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Yemen’s ex-foreign minister sees no end to long-running civil war

Yemen’s ex-foreign minister sees no end to long-running civil war
Khaled Alyemany, Yemen's former foreign minister, is now a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. On March 24, he discussed Yemen's ongoing civil war with the Middle East Institute's Gerald Feierstein. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Yemen’s disastrous civil war, now in its eighth year, shows little sign of a resolution despite efforts to bring the country’s various warring factions to the negotiating table.

That’s the sobering assessment by veteran diplomat Khaled Alyemany, who was posted to Kuala Lumpur, London, New York and Washington at various times in his 28-year career. From July 2013 to December 2014, Alyemany was Yemen’s fifth permanent representative to the United States; he also served as vice-president of the 70th UN General Assembly.

In 2018, Alyemany was appointed as Yemen’s foreign minister, but resigned in June 2019 due to differences over a UN-brokered peace deal between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Iranian-supported Houthi rebels. These days, he’s a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.

“The parties to this conflict are not cooperating at all. Whatever alternative you present to them, they will find a way to sneak around it,” Alyemany said during a recent event at the Middle East Institute moderated by Gerald M. Feierstein, the US ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013.

“After eight years, we’re still trying to sit down and decide the future of governing Yemen together,” he said. “The last attempt was in Stockholm, but the problem is that everyone involved has suddenly vanished from the picture. From the end of 2018 until now, we have no political process at all.”

Notably, the March 24 discussion—attended by no more than 20 people—was the think tank’s first in-person gathering since coronavirus restrictions took effect two years earlier. Yet world events, particularly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have overshadowed the tragedy in war-torn Yemen, two-thirds of whose 31 million inhabitants suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

But that’s not because there’s no food in Yemen, said Feierstein, who from 2013 until his retirement in 2016 was principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

“There’s food, fuel and medicine. What’s not available is the money to pay for it,” he said. “Because people have not received their salaries for years, the social welfare fund—which used to work very well in Yemen—is no longer working.  So, even if there’s no political resolution, is there an economic way the two sides can agree on simple steps that will allow people to live?”

Yemen, one of the world’s least developed countries, is home to 31 million inhabitants.

Yemen not a global humanitarian priority

That’s unlikely, Alyemany responded. With Ukraine grabbing all the headlines, Yemen—the poorest country in the Arab world—is no longer uppermost on the humanitarian agenda. At a recent aid conference, he said, Yemen received only $1.3 billion in pledged aid compared to the $4.1 billion it was seeking.

“We need to move from humanitarian relief to humanitarian sustainability, helping small fisheries and small farmers go back to their daily routines,” he said. “The problem is that no one is ready to give Yemen more money if there’s no political solution—only if we manage to stop the war.”

Alyemany said that over time, the Houthis have stiffened their resistance and have ample help from Tehran.

“The Houthis are not that smart to invest missiles and bombs. I don’t think they can even produce little baby drones. They have nothing. But they have backers who bring everything in. And they have Hezbollah officers working in San’a [the capital],” he said, noting that it’s nearly impossible to trace drones. “Iran is totally involved in this process, using Yemen as a launching pad for their attacks.”

Alyemany added: “We don’t even have a coast guard. Where are our boats? I don’t know. They are sold in the black market. It’s very sad when you see the international community trying to help you, and you don’t want to help yourself.”

Feierstein recalled that right before his term ended, President Trump designated the Houthis as a terrorist organization. Then Joe Biden became president and reversed that decision, taking the Houthis off the list.

“That was very unpopular with our friends in the Gulf. The Emiratis say we should redesignate them as terrorists,” said the former ambassador, musing whether relisting the Houthis would even make a difference at this point.

“I think that what this administration is doing is an accumulation of mistakes,” Alyemani replied. They could have used that listing as leverage in their talks with the Houthis. But they just removed them. So now, the issue of putting them back on the list is an issue for this administration. The progressives consider that a huge defeat.”

Gerald Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen, speaks March 24 at the Middle East Institute. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Yemen and the Israel question

“Nasrallah is proud to be a puppet of Iran. But the Houthis are very skillful at hiding this fact. Step by step, they are controlled by Iran, and they do nothing unless they have a green light from Iran. I think they’re smarter than Hezbollah.”

In Lebanon, he said, “Hezbollah [controlled by Iran] uses the historical pretext of fighting Israel. But who entitled them to represent us? The Syrian government is struggling to kick them out.”

During the Q&A that followed Alyemany’s presentation, the Washington Diplomat asked him if Israel might be able to play a role in ending the conflict, despite the fact that Yemen—unlike the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and a handful of other Arab countries—has never had diplomatic or even unofficial relations with the Jewish state.

Alyemany’s answer was surprising in its frankness.

“If you quote me, my enemies would consider me a friend of Netanyahu because I was once photographed next to him,” he said, referencing a 2019 Middle East peace conference in Poland that generated controversy. “Israel needs to address the Palestinian issue. It’s a serious issue. You cannot just say you don’t recognize them.”

But Alyemany also hailed the 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords, saying “I think the Emiratis and Bahrainis were courageous to take that step” and establish ties with Israel.

“We have very emotional relations with our Yemenite Israeli brothers,” he said, recalling with fondness YouTube videos of Yemenite Jews in the Israeli coastal city of Nahariya chewing qat leaves and yearning for the traditions of their homeland. “Do you know how many Yemenites we have there? Jews from Yemen comprise one of the largest Arab minorities in Israel.”

He added: “It’s politics that created these animosities and grievances—but at the end of the day, we all need to come down to earth and think about very practical steps to live together.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.