Why Saudis Derailed Imminent Yemen Deal with Airstrikes

  April 28, 2015

Why Saudis Derailed Imminent Yemen Deal with Airstrikes

Wall Street Journal UN correspondent Joe Lauria discusses how a former UN envoy came forward with details of a power-sharing deal in Yemen and why Saudi Arabia would want to prevent that deal from becoming a reality.
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Joe Lauria is an independent foreign affairs correspondent. He is The Wall Street Journal's United Nations correspondent and also reports for the Johannesburg Star. He has covered the UN for The Boston Globe, the Montreal Gazette, The Daily Telegraph and other publications. Joe was an investigative reporter for The Sunday Times of London and is the author of two books.


Why Saudis Derailed Imminent Yemen Deal with AirstrikesJESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Sunday war planes of the Saudi-led military coalition bombed targets in the capital of Yemen. This is part of an ongoing campaign against the rebel Houthi group, and now for the first time Saudi officials are saying that they will be shifting their focus from a military campaign against the Houthis and towards more political negotiations and humanitarian relief. But behind this story is another story that could have been emerging. A former UN envoy has come out saying that Yemen's warring political factions were on the verge of a power sharing deal when the Saudi-led air strikes began a month ago, derailing the negotiations.

Now joining us to discuss all of this is our guest Joe Lauria, He is the United Nations correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and he joins us now from New York.

Thanks for being with us, Joe.


DESVARIEUX: So Joe, you just co-wrote the piece: Former UN Envoy Says Yemen Political Deal was Close Before Saudi Airstrikes Began. Just explain to our viewers what your sources have been telling you about the potential political deal, and what did it include?

LAURIA: Well, my main source of course was Jamal Benomar, who until today was the UN's Special Representative in Yemen since four years ago, and his job was to bring the parties together to try to work out a deal that would lead to a unity government. And he had everyone on board on all points, he says, except for one point which was the role of the presidency in the transition going forward. And that was--of course, the president is President Hadi, and he disagreed with any dilution of his powers. What the other parties had suggested were that the would be either a presidential council of five and he would be the chairman, or a strong vice president that would weaken his powers. That's what the Houthi in particular wanted.

They were in occupation of this capital city of Sana'a while this negotiation was going on. It began this round on January 20th, and they had occupied the capital in September. And they were willing to withdraw their militias and have it replaced by a new national unity security force that the UN experts had prepared, and they were willing to do that if Hadi had agreed to dilute some of his powers. He hadn't done that. He then moved--the capital, he moved to Aden and set up a rival capital there. And at that point the Houthis said that they were not going to allow him to be the chairman of the council, but he could be one of the council members. So that was still alive. And then of course he asked for Saudi military intervention. And once the bombing began that was the end of the talks.

That's the main thrust of the story, that Benomar was saying. They were close to a deal, and then the Saudi intervention, the bombing ended the negotiation and that's where we are today.

DESVARIEUX: So what essential interest would Saudi Arabia have in terms of increasing force? Why would they even do that?

LAURIA: Well, publicly they're saying they want to restore Hadi as the president, and that they are trying to curb Iranian influence in Yemen. Now, the Houthis are Zaydi sect of Shiism, but it's a different sect than the Iranian Shiites. The Houthi movement began in the early '90s, and they didn't receive any aid or any connection really with Iran until five years ago, 2010. And even the U.S. government does not believe that Iran has overwhelming influence in Yemen. And diplomats I spoke to are not--I can't name, also say that Houthis were not agents of the Iranians and that their influence is limited there.

So what is the real motive of the Saudis? Well, these diplomats told me that they believe they didn't, that they were afraid, the Saudis, of a successful negotiation that would bring about a progressive and democratic government in their backyard. This government--and the deal called for, for example, 30 percent of the cabinet posts, 30 percent of parliament going to women. Now, in Saudi Arabia women can't even drive. But--and they were of course, the Houthis, who are 30 percent of the country, or the Zaydi Shiites, 30 percent of the country, would necessarily get about 30 percent of power of the government. Not 50 percent, they were not going to rule. They did not expect to be the rulers of Yemen, they know they cannot control the entire country. They are not strong enough. So they were willing to take 30 percent, according to Benomar.

And by the way, he told all of this to the UN Security Council today to confirm everything that was in my story. And Saudi Arabia did not want a democracy--this is what these diplomats tell me. They don't want a democracy in their backyard. For centuries they've installed their own leaders in Yemen. They want to control the politics there and impose their terms on this country. The last thing they need is anywhere in the region a democracy, and you can see since the so-called Arab Spring of the last four or five years, what have the Saudis done?

From Egypt to Bahrain they have undermined any kind of, form of democracy. In Egypt they're backing President Sisi, and the coup d'etat against an elected government. Of course, it was a Muslim Brotherhood government. And Saudis under the former King Abdullah had a lot of problems with the Muslim Brothers. It's another story that the current King Salman is warming up to them. But also in Bahrain it was also this overblown view of Iran having enormous influence, they may have had more in Bahrain than Yemen, but the majority of the Bahrainis, like 80 percent or more, are Shia so they're not allowed to vote. It's ruled by a Sunni monarchy.

So preservation of monarchy and their rule is of course utmost, uppermost in the minds of the Saudi rulership. They don't want a democracy in Yemen. And that's why these diplomats have told me the Saudis intervened, to stop what looked like a deal coming together.

DESVARIEUX: Joe, I'm so happy you mentioned Iran, because many experts, specifically these experts being quoted in the mainstream press, have pointed to this conflict in Yemen sort of being a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Did your sources describe the role of Iran in this way at all? Is there any real evidence pointing to that?

