Saturday, December 3, 2016

Fractured unions new and old: South Yemen independence day

Nov 30, 2016 - From the South Yemen Independence day celebration in Aden, Yemen. A soldier holding Yemen's Southern flag. Photo courtesy: Ahmed Shihab Al-qadi

*Today marks the 49th anniversary of South Yemen's independence from the British colony.

The anniversary should symbolise a time for rejoicing at the triumph over a colonial rule, but instead, it reflects the growing and contesting realities across Yemen.

Ever since the Southern Movement (Hirak) began in 2007, South Independence Day has become a time where the question of unity versus partition in the country manifests itself profoundly. The tension is all the more present given today's ongoing conflict.

Independence Day is of conflicting significance to the south and the north of Yemen, illustrating the rift between the two regions and the path towards partition the country finds itself on.

On one hand, as a continuation of the same spirit of liberty and the struggle for independence against the Brits, a great deal of the south takes the occasion to continue raising calls for independence from their latest virulent foe, the north; especially in the wake of Houthi takeover of the capital Sanaa in September, 2014.

One Adeni blogger writes, "after Ansar Allah's [the Houthis] coup against president Hadi's legitimacy, his detention and forcing him to resign, the southerners - even those who are pro-unity and were anti-secession - are totally convinced that people in the North don't believe in unity as they couldn't tolerate that a Southerner president [Hadi] would rule them.

Nov 30, 2016 - From the South Yemen Independence day celebration in Aden, Yemen. A man holding Yemen's Southern flag. Photo courtesy: Ahmed Shihab Al-qadi. 

With this magnified support for Hadi, and, as stated by the former colonel and founder of Hirak, and the Yemeni Retired Military Consultative Association, Nasser al-Noubi, "with this coup, unity was over".

Houthi brutality at the beginning of the war in Aden in the name of fighting Islamic State did not leave room for southerners to cling to unity, according to the Adeni blogger. As a result, the bloodshed of Houthis and of Saleh's forces in the South during the ongoing war caused the grievances of southerners to intensify, and demand secession from the "northern" government in Sanaa.

And on the other hand, in a delusional manner, in the north, ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi leaders are taking the opportunity this anniversary - particularly in light of the Saudi-led coalition strikes hitting the country - to mobilise northerners and southerners alike in standing united against the new "coloniser" (the Saudis) and fight back.

Over the two-year war, this is the second time Saleh has addressed the public, calling on them to cherish unity and fight united for victory against "the Saudis' aggression".

Ironically, South Independence Day for the North evokes the desire to win over the Saudis and it fails to evoke a reflection of the North's injustices against the South, at least in the course of the ongoing civil war. Certainly, independence means two totally different things for the North and the South in Yemen today.

Nov 30, 2016 - From the South Yemen Independence day celebration in Aden, Yemen. Photo courtesy: Saleh al-Obaidi

Fragile unity

Ever since the 1994 civil war in Yemen, the rift between the North and South has been growing ever deeper. Following the north's win over the south, the country has suffered from multifaceted local cleavages.

I remember as a child surviving the almost three-month long fight in Sanaa. In the following months and years, we were taught as part of the curriculum that the 1994 civil war was caused by the "secessionist" "infidels" giving a strong impression that the north was more concerned about unity and the south had perpetrated the betrayal.

Nov 30, 2016 - From the South Yemen Independence day celebration in Aden, Yemen. A poster reads, 'South Yemen Independence day. Thank you, Salman, thank you, Khalifa, thank you, the Arab coalition."
Photo courtesy: Saleh al-Obaidi

Fast forward to the present, and distrust between the north and the south is at its peak. To justify killing, and stripping them of their "Yemeniness", Houthi-Saleh militiamen have called the southerners IS supporters. Not only did this greatly undermine any sense of unity, but also any sense of a common national identity.

Despite the disappearances and the assassination of many Hirak activists, calls for secession or independence - depending on who you talk to - are still alive.

Unity versus Partition

When I talked with southern activists Rasha Jarhum and Khaled Al-Abbadi, I had a glimpse of their vision for the Hirak, one which has certainly been challenged by the ongoing war.

