The polarising effects of Saudi and Houthi propaganda

I woke on 26th March this year to hear on the news that a coalition under Saudi Arabian control had started to bomb Yemen. I live in Somerset; few local people could understand what was going through my mind, as my best friend is Yemeni and she is a single mother with four children, with no family or tribal connections to protect her. I also have a lot of other dear friends in different parts of Yemen, where I worked for several years. My heart was broken, and I thought of Yemen every moment, when I went to bed, when I woke in the night which I frequently do, when I woke in the morning, and all day. I still do.

At the start of the bombing campaign, I immediately sent messages to ask if my Yemeni friends were alright after the onslaught, and got different responses. From one friend in Sana’a; “They (Saudi Arabia) are trying to destroy us, they hate us, they always have,” and from another young friend in Aden “You don’t understand aunty, they (the Houthis) are trying to kill us. Saudi is on our side.” That has been the dilemma in Yemen; Yemenis have become polarised and do not properly listen to anyone who has an opposite view. Those that criticise the Houthis become “Saudi spies” and those that criticise Saudi bombs become “traitors”. For those that favour Saudi actions, in the face of compelling and widespread evidence they will not accept that the coalition bombs have targeted civilians time and time again, as bombs have fallen on displaced people’s camps, schools, markets, homes, and hospitals. For those who support the Houthis, they deny that they have caused any harm “No, it is not the Houthis who have damaged Aden; it is Islah who are trying to make people hate the Houthis”. This again was in the face of photographs and testimony from areas like Crater that were under Houthi control. For those from the old North, there is a complete denial that Southerners have good reason to feel resentful towards the Yemeni government that has humiliated them, dominated them and strips their assets; they in turn state that the more educated Southerners come to the North and take their jobs, and resent the way that Southerners make fun of Northern characters on popular television programmes. When Yemen’s amazing antiquities were destroyed, invariably everyone blames the other ‘side’. It is not a Saudi bomb but a Houthi missile; it is not the Houthis that destroy but another militia that is culpable. Or one side was forced to destroy a historical site because of the actions of their enemy.

Sensing this chasm between Yemenis, I joined a group of British Yemenis whose aim was to unite British Yemenis; The Yemen Coordination Network. The reasoning of the founder Taher Qassim was that if British Yemenis could start to understand opposing viewpoints, then they would spread messages to their families in Yemen, pouring oil on troubled water which might go some way to resolving issues underlying the conflict. The first meeting that I went to in Liverpool shocked me. Yemenis were openly critical of each other’s perspective; one woman whose husband was trapped in Yemen was very distressed by those who opposed the Saudi bombs. Those present told me that this was an improvement on the last meeting, where Liverpool Yemenis were almost at war.   So far, feelings run so high that this group has not been able to take off.

I also considered joining a Facebook site which claimed to be aiming to unite Yemenis. When I investigated further, the purpose was to unite all Yemenis so that they could exterminate the Houthis. When I went to the Stop the War conference, the British Yemeni speaker only criticised the Saudi-led bombing campaign. I pointed out that one of the problems was that Yemenis themselves were disunited, and the Houthis were harming their cause by attacking Yemenis in the South, and supressing Yemenis in other cities. She would not hold any discussion, stating that ALL Yemenis are united against the Saudi bombs, and the reports of damage by the Houthis was propaganda. When examining the photo gallery, I pointed to one photograph that I knew came from Crater, depicting houses that the Houthis had burned down, which was described as damage from Saudi bombs. There are indeed enough genuine photographs of people killed by the coalition’s bombing raid to not need to place false images amongst them.

What made it more difficult for me was the anti-war lobby in UK, which opposes the West’s military domination of the Middle East, as I do. With good reason they see wars such as Yemen as a manifestation of the West’s intention to dominate the region. USA and UK were very active in supporting the Saudi-led coalition attacks against Yemen in everything but directly taking part in air assaults. Saudi Arabia and the British media wrongly asserted that Iranian influence was dominating Yemen hence the need for the attacks; in truth the Houthis had some links with Iran, but these were not significant. This was a civil war in which Saudi Arabia had decided to attack Yemen, under the pretext of supporting a President who is not popular, elected in a one candidate ballot and his term had already expired. This decision by Saudi Arabia had made a tense civil war situation much worse, and probably caused more aggression and damage on the part of all militias in Yemen.

