Walid Al-Saqaf Interview (Part 1 of 2)
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. In recent weeks, Yemeni authorities have announced that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its leaders have been under attack. It’s pretty well-known that the Americans have been in on helping Yemeni authorities, and they claim they’ve killed several leaders of the organization. But just why is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? And what is going on in Yemen? And why is it that it looks like the United States may be entering another front of their war against—what they call "war on terrorism". Joining us now from Sweden to help us understand what’s taking place in Yemen is Walid Al-Saqaf. He’s a media researcher. He specializes on Internet censorship. But before that, he was the editor of The Yemen Times. He’s also written for The Gulf News and The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for joining us, Walid.
WALID AL-SAQAF: Thank you.
JAY: There’s a conference that just ended in London [inaudible] NATO and some of the other big powers talking about the future of Yemen. What went on there? And then we’ll dig into what is going on in Yemen.
AL-SAQAF: Basically, the idea was to bring Yemen away from falling into the cliff and becoming a real failed state. The situation is quite severe, and the country is coping with lots of crises. Among them is the war in the North and the separatist movement in the South. And now, increasingly, al-Qaeda is a grave threat to the country. And the international community is now looking to it partly because al-Qaeda is becoming a threat not only to the regime in Yemen but also to the world.
JAY: Well, there’s a lot of critique of what came out of the conference. Some critics are suggesting that once again the solution seems to be a military solution and some of the underlying problems are not really being addressed. What’s your view of this?
AL-SAQAF: I’d say the issue is that the conference itself was a good idea, but the thing is that it [has] fallen short of many of our expectations in terms of dealing with the root problems of the crisis in Yemen. I mean, unfortunately, the artificial view is that Yemen is marred with some conflicts and it needs our military support, intelligence, and so on, and this is what the West has been drumming up for for the last, I don’t know, few weeks. The issue in Yemen is much more deeper than that, and it’s really a conflict within the society concerning the real deep emotional and the social struggles that are facing the people in Yemen. I mean, one of the basic, very crucial problems that Yemen needs to deal with is the secessionist movement in the South. Not much, not even a small paragraph, was mentioned about this in the conference, as if it didn’t exist, while we see thousands of people marching in the streets, demonstrators being killed. And lots of those aspects are never mentioned.
JAY: So describe for us some of the roots of the issue. Northern Yemen and southern Yemen were two countries. During the Cold War, southern Yemen, if I understand it correctly, became more allied with the Soviet Union. There’s quite complicated roots to this. It’s not a simple story. So give us some of the background.
AL-SAQAF: I’d say that since 1990, when the South and North Yemen united into one country, as you know, after the fall of the USSR, the aspirations and the idea and the plan was to bring about a country that’s united, that is democratic. And that’s how the regime had adopted a multiparty system, one of a few in the region. And the promise was to make Yemen a full-fledged democracy, an example for others. The issue is that in 1994 a civil war broke out between the former leader of the South, Ali Salim al-Beidh, and the current actual president, Ali Saleh, who was the president of the North, and the northern army prevailed.
JAY: Why did the civil war take place? ‘Cause originally, during the unification, the South had bought into the idea of unification.
AL-SAQAF: Each party has his own, of course, part of history written. The issue is that the conflict was merely for power. And given that the South felt that they didn’t get enough power in terms of sharing resources or sharing positions and sharing—perhaps a number of services are met in the South, and money, and wealth in oil, and various aspects of resources in the country were not distributed, according to the South, equally. So what happened is that this resulted in some sort of a protest by the South. And in North, of course, given that it’s more than 80 percent of the population, while smaller in geography, in size, in area, still it did not accept those justifications, so it ended in a conflict. I mean, it resulted in real armed—two armies fighting each other. Nonetheless, I mean, the real issue is that what happened after ’94, I mean, provided that the northern army, which was actually given the pretext of defending unity, went into the South, the idea, even for Southerners, was that, okay, now that we have no more secessionist movements, the country would go back to maintaining their dream and becoming a real, unified democratic country. However, unfortunately, since then, the Southerners have felt that they have been really deprived of their rights and their resources. They feel marginalized, [that] they’ve not had enough opportunities in terms of services, education, health, not much spent on infrastructure in the South. That’s what they claim. And since then they’ve been launching campaigns, demonstrations, bringing up the issue of social justice, [inaudible] equality to South and North. And if the West and the world doesn’t really look into the southern plight right now, it would still continue to be a major, major problem for Yemen, even if they provide all the military and financial aid they would like to provide.
JAY: Now, Yemen strategically is of great importance on one of the world’s major oil routes. It has its own oil and other natural resources. But the level of poverty throughout the country is very significant. Talk about that.
AL-SAQAF: Indeed. Yemen has over 40 percent unemployment and about, let’s say, half below the poverty line. And we have dwindling resources. Oil revenues have dropped. The water crisis is now looming. We have corruption, rampant corruption all over. And we have one of the world’s highest population growth rates. So all of those coming together in a piece of land like Yemen makes it worse, because it’s a mountainous area with tribal regions that are out of government control. So putting it in one picture, you see a bleak future for the country if nothing is done. So the issue is that the regime, unfortunately, has been somewhat turning a deaf ear to all those problems and focusing more on how to remain in power.
JAY: During the Cold War, everyone was interested in Yemen. There was a lot of contention, given its strategic importance. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, is part of the problem who cares about Yemen? Which is that Yemen wouldn’t be the only place: Afghanistan is somewhat the same kind of a story in that regard. But what are the foreign hands involved here? It’s hard to see anything going on in Yemen where the foreign powers aren’t involved, especially Saudi Arabia.
AL-SAQAF: Saudi Arabia is worried about its borders, and it does have the right, I mean, to look at it from a mutual perspective. If you have some conflict going on just across the border, then you’d be worried, concerned, especially that, of course, Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves in the world and is strategically located, so as Yemen is also somewhat strategically located, when we talk about the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, where most of the world’s oil passes through. So that in itself makes Saudis very concerned about the flow of oil and it makes them anxious all the time. And then add to that the religious dimension of the issue, because you may have known that there is a long struggle between Sunni and Shiite sects, and Saudis being, of course, the predominantly Sunni country that is supporting this, while Iran , on the other hand, it’s seen as a rival that is being claimed to have supported the Houthis, which are fighting the government in Yemen. So it’s a really complex situation. However, if there’s only one thing clear, that’s violence and war did not resolve the issue. And it continues to deplete the government’s resources. It’s resulting in lots of innocent lives being killed. And I just read today that over 250,000 refugees are still stranded. I mean, it’s real, the humanitarian catastrophe.
JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about what the solutions to the Yemen crisis might be and just who is al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. Please join us for the next segment of our interview on The Real News Network.