The fragmentation process is occurring across two dimensions: fighting on the ground, and in the political corridors of diplomacy. In today's conflict, the Hirak in Aden is in the hands of a coalition of separatist militia, jihadis and Salafists, orchestrating their secession.

Nov 30, 2016 - From the South Yemen Independence day celebration in Aden, Yemen.
Photo courtesy: Ahmed Shihab Al-qadi. 
Meanwhile, at the UN, Hirak activists are making concerted efforts to win the international community's support for their demands. However, southern activists are divided: some demand secession, regardless of ending Yemen's war, and others demand peace first for all Yemen, and then secession.

Nonetheless, the war may serve the Hirak's best interests, considering the latest development that saw Saleh and the Houthis form a cabinet two days ago. Following their formation of The Supreme Political Council and its announcement of a new government, the country is clearly falling under the control of two states.

This chaotic governance is a product of several factors: the stalemate in the battle for Sanaa, the failure of international actors to carry out peacemaking efforts in Yemen and the fact that none of the warring sides has made major gains.

Given the unwinnable nature of Yemen's war, these dynamics stress the growing complexity of not only unity in Yemen, but they also highlight the question of the form of peace war-torn Yemen desperately needs.

Nov 30, 2016 - From the South Yemen Independence day celebration in Aden, Yemen. Photo courtesy: Saleh al-Obaidi.

*This piece was first published on The New Arab, on the 30th November. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

We Have a Dream

Here is some tiny happy news in this $#%& world.

5ish years ago, I was photographed by Swedish photographer, Albert Wiking and interviewed by Oscar Edlund for a project they’ve been cooking for a long time. The project will finally see light next week and it’s called, ‘We Have A Dream’. It’s a photography exhibition of portraits of 114 people who dared to make a difference; the list includes Dalai lama, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, Malala Yousafzai, Timbuktu, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I.

To be among those names blows my mind! I wish to fly right now to 7aret al Raqas, my humble neighbourhood in Sana’a and tell them the news. I hope my hard-working mother who survived an abusive marriage, and had a 5-year-long fight at courts to win divorce and custody of her two daughters, and worked 24/7 to put food on the table and get us a decent education; I hope my mom is proud of her daughter, moi. I wish my teacher in Sana’a who told me, ‘if you want to be a writer, you’ll die alone, unread and poor,’ know how wrong he was.

My dream is that all Yemenis live in dignity and peace, and along with that journey I dream to continue telling their stories.

‘We Have a Dream’ will be exhibited at Fotografiska in Stockholm, 9 Dec - 19 Feb 2017, and will be accompanied by a book of the same name.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Yemeni Students Protest in Lebanon

Beirut, 23 Nov - A painful combination of war impact and Yemen’s divided state(S)’ failing administration has left dozens of Yemeni students in Lebanon in a tragic situation. It’s been almost 2 years since these students and others have been holding a sit-in demo inside the Yemeni embassy in Beirut, demanding to receive their financial support which they were promised to get along the scholarships they obtained from Yemen’s Vocational Ministry. With Zero financial support, the students have nothing for food, medicine, shelter, etc.

I met some of them yesterday in my quick visit to Lebanon; my full report will be published soon. In the meantime, watch/read Sama'a’s coverage of the students’ plight from last year:

Yemeni Embassy - Beirut.

I heard heartbreaking stories of how some of the students did not afford to renew their student residency and were put in prision in Lebanon for few days before the embassy intervened. "We were the top in our class, and that's why we got a scholarship to come to Lebanon and study. Then, we found ourselves seen as criminals here," says one student.

The students have been surviving with whatever charity given by some business men - and they depend on cooking at the embassy hall

Monday, November 21, 2016

Obama's abysmal track record in Yemen

Aug 2013 - President Barack Obama and Yemen's president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi after speaking to the media in the Oval Office of the White House. Photo courtesy/AP

*As US President-elect Donald J. Trump's win takes over the news, current US President Barack Obama's destructive legacy in Yemen must not go unnoticed. 

The Obama administration's foreign policy toward Yemen has been damaging and has largely contributed to the ongoing frenzied blood spill in the country. His policies inflicted devastating chaos on many levels in Yemen, for which the country is paying a heavy price.

In fact, Obama's record in Yemen is so dismal it even trumps his predecessor, Bush.

