In his first significant foreign policy announcement since taking office, President Joe Biden broke with both former presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama and declared an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. But it will take more than U.S. withdrawal to end the violence there. Rep. Ro Khanna, activist Shireen Al-Adeimi, and reporter Akbar Ahmed join Ryan Grim to discuss.
Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.
In his first significant foreign policy announcement since taking office, President Biden broke with both former presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama.
President Joe Biden: This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.
RG: Biden’s announcement, which came late last week, was the culmination of years of pressure from opponents of the war, and also a reflection of changing attitudes among those in the Obama administration who had initially supported U.S. involvement.
But getting from that announcement to an actual end of the conflict will be no easy feat. And getting from there to a place of real reconciliation and reconstruction will be even harder. But the path is there, and it begins with understanding the roots of the conflict and the roles of the many outside actors looking to enforce their will on Yemen.
Today, we’ll talk with three people who’ve been following this conflict closely. First, we’ll be joined by Rep. Ro Khanna, who, as a House freshman in 2018, pushed a historic War Powers Resolution to end U.S. involvement in the war. As a sophomore he passed it, though it was vetoed. Now, in his third term, he’ll talk about his approach to the conflict in the wake of Biden’s announcement, as well as his run-ins with a powerful ambassador who plays an outsized role in U.S. foreign policy decisions.
We’ll then talk with Shireen Al-Adeemi, a Yemen-born antiwar activist and assistant professor at Michigan State University.
Finally, I’m glad to welcome my old friend and colleague Akbar Ahmed for his first Deconstructed appearance. Akbar and I reported on the Yemen crisis together back when I was a reporter at The Huffington Post, where he remains a senior foreign affairs correspondent.
But first, Rep. Ro Khanna, welcome to Deconstructed.
Rep. Ro Khanna: Ryan, it’s always a pleasure.
RG: Yeah, thank you for joining us. I really appreciate it.
RK: Of course. I appreciate your reporting.
RG: Well, so, speaking of my reporting, actually — back in 2018, I covered your effort to push through Congress with Senator Bernie Sanders, a War Powers Resolution to try to force the president out of the war in Yemen. But I haven’t quite heard you tell much of that story publicly. And so, I’m curious: When you and Senator Sanders started that, how did you get something that seems so quixotic at the beginning off of the ground into a place where it was considered credible on Capitol Hill? Because for people who are outside of Washington, there’s this weird kind of bar in Congress, where there are things that are credible, and then there are things that are just messaging efforts that nobody actually has to engage with seriously. So how did you move that into the space of something credible that the leadership of both parties had to grapple with?
RK: That’s a long story. Let me tell you the abridged version, and a lot of the credit, of course, goes to the organizers and organizing groups.
When I got to Congress, I was a freshman and the only reason they allowed a freshman to introduce a resolution on something as major as war and peace in Yemen is that no one else wanted to do it. The leadership in the House was dead set against a War Powers Resolution. And there were concerns about our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the strategic interests that the Saudis posed in balancing Iran, and so a real concern that we need a check on Iran from some folks in the house. And then there was a concern that well, refueling planes and providing logistical support to a country like Saudi Arabia doesn’t really trigger the War Powers Act, and you’re going to have far more scrutiny to our military involvements that don’t involve ground troops, which is exactly the point. We should. Most modern wars often don’t have the ground troops involved. But those were the two concerns why people didn’t want to touch it.
So we introduced it in the House. And at the time, you may remember this was in 2017, Paul Ryan was in charge. And what we got back from both leaderships was a compromise — that we would pass a compromise resolution, that wouldn’t really stop any of the activity in Yemen, that would acknowledge that Iran was a threat — and it, in fact, had some language in it that I didn’t love, but we had to take — but would make a key finding, and a key concession that our activity in supporting the Saudi regime was unauthorized, and we got that as a key finding.
