Part of the problem with why Yemen appears to be a black hole of information and despair is that from the very start of Saudi Arabia’s entry into the war, some of the Islamist naysayers, such as the former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s chief of intelligence Saad Al-Jabri, and many others, have framed the conflict as a hopeless war with no exit strategy. Rather than working with the then-Deputy Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman to develop several implementable action plans that could address Iran’s increasing involvement in the war, and the growing use of complex asymmetrical warfare, Al-Jabri and others resisted until the very last minute, ensuring that the Saudi entry would be made with grand fanfare and airstrike but with little long-term planning or preparation.
OF course such an attitude ensured that any attempt to communicate the conflict to the West in an effective way would be thwarted; any admission of the full extent challenge of the situation would be deemed culturally embarrassing if only because the executors of the war had to go against the grain about Al-Jabri, who was perceived at the time by the population as an experienced war hero, who had thwarted Al Qaeda attacks and put down an Iran-backed Shi’a insurrection. The reality is, there are many way to win the war in Yemen and many paths to success in any type of war, but there is only one surefireway to failure – and that is, to allow adversarial forces to take charge of the narrative, to shape the message, and ultimately, to undermine the morale by putting unnecessary obstacles and diverting attention from a realistic, practical, and systematic way to address challenges.
Yemen has had no shortage of challenges – the Hezbullah-trained Houthis, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the encroachment of Al Qaeda and ISIS, troubling alliances, backstabbing, miscommunication between the members of the Arab Coalition, divergent strategies, break outs of separatist groups, tribal conflicts, existing poverty, mismanagement, corruption on all levels, various illnesses, and eventually the corona virus pandemic were but some of the major issues plaguing the country. However, two central issues are at the center of the confusion, preventing effective decionmaking and prioritizing: lack of transparency and accountability, and the need to develop effective messaging to engage potential allies and to strengthen existing relationships and investment by existing Western allies and even other nominal partners in the Arab Coalition.
To address these salient needs, the Yemeni Coalition of Independent Women organized a discussion on the sidelines of the high level donor conference Yemen 2020, held virtually with participation of Saudi Arabia and the United Nations on June 2. The meeting was was opened by Dr. Wissam Basandouh, who stressed that the crisis in Yemen will not subside until the attempted coup by the Houthis is put out, admonishing that the crisis in Yemen was largely political. Once the political issues are resolved, she underscored, the humanitarian issues would also be answered. The solution has to result in a comprehensive and just peace for Yemenis following the agreements of three conferences and UN resolution 22166, resulting in the end of the insurgency, the dissolution of all the militias, and reintegration of all segments of the fracture society back into a state.
Djibouti’s Ambassador Diauddin Bamakhrama praised the large participation in the conference from different parts of the world, recalling the tragic situation that Yemen is currently living in the shadow of the Corona pandemic. He added that the overall death rate of those infected with corona globally is 7 percent, but in Yemen, according to what was announced, the death rate reaches about 20 percent. It might end up being higher due to the widespread denial and cover-up by the Houthis, and the lack of basic treatment in general.
The Ambassador reviewed the previous donors’ conferences in Geneva and the Kingdom’s permanent support to Yemen and indicated that there is hesitation by some donors to provide support due to the absence of a monitoring and follow-up mechanism and the lack of transparency in the exchange of information, and the most important reason always remains preventing the Houthis from accessing humanitarian aid. He, however, outline ongoing assistance programs, including the great efforts by the Kingdom through the King Salman Center and there are efforts through the Pore Mine Clearance Program, and on the Yemeni-Djiboutian relationship, the ambassador indicated that Djibouti is not a donor country but there is a special treatment that Yemenis always enjoy there.
Professor Hamdan Al-Ali, a journalist and human rights activist, talked about international organizations as mediators between the donor countries and Yemen and mentioned that there is a state of mistrust between the Yemenis and international organizations, as the Yemenis have come to consider international organizations as war profiteers. He confirmed that while there is no doubt that these organizations provide assistance to the Yemenis, but they do not reflect the real support provided by the donor countries, adding that for many of them donating is only a function to demonstrate their worth to fundraising, and that many organizations are corrupt, self-serving embezzlers. The numbers in the pledges and what actually gets on the ground, does not add up.
