Yemen in suffering from one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century. But some members of British establishment seem to be advocating for more war in Yemen.
Another recent article published in the Times of London, one of Britain’s oldest and most prestigious papers, is a perfect example of this subtle and worrying trend. In the article Peter Welby, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and a former consultant at the Tony Blair Institute for Change, argues that Houthi rebels in Yemen are equivalent to the Islamic State (ISIS). The article is entitled “Yemen’s Houthi rebels should be treated like ISIS.” The Times newspaper has a troubling track-record on the Yemen question, in particular.
At least nine experts and academics specializing in Yemen co-authored a response in a Letter to the Editor, where they substantively debunked the author’s claims on both the religious nature of the Houthis and the author’s understandings of the military situation in Yemen.
One Yemen expert who co-signed the letter outright called the piece ‘tosh,’ in an email exchange with Al Bawaba.
But the question remains: why push fake news about the Houthis being ISIS? Towards what end does this comparison contribute? Who stands to gain from this? And who stands to lose?
The article conforms to a wider trend of support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which has killed around 15,000 and thrown the poorest country in the Arab world into what is considered the most urgent humanitarian catastrophe happening today.
Al Bawaba spoke directly to Welby, over the phone from Amman, to try to pick apart some of the statements made. The responses we received were baffling, to say the least.
The article lays out surface-level comparisons between the breakaway Houthi rebel group in Yemen, and perhaps the most extreme militant group the world has seen in modern history: ISIS. His biggest points are that the Houthis are Islamist and separatist. While these are two broad similarities between them, thousands of other groups share these characteristics.
“How, they say, could they have done this [capture Yemen’s capital, Sanaa] if it weren’t for God’s support? In their mind, the territory is a gift from God,” submits the author on the Houthis. “If that sounds familiar, it’s because Islamic State said the same after the Iraqi army melted before them in northern Iraq.”
Speaking with Al Bawaba over the phone, Welby argued that he meant the Houthis were just as immoral and extreme as ISIS, and that “the Houthis are not plucky freedom fighters… they are trying to conquer a whole load of people.”
Welby is quick to cite the largely Shia Houthi’s reliance on religious rhetoric to justify their politics and compares their stance to Iran. When Saudi Arabia was mentioned to be doing the same and even trying to export its hard-line wahhabi branch of Islam around the world, Welby made exceptions for Saudi before trying to change the subject.
Saudi Arabia, one of the key allies to the Yemen government, also claims a type of divine right to rule.
Welby dismissed the historic animosity between Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, saying sectarianism does not play any role in Saudi’s decision to intervene in Yemen, only politics.
On the fact that Saudi could qualify as extremist under his own definition thanks to its global export of militant wahhabism, including the funding of extremist islamist groups around the world, Welby denied this fact, stating Saudi Arabia “are not through actually trying to fund groups in rival states trying to overthrow the government.”
To be clear: Saudi has, for decades, funded and otherwise supported extremist militant groups to overthrow various governments and is largely regarded as being the biggest state-backer of Sunni extremism in the world.
Denying the Existence of the Aid Blockade
Welby went on to claim that the humanitarian situation in the country is improving, that reports of the suffering in Yemen are “skewed towards the suffering the Coalition is causing,” while minimizing Houthi’s own crimes. These claims conflict with well-documented reports from Yemen showing the humanitarian crisis deepening as the conflict drags on with crimes committed by all sides.
“A lot of the suffering in Yemen is due the Houthi failure to distribute aid effectively,” he argued. Stunningly, when asked about Saudi’s naval and air blockade of Yemen that many NGOs say is largely responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Welby denied the existence of any such blockade.
“As far as I’m aware, there isn’t an aid blockade,” Welby states bluntly, only admitting to there being a brief blockade in late 2017 that was then lifted. Aid workers on the ground disagree.
