When I decided to do a PhD to find out what influences Arab imagery in the British media, I hadt two main reasons that made me want to answer to that question.
The first was the occupation of South Lebanon by the Israelis that I witnessed in 1995-6. The second was seeing the Gulf Returnees in Hodeidah. What I witnessed with my own eyes, anyone could see, yet no-one had bothered to look or report it. Both were extraordinary. This is the story of the Gulf returnees.
When Yemen united in 1990, it joined together a communist state, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, known as the PDRY or South Yemen, and North Yemen, also called the Yemen Arab Republic, known as North Yemen, forming the Republic of Yemen. The PDRY was a communist state and following the collapse of the Soviet Union it seemed that unification with North Yemen was the best possible option. It was welcomed by the people of the North and the South. The two entities were very different in their philosophies, their education, and their culture. The only way to unite two very different countries was seen as encouraging an open democracy, and indeed, there were many positive steps forward. The media in newly united Yemen was seen as the most free and open media in the Arab world at that time.
Yemen also had the misfortune of being a rotating member of the UN Security Council that year. It was unfortunate because Iraq chose to invade Kuwait that year, and Yemen had to vote on whether or not to agree to what became known as the first Gulf War. At that time, the Yemeni government was caught in a particular way of responding by its own internal consideration – keeping the Yemeni people together. Its vote was also influenced by Yemen’s membership of an alliance of Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. In many senses Yemen tried to sit on the fence and condemn the actions of Iraq whilst stating that this was an Arab issue, despite pressures from Saudi Arabia and US to support the war.
After the vote, Yemen suffered huge financial penalties and it could be argued that it never recovered from them. The tourist industry in Yemen had started to blossom, but in many countries in the world Yemen was placed on a list of countries not recommended for tourists, which stopped tourism in its tracks. The aid packages that were agreed on unification by the IMF, the World Bank and the United States were immediately stopped. And the Yemeni nationals working in Saudi Arabia were expelled to Yemen. These became known as the Gulf Returnees.
Some men had only worked in Saudi for a relatively short time, sending their wages back to Yemen, the remittances being an important component of Yemen GDP; they and Yemen lost their income but at least they were able to return to their family home. But many returnees had lived in Saudi Arabia for generations and no longer had any family contacts in Yemen, and this population was treated so harshly that it was close to genocide. Many had done office jobs or worked as security guards, earning good wages and living a comfortable lifestyle. They were uprooted from their homes and forced to leave immediately, taking what possessions they could and selling the rest at a fraction of its value. They numbered 750,000 persons. The Yemeni government, suddenly facing a severe financial crisis, could not afford to offer any assistance. Unpublicised, no international aid agencies came to their rescue. They settled in an area around Hodeidah. When I saw them for the first time 8 years later, they were still living in tent-sized corrugated tin huts with no water or sanitation. Water was obtained from one single standpipe, surrounded by filthy water-saturated sand which people sank into as they approached it with their water containers. This was an area where summer temperatures often topped 50 degrees. Having worked in war zones in the Middle East and Africa, this was the worst living conditions of any that I had ever seen. America claimed that this was the most expensive vote in history.
The Yemen government, now deprived of most of its income, was poorer than many of the tribes within Yemen, which now had bigger artilleries than the national army. Additionally, after the Soviet Union withdrew its last forces from Afghanistan in 1989, many Yemenis who had been fighting on behalf of US as mujahedeen had returned to Yemen. They believed, and not without cause, that they had won the war there and caused the Soviet empire to fall. They returned to Yemen, battle hardened, confident warriors, and filled with rhetoric of their Saudi paymasters. The Yemeni government, deprived of conventional warfare due to the sanctions against them, used these mujahedeen to fight on their behalf to keep the tribes in order, and eventually, against the South in their battle for independence in 1994.
The rhetoric amongst these fighters became strongly anti-Western as they witnessed the plight of the returnees, and also the way their country and their countrymen were punished for taking an independent stance.
Saudi Arabia had succeeded in stopping a vibrant democracy in Yemen from developing on its border, and turned Yemen into a failing state.
I could not understand how this suffering had remained silent. Just as the terrible war inflicted on Yemen by Saudi Arabia is equally as silent today.