How Academic Insincerity Prevents Peace in Yemen

There is an alarming trend among researchers on Yemen who insist on claiming ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ as if all actions committed by parties are equal in moral weighting.

We are taught that democracy, freedom, and justice are all noble concepts that ensure the integrity of human beings. Although this has consistently been denied to Arabs by global superpowers (including those that were the most passionate advocates of these principles), as well as local actors (military coups, it can still be universally accepted that the abstract principles espoused remain worthy of striving and sacrifice for the sake of humanity.

Yet, the desire for nuance and ‘difference’ that has become prevalent has heavily skewed our concepts of justice and freedom. Resentment towards Saudi Arabia and the US has undermined academic sincerity. Exotic orientalism has romanticised the idea of a tribe with ‘cool’ customs taking matters into their own hands against the ‘establishment’ and facing off against international powers to maintain independence (control).

The evidence for this is clear. Houthi’s coup against a government agreed upon by all political parties across the spectrum, has become a mere detail. The very act that set off the chain of disastrous events that has pushed Yemen to the precipice of destruction and chaos is no longer the centre of discussion in think tanks and media outlets.

Instead, the focus is on the symptoms of the disease; the humanitarian crisis, the war, cholera, infrastructure damage, like a doctor focusing on the fever, sweating, loss in weight, dizziness, nausea, cramps, and vomiting of a patient suffering from an internal infection that is in fact the source of the former ailments.

Treating these symptoms does not necessarily treat the disease. Calling off the alliance, negotiating with the Houthis while they remain in Sanaa, and forcing the parties to the table in the current state of affairs will not bring about a lasting solution. Houthis see no reason to give up their military gains and will not cede control of the capital. In the absence of forcing them to do so, the next option is to offer concessions or incentives. These might include allowing them to keep their weapons or letting a Houthi become vice president or head of a parliament in a division of powers akin to Iraq or Lebanon.

The problem here is that any concessions to the Houthis on this basis, especially as they continue to hold Sanaa, establishes an irrepressible precedent; that if you seize enough cities and survive the backlash long enough, you can secure significant and lasting control over the affairs of state. Nothing stops Islah or the Nasserists or the Southern Separatists from later studying the Houthi model, then launching a campaign that sees them seizing Taiz, Aden, Lahj and Dhaali’, surviving a subsequent Russian-Iranian bombing campaign and then demanding the creation of the position of a second vice president that they will hold while their party retains their weapons and acts as the de facto power behind the scenes. And so the cycle would continue in the name of fending off humanitarian crises and war.

However, by treating the disease of Houthi’s coup removes the symptoms of humanitarian crisis, cholera, and infrastructure damage. By sending a message that the will of the Yemeni people reflected in the political parties who represent them through elections, will be enforced by all means necessary for the preservation of a cohesive society conducive to the peaceful manifestation of democracy, tribal and other armed elements will be deterred from dreams of conquest.

Only an insincere person can read this and declare that these observations have no sympathy for those suffering. Only an insincere person can read this and claim that these observations demonstrate a cold heart, unmoved by the images of children dying, schools and hospitals being bombed by Saudi, a bus full of children bombed, infrastructure destroyed, refugees fleeing, torture in prisons, colonisation of Socotra by the UAE, and civil infighting between my Yemeni brothers and sisters.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not knights in shining armour. Riyadh propped up Ali Abdullah Saleh for decades and established a patronage system that stifled freedom and fostered repression. These observations should not be viewed in the prevalent binary that has emerged in discussions surrounding the war; that highlighting the futility of negotiating with Houthi means supporting Yemen’s destruction by the Arab coalition’s bombs.

However, a false peace is worse than a just resolution. To render the discussion on the Yemen war as simply a condemnation of Saudi Arabia is the same as a doctor throwing painkillers incessantly down the throat of a patient to fend off fever, vomiting, and nausea. This doctor has failed to appreciate that just as he should treat these symptoms, it is far more important to address the disease. By removing the source of the ailments, the symptoms naturally and eventually recede.

This does not mean a continuation of war. War is not the only way to remove the Houthis from Sanaa. Concerted efforts from the international community that seeks not negotiations, but pushing Houthi back to Saada would be far more of a step in the right direction than the current approach of equating aggression with self defence. By lobbying Tehran and employing a whole host of previously tried and tested methods such as amnesty commissions, tribal patronage, blockades and sanctions, there are a whole host of creative ways to bring an end to the conflict.

However, these methods cannot come about without sincere and truly objective discussion based on principles of freedom, justice and democracy. Treat the disease and the patient can begin the road to recovery.