Once we did that, I went to Senator Sanders and I said, “Senator, I know it’s a big jump. I know you just ran for president. There’s no other senator who wants to do it. But you now are on solid ground because we have the House saying that this is an unauthorized activity.” And then he said, “I believe in this. I’m going to introduce the War Powers Resolution in the Senate.” And he ended up getting 40-some votes and then we reintroduced it in the House, and then it was this ping-pong, both of us would keep reintroducing it.
But it wasn’t in vain. I mean, because of this House activity and you talk to Martin Griffiths at the U.N., he’ll tell you this, Mattis took note. Mattis started calling the Saudis, putting pressure on them, which in part led to the ceasefire in Hodeidah. And eventually the administration voluntarily suspends the refueling. It’s amazing to me that they, of course, never took credit for doing that, because they had too much of a relationship with the Saudis. But that was, according to Griffins, part of the turning point in the war, when the administration takes that indirect response to congressional action.
And the congressional action is in direct response to the online mobilization. I mean, without going into detail, the online activists and the groups were very, very sophisticated. I mean, they were targeting members on the relevant committees. There were certain primary runs, believe it or not, that had Yemen at the forefront. There were targeted messages to people that this was going to be a voting issue. Throughout the two years of Senator Sanders’ and my efforts, the online community is really what allowed us to keep building traction — and then Khashoggi’s murder was the turning point.
RG: Right. And so on the question of primaries, so June of 2018, is when Ocasio-Cortez beats Crowley, and that kind of shocks the system. You know, everybody in the House starts to think, “Uh oh, wait a minute, we didn’t see this coming. Could I be next?” And was the primary you’re referring to Sarah Smith running against Adam Smith, the battle of the Smiths out in Washington?
RK: There was a primary there and there was a primary in, of course, Jamal Bowman was running on this. There were a number of candidates that ran on Yemen. I think if you spoke to Adam Smith, he would say that that made him pay attention more to what was going on in the activist community in Yemen.
RG: And like you said, October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi is butchered by Saudi Arabia —
Newscaster: Saudi Arabia has admitted for the first time the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was premeditated. Khashoggi, a fierce critic of the kingdom’s leadership.
RG: — which had an effect on Congress’ willingness to speak out on the Yemen war. Is that right?
RK: Absolutely. And Khashoggi, in many ways, is a martyr for his own cause. As you know, he’s a journalist who was assassinated because he’s writing about Yemen. That’s why the Saudis take his life. And it’s one of the unfortunate realities of mainstream coverage of Khashoggi’s murder, that people didn’t say the second sentence, the reason why he was assassinated.
RG: Right. Right.
RK: But that opens up then a condemnation of the Saudis and changes the sentiment in Congress, at least about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, if not fully about the Yemen war.
RG: So then in the spring of 2019, so now Democrats have taken over Congress, what was it that brought Democratic leadership around to the idea that this was worth doing?
RK: I think it was a cumulative process. In those two years, we kept reintroducing those resolutions with more and more sponsors. They kept hearing from the groups. There were certain horrific events, I mean, bombings that were reported where women and children literally died, reports about starvation. And then the Khashoggi murder, though, was the turning point. I think after that, the leadership said, “We have to do something.” Even before Pelosi became speaker, she had called me and said: We’re gonna get this moving soon after I assume the speakership.
RG: And the reason we’re talking about this, of course, is that President Biden has come out and said that the U.S. will no longer assist with offensive operations in the war on Yemen. But then I want to read you what Biden says after that. He says, “At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAE strikes and other threats from Iranian supplied forces in multiple countries. We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity, and its people.”
What do you think of that carve out, given that basically since World War II, any country that attacked another country has said that it’s doing so in its own defense?
RK: The Saudis, of course, use the defense to prosecute the war in Yemen. I mean, they basically launch missiles into the residential sites in Yemen to target the Houthis, claiming that they were doing that in a defensive posture to prevent an attack on Saudi Arabia. So their explanation is not going to fly. And the Congress needs to make sure that it’s actually a defensive and not offensive strike into Yemen. And we have to be vigilant to make sure that the Saudis aren’t able to exploit that definition.
RG: So do you think that means that another War Powers Resolution is necessary to put Congress on record that the U.S. shouldn’t be involved in this war in any way?
