Managing Director for Programs
Center for International Private Enterprise
Middle East Institute
Founder and Executive Director
Yemen Cultural Institute
Senior Nonresident Fellow
Chief Executive Officer
Arab Center Washington DC
On February 18, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) held a virtual briefing titled “Yemen Policy under Biden: Opportunities and Challenges.” Panelists were Abdulwahab Alkebsi, Managing Director for Programs at the Center for International Private Enterprise; Summer Nasser, Chief Executive Officer for Yemen Aid; Sama’a Al-Hamdani, Founder and Executive Director of the Yemen Cultural Institute; Nadwa Al-Dawsari, Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute; and Nabeel Khoury, former diplomat and Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan moderated the event.
Abdulwahab Alkebsi highlighted what he called “the good news” about Yemen today, including the Biden Administration’s reversal of the Houthi designation as a foreign terrorist organization and the appointment of Timothy Lenderking as envoy, thus reflecting that Yemen has become a priority for American policy. On the other hand, Alkebsi said, the complexity of issues in Yemen’s crisis domestically, regionally, and internationally should be kept in mind. He noted that internally, the problem is not merely one between north and south; rather, it is also north-north and south-south, with many tensions in between. Regionally, there is the Saudi and Emirati intervention and its attendant concerns. For Saudi Arabia, Yemen is a serious issue and an existential threat while for the Houthis, Saudi influence is the principal threat. It is also an important issue for the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey. Alkebsi said that from an international perspective, Yemen is considered the epicenter of the counterterrorism fight. To him, addressing the Yemen issue should include examining how the multifarious domestic, regional, and international interests and perspectives intersect.
Reporting on the humanitarian situation in Yemen in its seventh year of conflict, Summer Nasser said that 24 million Yemenis today are in need of assistance; two million children suffer from malnutrition; and the health sector is devastated, with more than 300 hospitals closed. Half of Yemen’s population, she added, is without any form of health care as the coronavirus pandemic hits the country. Nasser spoke of gaps in funding to Yemenis, with levels today even lower than before. Humanitarian organizations have varying access between regions and are limited in their operations in Houthi areas. The security situation restricts access in general and internally displaced persons (IDPs) suffer the most. Today, Nasser stated, there are some 800,000 IDPs near the front lines in Marib and they are seeking refuge in southern areas. She said that “there are problems with humanitarian intervention … which has not been effective … and it is increasing the dependence on foreign assistance.” She finally criticized the politicization of aid to Yemen as some organizations give what they have to armed factions—an act of corruption.
Assessing regional actors and their intervention in Yemen, Sama’a Al-Hamdani said that since the beginning, the Saudi-led Arab coalition has encountered problems. Alliances have shifted between partners and this has had profound repercussions. Hamdani asserted that “Saudi Arabia and the UAE have different interests in Yemen,” as does Iran. What is interesting, she stated, is the way they engage with their proxies. For instance, Iran allows its proxies to interact with each other (such as the Houthis and Lebanon’s Hezbollah) while Saudi Arabia and the UAE fund, control, and direct individual proxies independently of each other. Hamdani said that the different Saudi and Iranian motives in Yemen are reflected in the fact that Riyadh considers the country to be an essential security concern, while Tehran views it as a place where it can send messages to Saudi Arabia without directly being on the ground. She concluded by highlighting the need for all Yemenis to be included in the peace process and for Oman to be involved as a neutral actor.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari expressed serious worries about some actors who see Yemen from the perspective of what to do about Iran, and about Washington looking at the crisis from the perspective of protecting Saudi Arabia. She criticized the attempts of UN envoy Martin Griffiths to involve Iran in resolving the Yemen issue, saying this is a Yemeni affair. She mentioned the Stockholm Agreement of December 2018 that practically collapsed because the Houthis used it to strengthen their own positions. Al-Dawsari cautioned against the Houthis’ current attempt to take Marib, the seat of Yemen’s hydrocarbon riches. She said that if the Houthis “take Marib, they will not stop there, they will move south, they will take Yemen … If they take Yemen, they will push north inside Saudi Arabia. Mark my words.” Al-Dawsari said that the war in Yemen will end on the Yemenis’ terms, without the direct impact of regional or international intervention.
Examining the American position on Yemen, Nabeel Khoury said that there is a new opportunity to resolve the conflict in the country and urged all parties to take advantage of this development. He, too, appreciated the Biden Administration’s latest decisions and said that the United States is finally looking at the Yemen crisis in a more effective way. Khoury opined that Biden seems to be interested in getting into the details of resolving the crisis in the country. He said that “for the first time, in a very long time, we have an administration in the US that I think gets Yemen to the point that any American politician can understand Yemen and its complexities.” What has helped, Khoury continued, is the presence of progressives in the Democratic Party who are pushing for a different approach toward Yemen. He called for collaboration between Lenderking and the UN’s Griffiths on efforts to push the peace process forward that, he said, should involve all Yemeni factions and stakeholders. Finally, Khoury called on the US administration to initiate a serious strategic review of what does and does not work in its relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as other regional actors.