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The Saudi-led coalition is not just trying to deter Houthi leaders; they want to ensure that pro-democratic Yemeni demonstrations don’t touch the rest of the Arabian peninsula, says Bilal Zenab Ahmed of

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DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you here in Baltimore. Over the weekend of August 20, about 100,000 Yemenis demonstrated their support for the Houthi-led government in the capital, Sana’a. The demonstration was one of the biggest in Yemen since mass protests in 2011 forced vice president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. The rally took place as the Saudi-led coalition backing the exiled president, Abd Rubbah Mansour Hadi, stepped up air strikes after peace talks failed to end the 16-month civil war. Recently, Saudi Arabia bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 19 people, and a school, killing 10 children. The Saudi government, with support from Arab countries and the U.S., has been carrying out these attacks in an attempt to bring President Hadi back to power. The air strikes have led to an estimated 65,000 civilian deaths, and the creation of 3 million refugees. They’ve also left 80 percent of Yemen’s 21 million residents in dire need of humanitarian aid. Now joining us from London to discuss the war in Yemen is Bilal Zenab Ahmed. Bilal Zenab Ahmed is associate editor of, and a Ph.D. student at SOAS at the University of London. Thanks for coming on again, Bilal. BILAL ZENAB AHMED: That’s fine. NOOR: So Bilal, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia on the 24 and 25 of August. What do you think he hopes to achieve from this visit? After all, the Obama administration has been supporting Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen with billions of dollars in arms sales. And there are some voices, like some folks on the New York Times editorial board, and some amongst the U.S. Senate, that have been urging the U.S. to withdraw their support for the war on Yemen. But could Kerry’s visit put that withdrawal on the table? AHMED: I think the–I doubt that it will lead to a withdrawal of the support for the war in Yemen. I do think that there is going to be increased pressure on the Saudi coalition to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict, which is something that’s been going on for a while. But there are more and more tangible steps that the Obama administration is taking to distance the United States from the coalition war effort, and that’s mainly a result of the civilian death toll and the increased visibility of the civilian death toll, especially when it comes to how air strikes have hit Doctors Without Borders hospital centers and other clearly non-military targets. So the objective of this visit will likely be to press for more of a diplomatic situation to what’s going on on the ground, and to scale back the intensity of the Saudi-led air campaign which is being linked to the United States and which the United States is backing logistically and in terms of the weapons that the Saudis are actually using. And there will be more intense dialog in order to press that possibility. The United States has already begun to take tangible steps to move its operations away from Saudi Arabia when it comes to the war in Yemen, and to reassign it to the naval fleet that’s currently stationed in Bahrain. That seems like a mainly bureaucratic shuffle, and in many regards it is. But it’s also intended to send a message to Saudi Arabia that it needs to change strategy. NOOR: Let’s talk about this recent demonstration in Sana’a. It sort of seems to show that there is a large amount of support, popular support, for Yemen’s Houthi-led government. The former president Saleh was ousted in popular protests, and now there are protests in support for his government. What’s your sense of the situation in Yemen? Could the Saudi bombing against the Houthi forces succeed? AHMED: Well, first of all, I really doubt that the Saudi bombing against the Houthis would succeed, and not necessarily even for Yemen’s specific reasons. I think that as far as air power is concerned, that the air force as a military unit that a bunch of different countries have is overstated in its capacity to make populations bend to the will of the country that’s actually doing the bombing. So that’s the first thing. I just doubt that aerial bombings can ever really have the effect of making support for the forces that you’re targeting less intense. If anything, the reverse happens in many cases. But specific to Yemen, it’s important to remember that the demonstrations were in three simultaneous camps. Not just the Houthis, but also Saleh’s remaining loyalists, and also in opposition to the bombing campaign. And there shouldn’t be a presumption that there’s some sort of popular will in favor of the Houthis or in favor of Saleh simply as a result of these demonstrations. The Houthis and Saleh are managing to organize these rallies to get people out in favor of ending the bombing and ending hostilities in the northern area of the country more specifically. However, you have a situation here where many activists, many of the people who are actually participating in the protests, probably don’t have positive feelings about the Houthis, or about Saleh personally. There is still quite a lot of distrust about the Houthis in the capital of Sana’a specifically. However, because it’s getting fused with this bombing campaign, people are probably, I would say, willing to put those grievances aside for now in order to mobilize against the bombings themselves and in order to build popular pressure against the Saudi Arabian air force and its American backers in order to stop those conditions. But once the bombing campaigns stop, it’s difficult to make a conclusion that these people would necessarily support the Houthis or support Saleh enthusiastically. This is very much a marriage of convenience. NOOR: Then what are the bombings, what are Saudi Arabia and the U.S. backing them hoping to achieve? AHMED: I think that the objective here is different for different people that are involved in the conflict, and different for different countries that are involved in the conflict. I think that the Saudi Arabian aerial campaign may on paper be about deterring the Houthis and intervening against the Houthis, but aerial bombings are also designed to terrorize a population, and to rob that population of access to infrastructure and access to the ability to properly engage in daily life. So it’s a tactic of pressure, and it’s meant to make a population live under worse conditions in order to favor a certain political outcome. And for Saudi Arabia, that outcome is one where Yemenis stop demonstrating for democracy, and stop demonstrating in a manner and organizing in a manner that may quickly become [antithetical] to Saudi Arabia and Gulf interests–I’m referring to the Persian Gulf monarchies. Their interests in the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen actually is. There’s still quite a lot of concern that the revolution in Yemen, if it continues to develop in a more democratic direction, could quickly begin to impact the domestic political situations of these monarchies, but especially Saudi Arabia, which shares a massive land border with Yemen. So the real purpose for Saudi Arabia is an aerial bombing campaign that would deter further political