RK: So Senator Sanders and I, in fact, we had a phone call the day President Biden announced reintroducing the War Powers Resolution, and they knew that the administration was well aware that we were planning to reintroduce the War Powers Resolution. And then we got these very positive statements, the statement of Houthis not being designated as a terrorist organization. The reason that matters is you basically have no commercial activity into Yemen with that designation, and that was aggravating the famine. We have this statement that the U.S. was not going to support in any way, including intelligence, any offensive strikes. So what we said is, “Let’s hold off, there’s been a very positive movement. But let’s be vigilant. I mean, if we start to see that the Saudis are continuing to take offensive actions in Yemen, and that we’re in any way involved in them, then a War Powers Resolution becomes necessary.” So we’re going to be vigilant and see how things develop.
RG: What is the path to actually ending this war? Like, not just U.S. involvement in it, but the war itself?
RK: Right. It’s more pressure on the Saudis. I mean, Griffiths is doing a phenomenal job as a U.N. envoy. And he has not had a partner with the United States in putting pressure on the Saudis to stop the bombing, to come to an agreement, to make sure that they lift the blockade that allows food and medicine into Yemen.
So the critical thing is that Saudis really need to understand that it’s not just the U.S. isn’t going to be complicit in furthering the war — the United States actually is going to be on the side of putting pressure to end the war. And I think if the Saudis feel that pressure sufficiently, Griffiths was, in my view, close to the finish line, and can have the leverage to end the war.
RG: Biden, rather remarkably, during a presidential debate, referred to Saudi Arabia as a pariah,
President Joe Biden: I would make it very clear: We were not going to in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are. There’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.
RG: Is this the number one thing that Biden wants of Saudi Arabia, for them to end this war in order to repair the relationship that was so fractured over the last four years?
RK: It seems to me it is. I mean, from my conversations with the Biden administration, and from the fact that this is the first foreign policy speech, really, of President Biden, it’s the first thing he says, I think it shows the level of priority that people put on it.
I think you also have individuals in the administration who were part of the Obama administration who genuinely regret what has happened and view it as part of their legacy, and a matter of their conscience, to fix the situation. I think when they greenlighted, in some ways, the Saudi offensive, they didn’t think it would lead to the absolute disaster that it has. So that leads me to believe that it is a very high priority. The appointment of a special envoy to Yemen, and I think Bob Malley in Iran, suggests that the administration is going to prioritize ending the war.
RG: And what do you make of the reports that Matt Duss, Bernie’s top foreign policy adviser, may be headed to the State Department? Do you think that sends the same signal?
RK: Matt’s terrific. I mean, he can play so many different roles. I think it does send a signal on human rights, foreign policy, and more generally, obviously, Yemen being one of those areas. And my understanding is that Matt’s going to be involved in a lot of the anti-corruption initiatives, and someone who will put liberal democracy and human rights center of our foreign policy. I think he’s going to be a huge asset to Tony Blinken.
RG: Well, speaking of corruption, what’s your sense of what the role of the United Arab Emirates is in ending this war? You know, I’ve often thought of them as sort of sidekicks to Saudi Arabia, in this particular instance, that this was Saudi Arabia’s war and that the UAE was going along as a favor to Saudi Arabia so that it could get what it wanted from Saudi Arabia on some other questions. Do you see the UAE becoming a player here? Because the UAE also has a lot of damage to repair over the last four years.
RK: I do. And I think that they were certainly supporting the Saudis. But I think their involvement is probably more than has been reported. You know, I’ve never had an ambassador of another country come to my office and literally yell at me. But that’s what I had with the ambassador to UAE. I mean, I think that they were used to the ambassador of UAE and the ambassador of Saudi Arabia having a very positive reception on the Hill, and it’s really shifted dramatically in the four years I’ve been here.
And I also think they miscalculated in assuming that Trump would just be there for another four years and really made no effort to think about how the world may change if a Democrat came to the White House. So I think they also have to do a lot of repair work on the Hill and with the administration. And that starts with ending their own role in the Yemen war and perhaps being a player that urges the Saudis to end the war.
