Conference Looks at Future Map for Peace in Yemen
Weekend panelists say peaceful solution must involve greater role for rank-and-file citizens
[Istanbul] Rebuilding war-torn Yemen was the central focus of a conference held over the weekend in Istanbul.
Titled “Post-War Yemen: A Forward-looking Vision,” it was sponsored by the Tawakkol Karman Foundation, an Istanbul-based endowment fund named for Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman, a Yemeni journalist and rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate.
Hana Saleh, a member of the board for the foundation, said the conference was about helping Yemenis map out a future for themselves.
“[In] this bad situation, people cannot [know] what is the future [for] Yemen, and we have no plan for how to end the war in Yemen,” she told The Media Line. “We are trying to empower the youth, empower the women…. We are trying to collect all the ideas and parties and points of view.”
Yemen has seen a conflict for five years between a pro-government coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, and anti-government Houthi insurgents, who are aligned with Iran.
Saleh manages an Istanbul television station focusing on Yemen news. In 2014, she left Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, where she was working as a journalist, to set up the station in Turkey.
She explains that such an outlet was not possible in Yemen, where the media were biased in favor of militias, on the one hand, or Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the other, who fund channels.
“It’s unique because we are showing what’s happening in Yemen,” she said of her current station.
“We are talking about all the parties and are also talking about the corruption of our government,” she continued. “[With] this kind of media, we get respect from Yemeni audiences because we are not trying to show the crimes of one party. No, we are trying to show the whole picture.”
Misk al-Junaid, director of the Tawakkol Karman Foundation, had to leave Yemen in 2015 over political pressure due to her husband being a member of an opposition party.
“We need to help Yemeni people prepare for their future because they are stuck in the war,” she told The Media Line. “We need to help people form a public opinion of how they want to form their state in the future…. Yemen [today] is a failed state.”
She describes this issue as being “a problem bigger than war.”
Junaid asserts that Saudi Arabia “kidnapped” Yemen’s government, adding that the West is not helping those in need because, since Yemen is far away, the refugees are not visible.
“The interest of the Western world is… with the people who have money,” she charged.
Panelist Ali Al-Absi, an expert on political science, said a leading reason for the Saudi presence in Yemen is that Riyadh feels a demographic connection.
“In Saudi Arabia, they see Yemen as a social twin for Saudi Arabia…. They have always have wanted to have influence in Yemen,” he stated.
Fellow panelist William Law, a former BBC reporter, said civil rights organizations, especially women’s peace groups, should take leading roles in setting up a post-war Yemen.
“Women have paid an extraordinary price for this war…. Women need to be [in on] the conversation,” he said, noting that husbands have joined militias, leaving the wives responsible for getting clean drinking water for the family.
Law added that the United Nations should recognize the crucial role of women, who have helped release prisoners and organize aid, arguing that the world body should send a message by publicly backing women’s groups to ensure that aid gets to those in need.
He also said a reconstruction committee should be set up by those committed to human rights, relying on business experts who are not profiting from the war and able to help hire young men away from militias.
“Their work will become more important when peace comes,” he explained.
Analyst Jonathan Fenton-Harvey, who also spoke at the conference, said Western countries should boost their criticism of Saudi Arabia and cut the supply of weapons while pushing the Saudis to the negotiating table. He also noted that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen was only getting worse.
“It’s the people of Yemen who have suffered considerably throughout this war, and their voices are being neglected,” he said.
He added his belief that there will be differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which had been Riyadh’s longtime partner in the Yemen coalition, over what happens to Yemen.
“There will be further tension in the future,” he noted. “It is going to be this country [Yemen] that pays the price of their geopolitical aspirations.”
Stephen W. Day, a professor of international affairs at Rollins College in Florida, emphasized the need for a role by outside actors, especially the UN, in bringing peace to Yemen, saying that regional actors cannot be trusted.
“They’re not really interested in trying to help local groups,” he stated. “They all have ulterior motives…. [We have to] think strategically about what those ulterior motives are.”