YouTube video’s Bilal Ahmed discusses recent events in Yemen and how sectarianism is a result of, and not fueling the current conflict

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. In news from Yemen, the death toll is continuing to mount as the United Nations and other advocates warn the ongoing fighting is blocking food shipments, medical care, and endangering the lives of millions. Just today Reuters is reporting 18 Houthis were killed in an ambush. This comes the day after Saudi-backed ground forces and air strikes killed at least 12 people in Houthi-controlled areas. The conflict is in its second month, and the UN puts the death toll near 2,000. Meanwhile, negotiations are underway between Houthi leaders and U.S. officials in Oman. Now joining us to discuss all of this and more is Bilal Ahmed. Bilal is the associate editor of He’s also a Ph.D. candidate at SOAS, University of London. Thank you so much for joining us. BILAL AHMED, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, SOUCIANT.COM: No problem. NOOR: So we’re hearing that at least 18 people have been killed today alone, more than a dozen yesterday. And the UN World Food Program was unable to reach Aden due to the fighting. Doctors Without Borders says Yemen’s health system is also nearing collapse. Can you give us your thoughts on the latest? AHMED: Well, one of the problems with this war right now is that Yemeni health and medical infrastructure wasn’t in a good position anyway to deal with normal crises in the country. And by normal crises, I mean the fact that Yemen lacks the ability to meet a number of pressing challenges among its population, malnutrition being just one of them. And the war has just exacerbated these existing problems in the Yemeni health and medical system, and it doesn’t surprise me to hear these reports. Especially considering a large part of how the Yemeni healthcare system has managed to operate in the years since colonial rule ended, it has not been through something that is meeting international standards. It’s been through something that has had frequent problems, that’s frequently relied on patronage networks in the country, especially among families, to fill the gap that should be filled by the state. And in my opinion, these problems are going to get much worse, especially as the war shows no sign of abetting. NOOR: And so there are efforts being made to resolve this. There’s negotiations underway between some senior Houthis and the U.S. happening in Oman right now, a regional neighbor. And these will eventually lead to UN-backed talks in Geneva. What have you heard about this? AHMED: Well, as far as the Houthi-U.S. talks, my impression of it that I’ve heard through a couple of people is that you have a problem here in that the United States and the White House especially basically just wants to be able to engage in counterinsurgency efforts in the country. And one of the things that has been coming up in Yemen analyses has been the fact that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been able to make some gains, given the fact that everyone is basically concentrating on each other in the country. The Houthis are fighting a backlash of tribal forces. The Saudi-led coalition bombing them. Hadi’s loyalists. And as a result of that you have a power vacuum in which AQAP has managed to grow. And I think that this is the fundamental factor that’s guiding the White House and the United States government in its negotiations with the Houthis in order to find some sort of power-sharing agreement that would also allow for the United States to safely conduct its counterinsurgency efforts in the country. This would be, of course, against the grain of normal Houthi rhetoric about these matters. The Houthis are partially popular because they’re able to capitalize on an increased anti-American sentiment in many areas of the country, especially those that have come under attack from drone strikes. Of course, this has been limited given the Houthis’s sectarian appeal in Yemen today. However, the fact that the Houthis are conducting these negotiations, and in fact already have low-level intelligence arrangements with the United States that have dated back since the coup, is evidence of the fact that the Houthis are willing to bargain with their platform on the United States and its role in the country if it means securing some power in the capital. NOOR: And you have written that you feel that the–many analysts point to the sectarianism in Yemen right now, but you say that’s being overblown, but the current conflict including the Saudi-led bombing campaign threatens to make Yemen more sectarian. Actually, you look at what’s happening in Iraq and Syria and you can see what that possibility might look like. AHMED: Right. Sectarianism in the Middle East is a funny sort of thing. You don’t have something called sectarianism that’s inherent to the region, and this is often implied in a great deal of analyses on the Middle East, that sectarianism is just this insurmountable thing that’s always been there. It’s 1,400 years old, or however you start the dates, and it’s never going to go away. Of course, this is tacitly racist, to be frank with you, because it makes the reader think–or the reader or the viewer think that the problem with the Middle East is that it’s being torn apart by these ancestral conflicts. But the reality of the matter is that sectarianism has a very modern root cause, especially when we’re talking about case studies. Iraq and Syria, and now Yemen. Sectarianism arises as a direct consequence of military campaigns, as a direct consequence of neoliberal economic policies. We see a level of provincialism arising all over the world as a result of neoliberal economics, and also just as a result of regional dynamics that are tied to exact power blocks. You have Saudi-backed campaigns of Sunni incitement that are constantly generated in order to capitalize on the fact that people need an enemy in their lives that is, strictly speaking, the elites that are actually causing the trouble. I phrase it this way because this trend has accelerated in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and that’s no coincidence. And you also have the regional consequences of American and British-backed military efforts throughout the region. You have the war in Afghanistan, you have the war in Iraq, and now you have the wider effects of the Syrian civil war. And all that bloodletting does have the effect of provincializing the entire region, because sectarian identity is essentially becoming much more of an important matter when you have a war going on that really isn’t that far away from you. NOOR: These recent–it’s the mainstream narrative, essentially, that the Houthis are being funded with Iranian weapons, that Iran is giving these weapons. But there’s been reports out that would suggest that the Houthis are actually being armed by U.S. weapons given to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former dictator of Yemen, that slipped into the hand–that the Yemeni military lost control of, and the Houthis now possess them. AHMED: Right, exactly. And that is more or less what’s happening. You have WikiLeaks cables that date back to at least 2009 that talk about the Houthis without the rhetoric that has come to define this current conflict, which is affected by the Arab Spring. And when you have these cables that were released before the Arab Spring, you have a completely different analysis of the Houthis. And one of the things that comes up is that the Houthis don’t actually get their weapons from the Yemeni black market through Iran, or whatever explanation has been posited to the United States before. Saleh was making the argument that Iran was finding some dastardly way to get weapons to the Houthis. And these cables detail a much more simple explanation, which is that a wide variety of analysis agrees with the idea that most of the weapons that the Houthis are able to obtain are either from the regional black market, or from the Yemeni military itself, either because the Yemeni military simply lost track of some of its weapons, or because the Yemeni military passed those weapons into the black market, which happens far more frequently than we’d like to admit. While Iran may be able to get weapons to the Houthis through the regional black market, which is what Saleh frequently implied, it is not able to get a large number of weapons to the Houthis through specialized shipments because it simply has no historical basis for doing that at this time. And it also simply isn’t a large part of the Houthi arsenal. A large part of the Houthi arsenal is what I just said, weapons from the regional black market, which include many weapons manufactured in the United States and in Europe to be used in other conflicts, especially in the Cold War. And also weapons that were sold to Saleh’s government that Saleh’s government lost track of. And we have to look, for example, at the port city of Al Mukalla to see how this manifests itself in a slightly different context. AQAP was able to raid a Yemeni special forces base in Al Mukalla earlier this year. And as a result of that raid, a huge number of heavy weapons that the United States sent to the Yemeni military fell into the hands of basically anyone who was able to loot the special forces base at that time. And this is a major problem in the region. You have weapons being shipped to these governments, and then these governments are being destabilized by new events that were perfectly predictable based on their political and economic platforms, and dynamics that have been long standing. And then once those governments do destabilize, then those weapons fall out of allied hands–allied to the United States–and fall into the hands of other parties that necessitate further intervention. NOOR: Thank you for joining us. And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.


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Bilal Zenab Ahmed is the associate editor of He is also a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London.