LAURIA: I don't think so. Not as far as saying a proxy war. But certainly Iran is helping. But you have to keep in mind that Yemen is one of the most heavily armed countries maybe in the world. Certainly that region. There's a good joke of a guy driving a tank down the street in Sana'a, and he comes to a checkpoint. And the guy, and the policeman asks him, do you have any weapons? And he says, no, you can look inside.

So I mean, there are so many--every, every tribe, every village, they're armed to the teeth. So the idea of the Iranians arming them is really not necessary. Plus it's an exporter of arms, and they were able to get, because they took over many of the government stocks, they're well armed.

But Iran is helping them I suppose in ways that are not obvious. Probably with intelligence, logistics, money. They are helping them. But the idea that they are a proxy and that Iran wants to start a war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen is probably hard to imagine. I don't think it would be in Iran's interest, especially as they're working on this nuclear deal with the United States, to start a war with Iran. I mean, clearly throughout the entire Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two main powers and the two main rivals, and if you want to solve the issues and the problems of that region those two countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia, must have some sort of accommodation.

And that goes for Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain. And even in Afghanistan, they have some competing interest in, even in Africa. So this is not in my view a full-scale proxy war. I don't even think the U.S. official see it that way. So it could develop into that. And this, you lead in your introduction that the Saudis want a move towards a political settlement, and they're going to stop bombing. Well, they never stop bombing. And Mr. Benomar's clearly on the record saying that he doesn't think that the Saudis can have a negotiation. Because one thing, Houthis will not go to Riyadh to negotiate. They won't--they didn't even want to go to Qatar or Morocco to continue the UN negotiations because both of those countries nominally joined the Saudi coalition.

So this has to be a UN-led process, and it's got to be in Yemen or in a neutral site somewhere. And the Saudis will never be able to run a political negotiation. They want to crush the Houthis. They think they can militarily. They don't want them to form any part of a government, and that's completely unrealistic. They're too powerful, although not in a majority. They have to be included in a future negotiation. And ultimately after many people die, they're probably going to have to come around to that point of view.

But right now they're also saying, the Houthis are refusing to negotiate and they want to bomb them back to the table. And Benomar was very clear to me and to the Security Council today that that is just absolutely untrue that the Houthis were completely willing partners in their negotiations, even while they were occupying the capital and their militia were in the capital Sana'a. So they were talking to the end, until the first Saudi bomb dropped. That's why the negotiations ended. Not that they had no willingness to negotiate.

DESVARIEUX: Let's talk about some of the consequences of this bombing. And specifically, the winners and losers. Because an unexpected winner in all of this is Al-Qaeda, is that right?

LAURIA: That's correct. Al-Qaeda is strong in Yemen. Al-Qaeda has supposedly some of these, the underwear bomber, some of these other things came out of Yemen, and the attack on the magazine in Paris was apparently launched by this branch of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. The United States as your viewers well know has been using drone strikes in Yemen to try to defeat Al-Qaeda. They haven't done that, they've killed a bunch of civilians, unfortunately.

So Al-Qaeda is there. And it's well-known that going back to the 1980s when this was formed in Afghanistan that Saudi Arabia, at least some private money from Saudi Arabia, was backing some of these guys who turned into Al-Qaeda. And others, some governments even say that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting extremist groups in Syria, like al-Nusra Front by Qatar. And maybe some people who are now fighting with Islamic State.

So what do you have here now is the Saudis bombing the Houthi targets only in Yemen, weakening them. The Houthis who are one of the, who are the main fighting force against Al-Qaeda, and they're being bombed by Saudi Arabia. And Al-Qaeda is moving. They're taking over towns. They've taken over airports. They are gaining on the ground. Now, the Saudis have, probably need ground troops to defeat the Houthis. They've asked Pakistan. And Pakistanis did some mysterious procedure that the Saudis don't seem to understand, which is call a parliamentary vote. And the parliament of Pakistan said, no. we're not sending our troops to fight in Yemen.

Egypt is in a tough spot because as you might know, the Egyptians fought a war in the '60s in Yemen. They fought, funny enough, they fought when the royalty was--there was a king, backed by Saudi Arabia of course, in Yemen. Was overthrown by republican military officers modeled after Nasser in Egypt. And the Houthis and the Zaydis at that time, they weren't Houthis, but they were the same branch of Shia Islam, were on the side of the Saudis at that time fighting against the republican, secular-backed Yemenis and Egyptian forces. And thousands, tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers died. 70,000 troops were sent there, and it was a big fiasco. And it is, it's called Egypt's Vietnam.

And it would--if, for Egypt to go back into Yemen now and fight would be something like the U.S. invading Vietnam again today. Would be deeply unpopular in Egypt. However, Sisi, President Sisi, who's backed by the Saudis, you know, maybe may have to do it, because he's dependent completely on them, and send Egyptian troops over. That has not happened.

So in the meantime the ground, on the ground the fighters that are fighting the Houthis as the Saudis are, in a de facto alliance, is Al-Qaeda, and they're not being struck. And this is the situation right now. And the U.S.'s drone strikes have been suspended. Not necessarily that they were doing much to defeat Al-Qaeda, although of course maybe they were keeping them in check. But they have stopped. The U.S. vacated the base that they were using in, when all these troubles began. And they don't have a government to work with to coordinate these air strikes as they did before.

So Al-Qaeda is no longer being bombed by the U.S., they're not being attacked by the Saudis, and the Houthis are being weakened by the Saudi strikes and they're gaining on the ground. Yes, they are the short-term winners and they could be long-term winners in Yemen, which would be obviously a disaster.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Joe Lauria, joining us from New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

LAURIA: You're quite welcome. Thank you very much.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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