A failing 'War on Terror'

When Obama took office in 2009, analysts were hopeful that a realist American president would have a better vision for considering Yemen's local context, and fixing Bush's myriad failures in the global "War on Terror" in Yemen.

Bush's doctrine was characterised by his blind idealism in promoting democracy and security, and a dismissal of efforts to address the main drivers of violent extremism in Yemen. His pragmatic alliance with ousted Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh and his corrupt regime was a major failure in US policy in Yemen.

While Yemen was sliding down the ranks of the UN's Human Development Index, Saleh exploited that alliance to serve his own military interest, in the name of fighting terrorism.

In 2001, Bush's administration presented Saleh with an aid package worth up to $400 million, as part of US counter-terrorism operations, without investigating how Saleh's rule contributed to insurgents in Yemen. Bush's policies failed to comprehend Saleh's deceit in using the anti-terrorism card over advancing the social and economic growth of the country.

Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and President George W. Bush meet in the Oval Office in 2001.

Obama's foreign policy in Yemen was in many ways an extension of Bush's. Despite his realism, it would have even more devastating consequences. Not only did Obama's approach pursue Bush's anti-terrorism strategy, he also made sure to expand the militarization strategy.

Obama's policy - like Bush's - perceived Yemen as a land of terrorism, neglecting warning calls from the country's civil society and grassroots organisations that Yemen was increasingly becoming a land of poverty, illiteracy and poor governance. This, they warned, represented the perfect conditions for terrorist groups to thrive and recruit.

Nonetheless, Obama too failed to comprehend Saleh's deceit and manipulation through the language of anti-terrorism.

Consequently, under Obama, the US doubled its security support to Yemen, to more than $150 million in 2010, including a proposed $45 million for equipping and training Yemeni special anti-terrorism forces. In spite of that, Obama's approach to Saleh's "War on Terror" was ineffective, with no real gains; it simply allowed Saleh to milk more military aid for no great significant purpose. Recent global terrorist attacks with links to Yemen are just a few examples to demonstrate that.

Worse than Bush

Part of Obama's extension of Bush's policy was the stepped up drone strikes campaign in Yemen. Under Obama, there has been a hike in drone strikes in Yemen and other countries, at nearly nine times more than the level authorised by Bush.

These drone strikes have killed more civilians than combatants - leading to growing anti-American sentiment. While clearly such a military strategy has become counter-productive, Obama's creativity reached its peak with his secret "kill-list" which included names in Yemen. Those in the worst hit areas understand that the real "terrorism" is carried out by US military jets that have been colonising Yemen's skies and terrorising innocent civilians. 

The 2011 uprising and Obama

When the 2011 uprising broke out, Obama's US policy in Yemen faced a crisis: How would the US handle losing a close ally in the War on Terror, in Saleh? It was time for Obama's realism to find new priorities in US policy in Yemen.

In parallel to his cautious endorsement of the protests, he was obsessed with silencing critical reporting of the flaws in his counter-terrorism drone strikes in Yemen. He intervened to keep a Yemeni journalist in jail, who revealed the drone strike crimes against women and children. This has exposed Obama's hypocrisy in supporting press freedom around the globe, but not in Yemen.

As the protests grew, the Obama administration had another setback in Yemen. During the 2011 uprising, Obama's foreign policy in Yemen was ill-made and was key in shaping an ill-formed model for a failing political transition.

He endorsed a power-transfer deal to Saleh, made by the Gulf Cooperation Council that guaranteed impunity to a dictatorship. This was a recipe for disaster, confirmed by the bloodbath we see in Yemen today. Nonetheless, the administration attempted to boast about their success in forging the "Yemen-model" of US counter-terrorism policy.

Obama at war in Yemen

Not long after the myth of the Yemen-model, the war broke out, pointing to the failures of US policy in Yemen. Today, Obama must be held responsible for leading the country to where it is today. He has contributed to the reckless expansion and militarization of Saleh's forces, and the co-enabling of killing through its support for the Saudi-led coalition.

Despite the calls of human rights groups to independently investigate war crimes committed in Yemen, Obama has continued to authorise arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The most outrageous truth, though, is that under Obama US-made and internationally banned cluster bombs were used by US ally, Saudi Arabia, in Yemen against civilian areas.