RG: That’s Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba that you’re talking about. And toward the end of the Obama administration, he was kind of openly feuding with some of Obama’s advisors, and you know, really did kind of field his oats during the Trump administration. What was your reaction to that? That must be an unusual situation to be shouted at by another ambassador? You know, you’re a congressman in the United States of America. How did you respond to that?
RK: I was actually just surprised. I mean, I met the Saudi ambassadors, and particularly the new one, of course, very much we disagree and I have real moral concerns, but in conversation, they’re diplomatic and polite and saying how much they respect the perspective. I was just taken away. I guess it led me to think that there is a real arrogance, a real sense of entitlement, a sense that he thought himself so powerful that he could act that way. And I’ve never really seen that before.
RG: Yeah, when I first profiled him in 2015, I think it was like, we called him one of the most powerful people in Washington. So I think your sense of his own self assessment is right. Do you remember, was that your first meeting with him? Or was that more recently?
RK: No, this was a meeting back a couple years ago. I mean, I don’t remember the exact time. And then we met again, once or twice, and he toned it down in subsequent meetings. But I just thought this was an indication of how entrenched these interests were.
RG: Yeah. So what can people who want to see this war end do? What should people who are trying to bring an end to all the suffering there do?
RK: Well, they need to continue to be vigilant on the United States’ response, I think we have to be pushing to make sure that there is no loophole where the Saudis are continuing to bomb and claim that that’s defensive. We need to make sure that there are reparations that are paid not just by the Saudis, but I think we have to be willing to provide humanitarian relief. Because, if you talk to Martin Griffiths, it’s going to be $4 -$5 billion to try to rebuild Yemen society. And so arguing for that. And just monitoring the situation so that Congress is prepared to respond if a War Powers Resolution is necessary, and things aren’t going in the right direction.
RG: Ro Khanna, thank you so much for joining me.
RK: Thank you. Appreciate it, Ryan.
RG: That was California Congressman Ro Khanna. We reached out to Richard Mintz of the Harbour Group, which represents Otaiba and the UAE in Washington, and he denied that Otaiba raised his voice with Khanna.
It’s good that Biden is shifting U.S. policy in Yemen, but his announcement had a major caveat tucked into it, and it’s important to understand the role of the Obama administration in getting us to where we are today.
We’re joined by Shireen Al-Adeemi, a Yemeni-born activist who has been speaking out about the war in her home country over the last several years.
Shireen, welcome to Deconstructed.
Shireen Al-Adeemi: Thanks for having me, Ryan.
RG: So the Arab Spring came to Yemen in 2011.
Newcaster: Tens of thousands of protestors poured into Yemen’s streets again today, two months into an uprising against the 33-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
RG: Can you talk a little bit about what the politics of the country were at that point and how it arrived there? Like who were the dominant forces at the time jockeying for power?
SA: Yeah, so one thing to probably get back to is 1990, where South and North Yemen United.
Newscaster: In 1990, Yemen was formally divided between the North and the South with political, ethnic, and religious differences. Aden was the capital of Yemen’s mainly Sunni South, while Sana’a in the North is largely Shia.
SA: They had been two separate countries under different colonial leaders. And so in 1990, when both countries got together, you know, we were uniting very different countries, the South had been a Marxist government with the capital Aden. And then the North had been under, first, the Ottomans and then the Mutawakkilite Kingdom, and then it went through a revolution. And so both countries coming together was a big deal, and they were ruled jointly by President Saleh, who had been the president of North Yemen since 1978.
So fast forward to 2011 when people were protesting, they were protesting largely Saleh’s rule.
Newscaster: Hundreds of 1000s demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down.
Protestor: We’ve endured Saleh’s corrupt government for 33 years.
SA: And also his entire clan, right? The power structure, the Islah Party, the Islamist party in Yemen were very dominant. Saleh’s Party, the GPC, was very dominant, but it left out a lot of different groups like the Southern secessionists who didn’t want to unite with the North anymore, or the Houthi rebels who had fought several years with the Saleh government.