mobilization in Yemen, and by stripping away many aspects of Yemeni society that sustains political mobilization, and also by affecting popular will to politically mobilize. So in short, as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, the aerial bombings, although they are stated to be about the Houthis, are actually about demobilizing the Democratic forces in Yemeni society that are potentially dangerous to the monarchy’s own stability in Saudi Arabia. And many of its coalition partners have similar concerns, although Saudi Arabia’s are particularly intense. Also, the United States, I think that a variety of other factors come into mind. There is often mentioned a concern about Iranian links to the Houthis, although if you ask me that’s been overblown in popular media. The Houthis don’t have significant links to Iran leading into 2014, which is when the Houthis took over the capital city and began the motions towards the current civil war. There may be larger links now as a result of arms smuggling, but that probably isn’t as intense as people have been led to believe, if they listen to mainstream media that implies quite starkly that the Houthis are an Iran-backed group. I think that what’s actually going on is the United States is concerned about regional stability, and that its interests for regional stability for quite a while aligned with Saudi Arabian interests to put down Democratic forces in Yemen that could potentially threaten the Saudi Arabian hegemony on the Arabian peninsula, and also the stability of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia. What’s changed now is that the conflict in Yemen has gone on for actually far longer than was originally planned by the members of the Saudi royal family that pushed the endeavor. It’s led to tense ties between Saudi Arabia and other monarchies in the Persian Gulf, especially with the United Arab Emirates as death tolls from soldiers continue to increase. The Qatari monarchy, for example, isn’t exactly pleased with the state of affairs right now. And as a result of that the United States is probably trying to change its tact in order to end the war as soon as possible, and recognizes that the Saudi Arabian regime also wants to end the war as soon as possible. NOOR: And there have also, there have been several efforts in the UN to stop the war and to investigate civilian deaths. But the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have successfully blocked all those resolutions even though the UN issued a report earlier this year stating that the war in Yemen is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Nothing is really being done to stop it, effectively. So can you talk a little bit about that, why you think that is? AHMED: Well, I think the reasons for that are in some ways fairly obvious. You’re talking about a country that is believed in many institutional circles, like when it comes to State Department, when it comes to Department of Defense in the United States, when it comes to the Saudi Arabia military, you’re talking about a country that is widely believed to be inherently unstable, and widely believed to just be this source of problems that can’t really be overcome. And I think that’s affected a large part of how various state and international institutions interact with Yemen. When it comes to the United States and Saudi Arabia, because it’s just seen as this backwater and backwards cousin in the Arab world that simply won’t get itself back in line, to be perfectly blunt with you. But part of that is also that the United States is committed to its relationship with Saudi Arabia, and also has more leeway, along with Saudi Arabia, in Yemen specifically because the media lens isn’t actually focused primarily on the conflict in Yemen. It’s focused moreso on Syria. So as a result of that the Saudi Arabian air force and the United States in its support for the Saudi Arabian bombing campaign, and also countries like the United Kingdom, where I lived now, are able to have much more leeway in what forces are allowed to do and what people are allowed to get away with, because there is less popular awareness of what’s going on. There’s less institutional pressure, and there’s less of a cultural obsession with the conflict in Yemen, which does occur in Syria. NOOR: So that sort of, the devastation and the refugee crisis in Yemen, for these reasons haven’t really gotten as much attention in the media, for instance, as the refugee crisis in Syria. You think that these are the same sorts of reasons that it hasn’t gotten the same sort of focus? AHMED: Yeah, and it’s also the nature–if we’re talking about the refugee crisis, it’s also the places that those refugees are going. The many Yemeni refugees haven’t begun migrating towards Europe in droves. At least, not yet. It could still happen. But because the Syrian refugee waves are directed so infamously into Europe it’s forcing the international community to act because the Syrian refugees are such a visible symbol of how far the war has gotten. Yemen doesn’t have that level of a refugee flow into Europe. There are Yemeni refugees that are migrating into Europe, but they’re not in the millions, as is occurring in this area. And there’s also much–there is also much less advocacy being done on behalf of Yemeni revolutionaries, one, but also just Yemenis in general, like when it comes to the deteriorating humanitarian situation. The UN was able to publish this report amid intense Saudi Arabian scrutiny, but you’re talking about a situation that simply has fewer resources and fewer people committed to it, and as a result of that isn’t getting the attention that it sorrowfully needs. NOOR: I just want to wrap by asking you about the coming election, because Saudi Arabia has donated over $10 million to the Clinton foundation. So if Hillary Clinton is to become president, if she is to become president she would presumably pursue an even closer relationship with Saudi Arabia than Obama has. And if that happens, what should we expect will become of Yemen? Is there anything that could stop the war, then? AHMED: I think that the conflict will continue to intensify, to be perfectly honest with you. And I think that there’s a very real danger of the United States becoming more directly militarily involved in the war on Yemen. This is already happening with the war in Libya, now, where Hillary Clinton actually played a primary role in backing the initial NATO air strikes that overthrew Gaddafi. So first of all, you have a situation where Hillary Clinton is not going to shy away from military action if she feels as though it is necessary. And there is reason to believe that she might direct more intense intervention in Yemen if it’s advertised to her as such. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, it just means it’s a real possibility. As for the relationship with Saudi Arabia, I would venture to guess that Hillary Clinton would see herself as trying to repair the damage that has been occurring in the Obama-Saudi relationship as a result of this nuclear deal with Iran, and that she would take aggressive moves to secure a workable relationship with Saudi Arabia. And this could easily mean continuing to back the war in Yemen. NOOR: Okay. We’ll see what happens, I guess. Thanks for joining us again, Bilal, and I’m sure I’ll talk to you again soon. AHMED: Of course. NOOR: And thank you for joining us on 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.