Abdi Mohamud, Mercy Corps’ Yemen country director told The Independent in June 2018 that humanitarian access to Yemen is in constant danger, that the aid blockade is still very much affect the ability to service Yemen:
“This is a man-made crisis and only a political solution can end this needless suffering…Hodeidah is one of the only barriers keeping famine from Yemen’s door. If this critical lifeline is lost, it could trigger a humanitarian crisis the likes of which has not been seen in decades.”
Here, Mohamud is referring to the Hodeidah Port in Yemen, which is responsible for about 70 percent of all imports to Yemen and is currently under siege by the Yemen government with backing from Saudi-led Coalition forces.
Martha Mundy, a professor emeritus at the London School of Economics (LSE) and another co-author of the response letter, noted that the Saudi-led Coalition deliberately targeted Yemen’s agricultural infrastructure, saying “a good guess based on a couple of good studies is that it has been at least halved during the war.” This made Yemen completely reliant on the goods being periodically blocked by the Coalition.
James Firebrace, the coordinator for the Yemen Safe Passage Group and co-author of the response letter, told Al Bawaba that the “blockade has varied in intensity,” and that apart from periodic stoppages in aid, the coalition deploys ‘double inspections’ on ships headed to Yemen ports.
Coalition authorities can delay aid shipments for “weeks” according to him, which he deems as unjustified, considering the U.N. authority, the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM), already inspects the ships.
The Houthis, for their part, deploy landmines, which are condemned by the international community and indiscriminate weapons, and block and confiscate aid and use innocents as human shields, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
The U.N. tallied the number of those in need of humanitarian assistance in Yemen and put it at a staggering 22.2 million, a majority of the entire population of the country.
“I think it is very hard to call any of the warring parties ‘good guys’ at this point,” a researcher with Human Rights Watch told Al Bawaba.
All this is to say that horrific war crimes are being committed by all warring parties in Yemen; that there are no ‘good guys.’
Again, Welby sees things differently.
No Good Guys in the Yemen War
About eight million civilians have been on the brink of famine since the beginning of 2018. The vast majority of the country is in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Diseases spread faster in Yemen than nearly anywhere else in the world.
Every warring party shares responsibility in this. It is safe to say that the ongoing war in Yemen has no ‘good guys.’
“Yes there are good guys.” Welby said in the interview.
“I think that the… forces of the Saudi-coalition, of the Arab coalition under the U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force, are entirely good. They’re about defending their borders and supporting the legitimate government against rebel groups,” he added.
In brazenly picking a side, denying and manipulating realities on the ground and calling for a more intense military involvement in Yemen, The Times’ article would stand as a moral tragedy: an example of propaganda that justifies one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century.
British, US & French Arms Sales in Yemen
The war in Yemen has raged since 2015, when an all-out civil war broke out between the Shia-led Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government, backed by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and with support from the U.A.E. The U.S., France, and the U.K. have cumulatively given Saudi billions of dollars in arms, intelligence and logistical support.
However, the article’s sentiments more or less capture the official stances of the U.K., French and U.S. governments.
The U.K. has delivered about $15 billion in arms to Saudi since 2008, even though 70% of its people polled don’t support Saudi in its war.
Yearly value of arms deals from U.K. to Saudi from 2008 to 2017 (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
While various government officials have come out criticizing their respective governments’ support for the ongoing intervention and blockade, it is still very much state policy to stand behind Saudi, the U.A.E. and the Yemen government.
To many experts on Yemen and millions of citizens of the U.K., The Times’ article is fake news. For government themselves, this kind of writing is exactly what they need to justify the continued military support of Saudi-led Coalition, despite the warning cries from non-governmental organizations including the U.N., Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The ugly truth that all sides in the war have committed human rights violations and show little respect for humanity has been abandoned to the more convenient take that the Yemeni government are the ‘good guys,’ and the Houthis are essentially evil incarnate.
The victims of this take, which calls for deeper war and alignment with a murderous government, will inevitably be Yemeni civilians, who were already the poorest and most deprived people in the Arab world before the war began.