RG: So who are the Houthis?
SA: The Houthis are, I mean, they call themselves Ansar Allah. Houthi is the last name of a family from Northern Yemen, and they began as clan leaders and preachers in Northern Yemen. It’s a province bordering Saudi Arabia called Sa’dah, and they had been preaching against both Saleh’s corruption — he was one of the wealthiest men in the Arab world and Yemen was the poorest country in the Middle East — and also against Saudi interference in Yemen through the exploitation of Wahhabi Islam. The Houthis are Zaidiyyah Muslims, and about 40 percent of Yemenis are Zaidiyyah and the other 60 percent are Shafi-Sunni, so they were not happy with the interference of over the introduction of Wahhabi Islam to the school systems in Yemen through Saudi Arabia. And so they began preaching against these two ideas. But Saleh responded with war, and he enlisted the Saudis to support him in those wars, six different wars in the 2000s. None of which were successful in removing the Houthis from having any — in fact, it probably made them even stronger as a movement.
RG: So how does the U.S. drone war play into the equation, into the stability of the country at the time? What was the kind of ostensible goal of that drone war, that ongoing drone war?
SA: So Saleh was a strong ally of the United States, as many dictators are around the world. [Laughs wryly.]
SA: And he allowed the U.S. to come in, the AUMF authorizes drone strikes on suspected terrorists, but in Yemen they were causing mass casualties, they would continue to target, not just people who are suspected of terrorism, but you know, their families, their children, their neighbors, innocent people who have nothing to do with this. And so it created a lot of instability and anger towards Saleh.
And the one thing that could unite all Yemenis is that nobody wants drone warfare in their country, because it’s been proven to be disastrous. And at the end of the day, Yemenis are the biggest victims of the terrorists who are operating there, and also the drone strikes.
RG: And so in 2014, that political conflict between the Houthis and Saleh is continuing. And they’re kind of outside of Sana’a. And actually, I reported several years ago that the U.S. picked up intelligence, they picked up communications between the Houthis and the Iranians; the Iranians were telling them “Do not take Sana’a” — that it would be a mistake for you to march on Sana’a at this moment, you can consolidate your position now, continue negotiations, et cetera. The Houthis completely disregarded that advice from Iranians, walked in, and they take power. What does that trigger? In your mind, how significant a moment is that in where we are today?
SA: That was the catalyst for Saudi — direct, overt Saudi intervention. Now, Saudi has intervened in Yemen multiple times, but never this overtly.
The Houthis, as you can tell by what you just shared, are not proxies of Iran. They have a positive relationship with Iran, they do receive some sort of support from Iran, but they don’t do what Iran or Tehran dictates. And so they felt that they would march onto Sana’a. By then, Saleh had been removed from power, he voluntarily transferred power to his VP in late 2011, his VP was Hadi, but remained the most powerful man in Yemen, as Hadi fumbled through a two-year term that was extended by another year, but still left out, you know, the Southern secessionists — which later formed as the STC, at the time, it was called al-Hirak — and these agreements with the Gulf left out the Houthis. And so the Houthis felt like they would apply pressure to Hadi to try to get all groups into a unity government. But of course, they ended up taking over the Capitol and precipitating all of this intervention. Under the pretext of restoring Hadi to power, the U.S. and the Saudis have been destroying Yemen for the past six years.
RG: Was there much debate within the Obama administration about whether or not to support this Saudi effort? Or was it one of these things where they said: Well, this is our ally. They’re going to war here. Hopefully, it’ll be quick. Let’s just support them.
SA: It was the latter.
So the war began on March 25, and by March 26, the U.S. made an announcement saying that they were entering this war, that they were setting up a joint intelligence-sharing cell with the Saudis, that they were committed to defending Saudi sovereignty in Saudi territories from the Houthis. And so there was no debate, there was no discussion and also it was unconstitutional as we found out later through the passing of the War Powers bill in 2019. Presidents aren’t authorized to go to war. And that statement was careful to say we’re not going to war, but, in essence, they went to war with Yemen right at the onset.
