanitarian support, security, and hope to their brothers nd sisters in the South of Yemen. The UAE projects its innocence through headlines that exemplify its rebuilding efforts in the Aden, including infrastructural repairs for roads, housing, electricity, water, health, and education services.

Behind the Façade of Yemen’s Rebuilding Efforts

Although scenes and narratives of generosity deployed by the KSA and UAE can be read as a sign that both have moved from a state of war to a state of peace, these are in fact part of the war machine itself. An interesting report on post-war rebuilding in Yemen reveals that little has actually changed from the past development schemes, and that there have been nothing substantial changes on the ground.

The real impact of such “efforts” can be extrapolated from the public exchange between the KSA and UAE officials and the diverse but hostile political elites in Yemen the eight years of war has produced. Rashad Al-Alimi, the head of the Yemen Presidential Council, the internationally recognised government, and Maeen Abdu Al-Malek, the Prime Minister of Yemen, constantly express their gratitude for the support provided by the KSA. These praises are regularly retweeted by Al-Jaber through his account. Meanwhile, the head of the STC, Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, who was handpicked by the UAE, expressed his utmost gratitude to the UAE’s endeavours for its peacebuilding in Yemen.

Publicly expressed admiration and gratitude by Yemeni elites towards the KSA’s and UAE’s generous efforts of peace and rebuilding unveil vulnerability in all parties. The KSA and UAE need these legitimising statements to maintain their control over Yemen, and so avoid their detractors’ critiques about their role in the violence. The Presidential Council (created April last year by Riyadh and Abud Dhabi after removing Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who served as president of Yemen from 2012-2022) needs to show constant gratitude and loyalty so that they can remain in power. If the KSA and the UAE continue to play innocent, and Yemeni political elites continue to bow to them, then what hope do the millions of innocent and ordinary Yemenis, dispossessed of their livelihoods, have? The obvious answer to this question gives us a clue as to where the future of Yemen’s unity and peace is heading.

Dr Kamilia Al-Eriani teaches at the School of Social and Political Sciences, Melbourne University, Australia. Her research interests include state politics, modern violence, and alternative modes of ethical politics.  

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.