The Yemenis question the reliability of these organizations, and there are real concerns that this aid will go to the war effort of the Houthi militia, which increases the suffering of the Yemeni people, and cited as an example of this, the World Health Organization provided ambulances that are used for military operations by the Houthi militias and the WHO’s recognition of this. He stressed that there is no real oversight of the support reaching the targeted people.
At the end of the day, two issues are intertwined to undermine the likelihood of success in Yemen. Those two issues are corruption and lack of a successful communication model. In terms of corruption, relying on self-serving and embezzling international organizations does not work; furthermore, many of them are sympathetic to Iran and look for opportunities to channel money to Houthis. At the very least, the fact that these organizations treat Houthis as an equal and legitimate partner or actor in Yemen fuels the Houthi corruption.
Then, perhaps, it is time to cut out the middleman and to deal directly with the Arab Coalition, perhaps in partnership with the United States (but not USAID, which has had its own issues with funneling money to terrorist organizations). However, what could work is creating a jointly run escrow account for all donations, which would ensure ease of oversight and transparency, with only a limited number of actors involved in administering one general flow of all donations and reallocating it based on agreed upon needs. All of the international organizations which wish to take credit for providing humanitarian aid could still take credit for doing so, and would be receiving regular reports on how that money is spent.
But the money would no longer be disappearing through many different directions, and the international effort would no longer be supporting the Houthis. Without financial aid, the Houthi administration would collapse. They use money to recruit followers who are not necessarily ideological and would never be interested if not for the promise of cash. Furthermore, the money Houthis do dispense is done so on the basis of favoritism towards particular tribes, ideological fellow travelers, and criminal enforcers, with the rest of the population getting remnants if anything at all. There is nothing justifiable about letting Houthis retain most of the control over private funding.
Meanwhile the Coalition could partner with the Pentagon’s experienced logisticians, who had shown a great deal of distribution success on the ground in Afghanistan while facing similar conditions as Yemen, in training locals and select members of the Coalition in effective distribution of aid from figuring out specific needs to physically providing the aid in a way that ensures the population’s benefit. All of this would strengthen and deepend the relationship between the US and the Coalition, without entangling the US in direct combat effort.
At the same time, for the Coalition it is time to reshape its own narrative and vision in Yemen from fighting on equal standing or faced off agaisnt treachery and backstabbing by numerous external forces to rising to a position of dominance and control in the conflict. Breaking through the internal narrative of adversity and stagnation is the first step to prevailing over the enemy, but it can only be accomplished if those involved actually develop a plan to override the current inhibitions and instead of waiting for the political actors to provide them with terms for success, create those conditions de fact on the ground. Finally placing themselves in a superior and controlling role over the financing will accomplish exactly that; unless the Coalition starts putting forth conditions and making demands rather than going along with the Houthis and the international community’s view of the situatio, it will never accomplish its goal.
That means that if the Coalition does not wish the international community to treat the Houthis as an equal and legitimate action, it should begin by not treating them as such and not giving them additional room to make the case that they are in fact in any way relevant or in control by asserting themselves as the leading authority along with the internationally recognized government of Yemen. There is no reason for international organizations to be party to the conflict by taking sides; by acknowledging the Houthis’ self-proclaimed Iran-backed authority over funding or aid distribution, these organizations are doing exactly that – they are taking sides in the conflict against the government, which should never be allowed. That is partly how Houthis managed to gain as much political control as they did – with this tacit political backing from outside forces under the alleged pretext of trying to help the people. In fact, this configuration has helped nobody except the Houthis.
So how to start changing the status quo and ensure the buy in of all the involved? It will not be easy, and there will be attempts to portray both the government and the Coalition as tyrannical parties that are blocking the distribution of aid. However, the sooner anti-corruption mechanisms and oversight measures with demonstrable level of transparency and control are put in place, the harder it will be to make that argument in light of Houthis’ complete failure to present anything except for demands, to the point that many countries are now no longer interested in providing any aid at all. The United States, which had already cut its countribution to WHO by half , in light of the Houthi intransingency and WHO’s own corruption, is now withdrawing from WHO altogether for independent reasons. That is actually good for Yemen, because now US is free to deal with Yemen and the Arab Coalition independently and on its own terms.