RG: Right. Did the War Powers Resolution debate change Trump’s behavior, U.S. behavior at that time, with regard to the war?
SA: What the War Powers [Resolution] did was the culmination of years of trying to get mostly Democrats to oppose this war. A few Republicans also joined the effort in the end, and it was a bipartisan bill, but all Democrats opposed U.S. intervention in Yemen by 2018/2019.
But Trump was very clear from the beginning. Unlike Obama, with his statement about protecting Saudi territories, he was very clear. He said: No, they pay in cash. They’re making a lot of money from this relationship with the Saudis.
SA: In 2018, when Mohammed bin Salman, who was the architect of this war, had this long tour in the U.S. in March of that year, he met with Trump and Trump was displaying these posters of all the weapons that he sold to Saudi Arabia.
Former President Donald J. Trump: You see 130 helicopters — uh, paraplanes. Hercules, great plane: $3.8 billion. The Bradley vehicles, that’s the tanks: $1.2 billion. The Poseidons: $1.4 billion.
RG: That felt like an utterly humiliating moment, too. And it was so tacky as well. The President of the United States has these middle school-level cardboard cutouts of amounts of money that the man sitting next to him is sending to the United States for these different weapons.
DJT: $3 billion, $533 million, $525 million — that’s peanuts for you. You should increase it.
RG: Was I the only one that read that as something of a humiliation? And you’re right, he actually, to your point, Trump just said it out loud. Obviously, that had been the foundation of the relationship for decades — all he was doing was saying it out loud.
SA: Exactly. He was just making it transparent. The Saudis — I understand and also can interpret — were very embarrassed by that. You don’t talk about money that way. I think they’d like to see themselves as allies of the United States, not just people who put money in U.S. banks and U.S. defense companies’ accounts, right? And so I’m sure that wasn’t a happy or proud moment for MBS. But it really brought to the surface what all of this is about.
In addition to money, of course, it’s about strategic interest in Yemen. The U.S. didn’t just enter Yemen because — I mean, partly it was because, you know, the Iran deal had just passed and they wanted to appease Saudis by helping them through this war that, like you said, was packaged as this — I mean, they called it Decisive Storm, storms come and go, right? There’s nothing decisive or stormy about what happened.
SA: But they entered because they thought this would be quick, they could help appease the Saudis who were very upset by the Iran deal. And they could, of course, secure their interests in Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, where they’ve always had a strong man in Yemen who supported their interests —what would happen when you have a group like the Houthis who are overtly anti-Saudi and anti-U.S.? What does that mean, then, for the 6.2 million barrels of oil and oil products per day that go through Bab-el-Mandeb, which Yemen controls to Europe and to Asia?
Right now, I think that’s still a battleground for control, because the province where Bab-el-Mandeb is actually where I’m from originally, which is Taizz. And part of it is with the hands of the coalition; the other part is with the hands of the Houthis, so it remains the frontline battleground for control over Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. But whoever controls Bab-el-Mandeb wins the war, right?
SA: You know, there’s a major strategic interest here. Yes, Yemen is a poor country. Yes, we don’t have too much oil. But it’s that strategic location that’s always been of interest.
RG: And so what did you make of President Biden’s statement that he was going to end support for offensive operations?
SA: Well, it sounded a lot like Obama’s reason for entering the war, which was defending Saudi Arabia, right?
For me, that was really concerning. Maybe people forgot the pretense or the pretext for entering this war. Maybe they didn’t realize how similar that sounded to what the Obama administration said in 2015. But I invite people to look it up — look up what the White House said at the time when they said they were defending Saudi borders from Houthis, and Houthi missiles, by the way, didn’t start raining down on Saudi Arabia until Saudis attacked. But that was the pretense for the war. So it’s concerning to me that we’re back to the framing that led us to the war, the intervention, in 2015. You know, how are they going to decide what’s offensive and what’s defensive?
