Yemenis Are Skeptical Biden’s Pivot Can End the War

Some Yemenis express little optimism that they will live to see their country at peace again

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Yemenis Are Skeptical Biden’s Pivot Can End the War
A Yemeni child carries a Kalashnikov rifle as he takes part in a gathering near the capital Sanaa to show support to the Shiite al-Houthi movement on February 21, 2019/Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images

Qanaaf Al Nukai lost his father four years ago this month. He was not yet born when a local dispute led to his father’s death. When the family gathered at the house to mourn, a Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit the funeral, killing six of the women in attendance, including Qanaaf’s pregnant aunt, and injuring nine others.

Last week, the 3-year-old sat on his uncle’s lap as his family — and Yemenis everywhere — pondered the meaning of the new policy shift by the United States to end the war in Yemen. Qanaaf’s uncle, Qahtan, expressed cautious optimism.

“I hope America will reconcile between the (warring) parties to end this war, which won’t end without a political solution,” he told Newlines on a drizzly Tuesday morning. “It will be good to find a peaceful solution.”

Yemen has been in a media blackout, but Newlines commissioned a local reporter to gather this testimony while reporting undercover in and around Sanaa.

The ongoing war in Yemen began in 2014, when Iran-backed al-Houthi fighters overthrew the unpopular government in Sanaa. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf states began airstrikes on Yemen in a bid to crush the al-Houthi fighters and restore the internationally recognized government. But what was initially conceived as a short military initiative to roll back Iran’s influence on Saudi Arabia’s southern borders has turned into an ongoing, brutal war against one of the poorest countries in the region. In 2018, the U.S. suspended in-flight refueling of Saudi air operations over Yemen but has continued its support of the coalition forces with intelligence and logistics, as well as billions of dollars’ worth of weapons sold to Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration has vowed to change this. On Feb. 4, President Joe Biden announced that the war in Yemen “has to end.”

“To underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales,” he said.

The reversal in U.S. policy — which was originally greenlighted by the Obama administration and continued under Trump — leaves Yemenis with mixed feelings, though many are hopeful for a normalization of life.

Omar Abdul-Aziz, 58, captured this sentiment when he spoke to Newlines in Sanaa. He is one of over 3.5 million Yemenis who have been internally displaced due to the war. Abdul-Aziz hails from the embattled port city of Al Hudaydah. He fled the fighting three years ago and has since been struggling to survive in Sanaa.

“I’ve been very damaged by this war. We are all very tired of it,” he said. “Now we can say there is a glimpse of hope that this resolution is going to stop the profiting of warlords who are destroying the nation and killing women and children.”

Throughout Sanaa, small-business owners and entrepreneurs are also expressing some optimism with the change of course in U.S. policy.

Abu Hasan, owner of a once-thriving electronics store in Sanaa, said he was especially relieved to hear that the Biden administration would reverse Trump’s designation of the al-Houthi group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, which would have meant severe economic sanctions against the country.

“The designation is like an execution by hanging for my business,” he said, speaking near his shop at the market. The currency crisis that has hit the country since 2016 has already pushed many Yemenis to the brink of starvation. “We work all month long only to discover that we have lost all our profits in the exchange rate.”

“The U.S. heads the world economy, and it can do the impossible if it wants to,” he added.

But not everyone believes the U.S. can fix Yemen’s problems. Tareq Al Qubaati owns a grill shop near one of the largest neighborhoods for marginalized Black people in Sanaa. He said the U.S. can only do so much. The rest will depend on Yemen’s warring factions and their goodwill toward the people.

“Every party needs to make concessions. There is no need for a forever war,” he said.

The vicious fighting has polarized the country and added complexity to alliances. Ordinary Sunnis have found themselves fighting alongside Zaidi (Shiite) al-Houthi rebels, who agitated for years against the authoritarian, Saudi-backed government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh before his ouster during the Arab Spring uprising. The power vacuum at that time presented an opportunity for the al-Houthi fighters — known locally as Ansarallah — to take control of Yemen’s northern provinces, only to have Saleh momentarily align himself with the al-Houthi fighters to oust his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, from Sanaa in March 2015, triggering the current war. Talks between the warring parties have been at an impasse since the failure of a U.N.-brokered deal agreed in Sweden in 2018. The al-Houthi fighters have since captured new territory and strengthened their grip on the country in the north and in oil-rich Marib province.

Jalal Abdul-Jaleel, an analyst of the al-Houthi group who also supports the movement, said that despite recent escalations, the Iran-backed group will meet with Timothy Lenderking, the U.S. special envoy to Yemen, just to “stop the excuses that Ansarallah is the one obstructing peace.”

“The U.S. needs to push the Saudis and Emiratis to stop the war, and we, along with the other Yemeni parties, will figure out how to get along with each other,” he added.

Asked how the al-Houthi fighters would reconcile their slogan, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam,” with meeting the U.S. envoy to Yemen, one al-Houthi supporter shrugged. “The slogan isn’t a condition. It’s a slogan said by a political group.”

Some Yemenis express little optimism that they will live to see their country at peace again.

Asked about such a prospect, 70-year-old Mohammed al Zubaidi shook his head adamantly as he sat amid his pile of secondhand books for sale in Tahrir Square. “When war between religious communities erupts, it will not end for 100 years,” he said. “And that is why Biden and his envoy are going to fail.”

His stance echoes that of others of his generation, including the grandfather of Qanaaf, the 3-year-old boy. “I don’t expect anything to happen from the Americans, including President Biden,” Mohammed Al Nukai told Newlines on that drizzly Tuesday as he gestured to the ruins of his home in Arhab.

The war, which has killed tens of thousands of people, has left the country’s fragile infrastructure in shambles and most people unable to rebuild.

Back in Sanaa, in an outdoor cafe facing Tahrir Square, an actor and artist named Abdusalam Ali sat on a chair and pondered the future. He wanted to send words of encouragement to Lenderking.

“Be human and inject humanity into everything,” he said. “America will continue to have its strength, worth, and dignity. And we, too, can have our dignity, worth, and strength.”

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