And it’s not in the US interests to see Iran prevail in Yemen and cause further destruction and instability. However, the framework for rebuilding the country and ensuring economic and educational success, the deradicalization and the incentive building for reintegration of various parts of the country into the federal government, are only possible if the main issue is dealt with effectively, that is by weakening Houthis ability to appeal to the public in any way and completely delegitimizing them and freeing the Yemenis from effective hostage taking through humanitarian aid. Playing a central role in this effort, US can actually help prevent this conflict from turning into another endless war by means that will also counter adversarial attacks on its support on the air strikes, which the Houthis and their sympathizers had used to undermine US support to the Arab Coalition.
The second issue that is closely ties to the issue of financial corruption is the corruption of media coverage and messaging of the conflict. From the beginning, the Arab Coalition was not successful in explaining the complexities of the challenges it faced in Yemen in a way that would resonate even with most other Arab states, much less with the Western public, to which Yemen seemed like another “endless” war in the Middle East, and a waste of resources that could only benefit other countries. Failing to show effectively US interest in greater, rather than limited and arguably ineffective involvement in Yemen, should be the top messaging priority. Several obstacles to that effect exist; namely, the Yemeni organizations reporting on these issues tend to be more sympathetic to the Houthi/Iranian cause, and the Western organizations involved in briefing Congress are also either pro-Iranian or at the very least sufficiently anti-Saudi that it limits and colors the way they convey the conflict.
A shortage of independent experts on the conflict or those able to work with the Coalition towards a constructive goal is also a hindrance towards gaining an accurate understanding of the events. Few analysts who were not pro-Iran have ever prioritized YEmen to begin with; those who did had last traveled to the country many years before the conflict with the Houthis became a serious issue; even those who had been there more recently to report on the conflict have since given up in favor or more widely covered topics. Think tanks in general operate on the basis of public or government interest in an issue; if there is no apparent interest, there is no funding or incentive to be involved. Thus building up credibility and public interest is essential in getting serious scholars involved in studying and writing about this area. In some cases, these experts may need to built from the ground up, based on their general basis of knowledge coupled with open minds, intellectual honesty, and willingness to learn.
The approach to communicating the conflict needs to be credible, coherent, and diverse. The adversarial forces, although frequently fabricating or distorting details of the conflict, are able to provide enough facts, however, out of context to earn the willingness of their counterparts in Congress or in the media to go along with the narrative. Additionally, they supplement reports and articles with the effective use of emotional appeal that plays well with the human rights activists, “infotainment” press, and impressionable government officials and their staff. That includes the use of visual, personal stories and narratives, and providing opportunities for their target audiences to feel like they can make an impact without too much personal responsibility or liability. They also play effectively on the existing stereotypes, media campaigns, and disinformation about various members of the Arab Coalition. In order to produce an effective assertive and compelling story of the its own positive role in the war, the Coalition needs to play an active part in it rather than hoping that someone else will tell its story for them, and do so by understanding what actually works in the West, rather than what they think should work. To get there, the Coalition should start by studying the successes of their adversaries in that regard.
One example of what needs to happen and what has failed to materialize up until this point is an effective and concise way of providing access to information for specialists and broader public in a way that makes sense of the apparent tangle of interests and smaller conflicts underlying what is known as the “Yemen war”. A database of that sort would include a mixture of chronological detailed and well presented information, updated news stories, compelling visuals and personal narratives, such as video testimonies and documentary clips, and photos of both positive activity and challenges, including intervention by third parties.