And yet, Obama has failed to even rhetorically address this. As remnants of bombs dropped above Yemenis' heads read made by the US, Yemenis now more than ever, believe Saudi Arabia's war is an American one, too. The slaughter of Yemeni civilians with cluster bombs might well be Obama's bloodiest legacy in Yemen.

Obama's dismal failure in Yemen reflects the failure of a realist assessment of national interests. Would Trump provide a glimmer of hope in Yemen? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, Yemenis see Obama as worse than any other American president.

*This article was first published on on 18th of Nov. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Sweden Has A Role In Yemenis’ Suffering And Must Suspend Its Weapon Sales To Saudi

Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven met Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs,
Nizar bin Obaid Madani in Riyadh, Saudi. October 2016. Photo courtesy: Aftonbladet.

*Swedish media tends to criticize the Swedish-Saudi relation denouncing Sweden’s desire to be an ally to Saudi and pointing out that it is a dictatorship that lacks any free political life and a country that commits massive human rights violations. But it is time to update that perspective: Saudis’ record in human rights violations have exceeded its borders.

Swedes must also condemn Saudi’s war crimes record in Yemen; this most importantly entails Swedes questioning Sweden-made weapon sold to Saudi used in possible war crimes.


Ahead Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s visit to Saudi at the end of last month, Wikileaks tweeted that top Swedish arms dealer Marcus Wallenberg “accompanied” Swedish PM Löfven to Saudi. This is plausible as Saudi is one of the top clients of Sweden’s weaponry industry. In its 2016 report, Control Arms Coalition named Sweden as one of the countries having reported licenses and sales to Saudi Arabia in 2015. Saudi won’t obtain all these weaponry unless there is a flourishing market. Saudi is the world’s third-largest spender in military expenditure index. Despite that Sweden has announced last year its military cooperation with Saudi was not renewed, Saab remains able to continue selling arms to Gulf countries - which are active actors in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

The Saudi-led coalition intervention in impoverished Yemen that began in March 2015 was only possible because of the high level of arms imports made to the coalition 10 Arab state members, headed by oil-rich Saudi. In 2011-15 Saudi Arabia’s arms imports increased by 275 percent compared with 2006-10. In the course of Yemen war, at least 10,000 people have been killed and the UN reported that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for most civilian casualties. Human rights groups which include Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both documented dozens of unlawful coalition airstrikes, some of which may amount to war crimes. Schools, hospitals, weddings, funerals among many other civilian targets were not exempted from the coalition airstrikes.

In parallel, calls for countries to stop selling weapons to Saudi are raised. The calls include Sweden who had little or nothing to state in condemning the atrocities in Yemen. I became well-aware of Sweden’s indifference when Sana’a funeral attack happened in which 140 people were killed and over 500 were injured by a double-tap airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition earlier this month. Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallström showed no condemnation statement, whatsoever, while she usually rushes to condemn terrorist attacks elsewhere. Seemingly, Sweden’s silence over the Saudis’ war in Yemen is relevant to Sweden’s arms sales to the kingdom.

Last year, Sweden had a strong stance against Saudi over its terrible human rights violations record, then why the silence today? What has changed now? Why the silence over Saudi’s role in the suffering in Yemen? Sweden’s revival of the Saudi-Swedish ties comes as a step into Swedish preparation for its seat on the UN Security Council in the beginning of next year and with that Sweden seems to be willing to compromise & ally itself with the Saudis. Sweden had to re-establish its good relation to the Saudis and gain Saudis’ support in the council.

In that seat, Sweden actually is becoming increasingly relevant to peace in Yemen - it must honor the international laws and exert efforts to ensure peace; which both Saudi is violating in the war in Yemen. However, Sweden’s indifference over the potential use of its weapons in causing the suffering in Yemen undermines Sweden’s future role in ensuring peace. If Sweden doesn’t condemn Saudi war crimes now, then when will it do so?

It is time to refresh our view on the problem with Sweden allying Saudi considering Saudi’s war crimes record in Yemen war and therefore call upon that Sweden suspend any of its arms sales to Saudi- unless, Sweden would like to be on the wrong side of history.

*This piece was originally published in Swedish in Swedish magazine, Omvarlden on the 1st of November, 2016.