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Yemeni media researcher Walid Al-Saqaf discusses the Saudi and Iranian interests in Yemen and the dangers of labeling this conflict as a sectarian feud

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. On Friday, Saudi jets continued air strikes in neighboring Yemen as Egyptian warships headed towards Yemen’s coast in a coalition offensive against Shiite militants known as Houthis. The Houthis have taken over the capital, and on Wednesday they captured key parts of the Yemeni port city of Aden. Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi had moved because of the rebel advances. Hadi has since left Yemen, and on Friday he arrived in Egypt for a summit of Arab League representatives. Now joining us to unpack all of this is Walid Al-Saqaf. He is a Yemeni media researcher at Stockholm University in Sweden, and he joins us from Sweden. Thanks for being with us, Walid. WALID AL-SAQAF, MEDIA RESEARCHER, STOCKHOLM UNIVERSITY: A pleasure. DESVARIEUX: So Walid, there is just so much talk about this offensive being a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. What evidence do we have that Iran’s even backing the Houthis? AL-SAQAF: Well, I mean, all you need to do is just look into the number of aircrafts which have come from Iran every week. We have fourteen trips every week, and that was from zero. Suddenly having that number and then having a number of reports from Iran claiming that Sana’a is the fourth Arab capital to fall to Iranian control. So we see – I mean, all of these indicate to us that there’s a very close connection between Houthis and Iran, given that before that, also, there were vessels and ships that transported various goods and weapons, and these were documented as well. So I mean, it was quite clear that Houthis were allying themselves to Iran and giving them the base that they always wanted. DESVARIEUX: Okay. Often you hear, too, in the presses that this is sort of based on sectarian lines, Sunnis versus Shiites. Is this really what’s playing out here? What are each side’s interests? AL-SAQAF: I mean, something that maybe viewers don’t know about Yemen is that it’s unlike Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in that not really had sectarian conflict in the past. I mean, we have Shiites and Sunnis that pray in the same mosque, something that is unusual to many of those living in the northern area of the Arabian Peninsula. So what happened now is bringing something alien, something not really compatible with the Yemeni culture. And so I would very – be suspicious and cautious in claiming that this is a sectarian conflict. We see some politics playing in that, for example having the former Ali Abdullah Saleh regime backing the rebels. So there are many elements within the region that are Sunni, and there are also elements that are supportive of the Houthis in various parts of the country that are also Sunni. So it’s really not purely a conflict driven by ethnic divide, or sectarian divide. But also, bear in mind that the strong support within Houthis is based on sectarian belief, and that is something that’s exclusive to the Houthi movement, which is a very small minority, just about 5 – less than 5% of the whole population. So it’s really not the conflict, sectarian conflict that one could think of. DESVARIEUX: So what’s really driving this conflict, then? Is it purely geopolitical? AL-SAQAF: Yes, I, as you correctly noted. I mean, it’s a proxy war. I mean, you can already see Saudis in the Gulf being extremely, you know, irritated by the expansive nature of the Iranian influence in the north of the Arabian Peninsula. I mean, already Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are more or less controlled in various ways by Iran. And now, for the first time ever in the history of the Arabian Peninsula, you have a leading force that has been supported by Iran taking over the whole of Yemen, and that has never been the case in the past. So they have felt that they had to act and move quickly to prevent further control of the Iranian, let’s say ambitions, or expansion of the ambitions of Iran to the south of the Arabian Peninsula so that they wouldn’t be eventually besieged. So it was merely a way through which the Gulf countries would retaliate, or let’s say in the form of self defense, if you may, against the Iranian aspirations to expand further. DESVARIEUX: Okay, let’s talk about the United States, because they seem to be in a troubling position, here, because they are allies with Saudi Arabia, but right now Iran and the P5+1 countries are in negotiations over its nuclear program. So how do you think this offensive might affect those negotiations? AL-SAQAF: I mean, well – I mean, I’ll give you my own personal perspective on this, because I have a history of criticizing the U.S. for their involvement in Yemen through the drone program. I mean, the problem with the U.S. is that they have a very short-term vision of what would happen next. So I don’t know if this critique has been heard before, but they are really not aware of perhaps, not taking into consideration the long-reaching impact of having the drones or having purely anti-terrorist agenda in Yemen. And so over time, the sympathy, or the cause of the U.S. has been criticized in Yemen and been extremely resisted, and that had lead to the growth of Al-Qaeda. So now what we see here is that the presence of the U.S., let’s say influence, through the anti-terror program has helped Iran in some way. How? Because the more America was focused on terrorism, the more the radicals felt, okay, this is the ground where we can fight America. And through this justification, Houthis have come up to say, okay, these radicals are trying to exterminate the Shiites, so we need to also attack them. They call them the Daish groups affiliated to the ISIS group in the north of the Arabian Peninsula. So we see that Iran is now trying to portray the threat of U.S. as a way in which ISIS is growing in the south of the country, in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a quite complicated scenario and issue, but I think that the U.S. is not really paying close attention. DESVARIEUX: All right, Walid, let’s finally talk about how Yemen is known in the region as being the poorest nation in that region. What role does poverty play in all of this? And more importantly what can people do – what should people be paying attention to as this offensive continues, if they are really concerned about everyday Yemenis? AL-SAQAF: Yes. Thank you for bringing this up. I mean, it ties nicely to the earlier point about extremism. Extremism flourishes when people don’t really have a choice. Oftentimes you have cases where people are attracted to join radical groups because of the daily pay, or the, some sort of food supplies, or other protection that they get. And so this has been taking place in the south of Yemen for a long time, now. I mean, with hopelessness, with lack of opportunity, unemployment, and with a population that’s mostly over – 70% of the population is younger than 35, meaning that this is really a fertile ground for any terrorist group to take over this huge mass of people. And interestingly, the same applies also to the Houthis. I mean, if you look into their, the number of soldiers that are younger than 20, you’d be astonished. There were a few images of the recent past showing kids of 12 to 15 carrying Kalashnikovs, sometimes even heavier than they can possibly carry. These all indicate that poverty, unemployment, hopelessness have lead to the situation that Yemen is in today, and I partially blame the Gulf, because they have, you know, disregarded this poor neighbor for so long. And now they are complaining, saying you know, there’s radicalism, there’s Shiite rebels. Of course they would be there. Because you have disregarded the neighbor, you neglected the prosperity of this region for a long time, and now you’re paying a price. I don’t see any solution other than a long-term commitment to helping the country grow from the bottom up again. DESVARIEUX: All right. Walid Al-Saqaf joining us from Sweden. Thank you so much for being with us. AL-SAQAF: Thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Walid Al-Saqaf is a media researcher specializing in Internet censorship. He is a freelance journalist and the former editor of the Yemen Times. He has written for the Gulf News and the Wall Street Journal and is the founder of Currently, Walid Al-Saqaf is pursuing his PhD at the Department of Media and Communication at Orebro University, Sweden.