All such evidence should be presented in mutltiple languages, systematized, and verifiable, with explanations of each episode depicted, dates, actors and issues involved, locations, and other relevant data. Until now, even specialists with background in the conflict have trouble gathering evidence and information for the research. Articles and videos related to the conflict are mostly in Arabic, never translated to English, scattered all over the internet. The videos are of amateur quality, consist of unclear clips, with brief, confusing explanations or muffled voiceovers, with no way to ascertain when and where the image was captured, and how it was determined who or what was involved.
Furthermore, spokespeople for the Coalition should not be waiting for opportunities to be hosted to materialize, but actively seeking out or creating opportunities to express their perspectives, opinions, and to present detailed, convincing evidence to support their arguments and analysis. They should be persistent in trying to publish in Western media and in making themselves available for events and TV appearances. Until now, a military spokesman from Saudi Arabia makes brief, dry remarks about findings that are on occasion shared with the Western press; if the Coalition does not make its own story compelling, interesting, and identifiable on a human level, no one else will.
Relying almost exclusively on the Twitteratti to drive the conversation on Yemen is a major failing on the Coalition’s part. A few English-speaking commentators provide interesting glimpses and insights into what is going on, but for outsiders, seeking out such rare individuals and narratives is an obstacle in itself and few researchers have the luxury of free time for wild goose hunts. If there is an interest in engaging broader public and specialists via social media, at the very least experts on this topic should make it a point of strategy to reach out and make themselves known and available. Still, social media threads, that are easily lost or taken down by the Twitter authorities, are not a substitutes for websites, documentaries, exhibits, personal encounters and gatherings, and other creative ways of telling Yemen’s story. In the Information Age, where data is gold, there is simply no excuse to act as if these events are happening in isolation from the rest of the world or the enemy’s efforts to misconstrue and misrepresent everything that happens.
While the laudable goal of all these efforts is to ultimately undo the toll of years of sectarianism and social fragmentation, the reality is there are so many juggling components in Yemen at this point that effective resolution of these various scenarios require strategic thoughtful and forward-looking approaches, rather than short term reactionary responses to daily attacks advanced by someone else in support of his agenda. That ultimately means either effectively prioritizing a couple of main issues that need to be dealt with before all other problems are tackled (which could be problematic due to the past experience of being dragged into side conflicts or troublesome alliances, which ended up compounding the issues), or on the contrary developing an integrated holistic approach to resolving issues that often feed into one another and are not easily separatable. For the US, for instance, the national security priority has been fighting Al Qaeda and ISIS, although another US terrorist designated organization, Hezbullah is likewise operational on the ground and is in fact fueling the rise of Houthis who are the top priority for the Coalition, including, in particular, for the Saudis.
What’s the answer then? It’s certainly not to sit back and scramble over the ever more confusing morass of geometrically exploding proliferation of problems, terrorist groups, and conflicts of interests. One idea is to create a taskforce of small flexible committees to deal with each of these central and side issues, and then to share information, findings, and best practices in a transparent, efficient way that could help avoid groupthink, and learned helplessness. Being sensitive to the past bad experience with corruption of such entities, each committee should integrate insiders and external independent or Western experts who could both contribute to addressing each issue and also inform the global community about progress based on specific criteria as well as through op-eds and media. Each committee would have both permanent highly specialized members and rotating members, as well as visiting consultants and visitors, again to deter groupthink and encourage innovative and disruptive approaches, balanced with experience and best practices.
Developing this mechanism on the Arab Coalition’s side would be an investment into a communication to potential allies and old friends that the Coalition is learning and growing with experience, rather than is permanently stuck in ways that don’t always produce the best outcomes, and that is taking steps to become more organized, setting clear, specific standards and measurements of success, and introducing objectives and a path towards them that will benefit the region and anyone who is involved in this effort, rather than their own narrow interests as it is perceived by the public. It will also help avoid miscommunication betwen various members of the Coalition which has been a major and frustrating stumble block so many times in the past, and led to additional sectarianism on the ground. Finally, by providing an opportunity to address self-interest for other countries, rather than relying merely on old sentimental loyalties and cultural “Arab guilt”, the Coalition will ensure active and enthusiastic buy-in from partners, rather than grudging military charity and the resentful return of old favors, which is how some of the involvement in this situation has been perceived.