Generally, the anti-war lobby in UK tends to take the side of those opposing the West and its allies. For example, I know the Stop the War had a large contingent of Yemenis who contacted them to say that they supported the Saudi bombing campaign, but the only Yemeni speakers at the Stop the War conference were those against the Saudi attacks because it met with StopThe War’s agenda.  For those who care about ending the conflict in Yemen, it is important to recognise the genuine grievances of two particular groups that had been oppressed under the past government; the Houthis that had suffered appalling attacks from the government of Yemen and Saudi Arabia between 2004-2009, and the Southerners that had been humiliated in a brutal civil war in 1994 and had genuine grievances concerning the inequality of power. Both had been misrepresented in the media in Yemen over decades, hence creating a lack of understanding in the general public, and their issues had not been addressed in the National Dialogue Conference that was designed to overcome obstacles to peace in Yemen after the Yemeni Arab Spring. Ironically, the South and the Houthis formed a voting bloc in the NDC, but these two groups ended up fighting a terrible war in the southwest corner of Yemen. The Houthis, more used to battle, were able to brutally suppress those in Aden and Lahj, and also their war extended to Taiz. Unless the suffering of those in the southwest was acknowledged, then there could be no way of bringing the warring factions together to find peace. I saw the uniting of Yemenis with different perspectives as being not only the most important issue in ending the civil war, but also the most important way of uniting Yemen against outside all outside domination. If the Houthis are forced to surrender through the coalition’s military might, they will have grievances – and a real fear of extermination – that will fester and infect future generations with yet more war.

However, raising the issue of Houthi damage caused me to be alienated from many in the British anti-war group; for example, one person saw fit to repeatedly swear at me, the first time anyone had done so for many decades. Some of these comments were very personal and without truth; for example my Yemeni friend who was so vulnerable managed to escape to Malaysia with her children, when I announced this, comments were made that the only persons who could get out of Yemen were cronies of the government, and she was going to leave the others to be killed by Saudi bombs. This was very upsetting to me. I have good friends in UK where I now sense a feeling of alienation; I am hoping time will heal those differences. However, there are many others, some of them new friends, who do understand that I am not just against Saudi Arabia, not just against the Houthis, not just against other militias fighting in Yemen; I am against all fighting, destruction, war, blockades, sieges, injuries, and killings. I am for Yemen. And fortunately, some Yemenis are amongst my new friends who see things the same way.

The people in Yemen, like those in UK, are the products of the discourses that surround them in their everyday life. They believe what they do because they have been surrounded by one perspective. Their genuine grievances of ‘the Other’ has been hidden from them. As an outsider, strangely it is easier to get a wider perspective. But it is hard to explain that to people who passionately believe that they are right, and are surrounded by people who think like they do.

Almost every day I am approached by someone from Yemen who says I am taking ‘sides’ – Yemenis who want to ‘educate’ me to support only their viewpoint. Each ‘side’ tells me that ALL Yemenis believe the same as they do, and I am mistaken. On my Facebook page “Yemen News Today” I publish as many articles as I can find each day; the site does what it says, it collects articles from a variety of sources. The perspective at any time depends on the news that is being published; I look at news agencies from UK, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, USA, Iran, Yemen and others. This week, within a few hours, two Yemenis who looked at the same material on the same Facebook page – one accused me of not criticising Houthis enough, and another of not criticising Saudi enough. I am becoming less tolerant too, and no longer engage in long debates as from experience few can be persuaded to change their viewpoint, whatever evidence is offered.

And therein lies the problem. Outsiders such as anti-war groups who want to end Western domination are also polarised, reflecting the exact situation in Yemen. In all the conflicts in the Middle East, the differences between groups are the main problem; it is the system of keeping countries, their people and their assets subordinated and under Western control. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Palestine, Yemen, they all have internal conflicts that consume their communities, weakening them when they need to stand together. The only chance they have is to unite the conflicting parties, so that they can make a united front against Western domination. Only in Palestine is that properly understood by Western anti-war lobbies, where the unity of Fatah and Hamas is understood as a key to peace. Unifying is not an easy option; Arab philosophers have long written about the way that Western colonisation and oppression have caused Arabs to divide; into those who think the best way to resist Western domination is to become more like them, and others who think the best way to resist is to become less like them. This divide still continues today. There have been historical exceptions. In recent history, the rise of Nasserism created a pan-Arab movement that attracted Arabs from a range of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. Unfortunately it made leaders of other states outside Egypt fearful of their own position; that disunity weakened their military prowess and many say it led to the Arabs’ defeat in the Six Day War against Israel, which ended Nasser’s movement. More recent efforts by Gadaffi to unite Arabs were not welcomed in the Arab world.  In the past, a Kurd called Salah Ad-Din (Saladin) united Arabs who fought off the invading European crusaders. There are some young Yemenis who have charisma and vision, but whether they will be allowed to lead Yemen to a better future is questionable. Let’s hope they can have their chance one day.