And, and the broader question is: Why? Why should U.S. taxpayers fund this defense of Saudi Arabia? Why should we be concerned with the defense of Saudi Arabia? I think that’s an important question that needs to be asked as well.
RG: And do you think that Congressman Khanna and Senator Sanders should push forward with a new War Powers Resolution?
SA: I do. I absolutely do. I think there has to be congressional oversight. We can’t just rely on Biden’s word.
Biden said that the war in Afghanistan would end in 2014, right? Here we are, all these years later. The Obama administration has said that the war in Iraq would end; it hasn’t ended. And so we can’t just leave it up to an executive order or decision to end the war when we know that the U.S. is involved in Yemen in many, many, many ways, some of which we don’t actually fully know. Like, for example, we don’t know if the U.S. Navy is helping enforce the blockade on Yemen. We need to know that. Right? And we need to make sure that that has ended.
I think it’s up to Congress to use legislative means and the best way I can think of is through the War Powers Resolution, but I’m sure there are other ways to ensure oversight over all of the ways in which the U.S. is helping the Saudis and ensure that all of these come to an end.
RG: And what are the other steps that have to happen to actually fully end the conflict on the ground?
SA: You know, it’s a complicated conflict. I think there’s no hope for Yemenis as long as there’s foreign intervention. The U.S. has played a major role and so ending U.S. intervention is the biggest step toward an eventual peaceful resolution in Yemen. The U.N. can work with other parties in Yemen: Yemeni stakeholders, the Houthis, the STC, the Heidi government, Saleh, all these parties who have been fighting each other with or without foreign backing. They need to come together and decide what’s best for Yemenis. I don’t want to see more intervention in Yemen. I think people who have benefited through arm sales or who have played some kind of role in destruction in Yemen, in mass killing and starvation, shouldn’t get to decide what happens next. I think those countries need to be held accountable like Saudi, the U.S., the UAE, for example. But I would like to see Yemenis come to the table and negotiate some kind of peace process, maybe through the U.N. or through countries that have remained outside of this conflict.
RG: Shireen Al-Adeemi, thank you so much for joining us.
SA: Thanks for having me.
RG: That was Shireen Al-Adeemi.
This week, HuffPost broke the news of the detention and torture of a prominent Yemeni journalist at the hands of Emirati-backed forces in Yemen. Akbar Ahmed, who wrote the story with his colleague Rowaida Abdelaziz, is the senior foreign affairs reporter for HuffPost, and joins us now.
Akbar, welcome to Deconstructed.
Akbar Ahmed: Thank you! I’m very excited.
RG: So, Akbar, tell us a little bit about the story that you broke this week about the journalist Adel Al-Hasani. Because for people who aren’t part of the media, there’s a kind of a code out there that you don’t report on kidnappings, you don’t report on people who are being held captive by hostile actors, if there’s some possibility that their negotiations are going to help get that person released. It was clear from your article that Adel’s attorney, and Adel himself, felt like that had run its course. So who is Adel Al-Hasani? And how did you make the decision that you were going to report on this?
AA: Yeah, so Adel has been a fixer in Yemen, and as a journalist, Yemeni political analyst, extremely knowledgeable and well-connected. He’s been working on this since 2015.
RG: And tell people what a fixer is, for those who aren’t in the trade?
AA: So a fixer is a local contact on the ground, in war zones, in complicated situations, where often Western outlets and Western reporters who have the resources and have the audiences will fly in, but may not have local contacts or information.
Adel started doing that work in 2015 with Peter Salisbury, who is a former journalist now with the International Crisis Group — extremely well respected. And he loved the work! And he loved telling the world about what was happening in his country, which is experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And he’s been doing it since then. He’s contributed to a PBS project in 2018 that won the George Polk award last year. He’s contributed to reports for CNN, NBC, a lot of big names.
He’s based in Aden. And the interesting thing about Adel is he’s done this work, got this international audience, and has tried to think a lot more about what it means to be a journalist reporting on, again, this huge crisis implicating major international companies, corporations, global powers. And he’s really started to push back against the idea that all the agency should be with the West. Right? So Adel had really started to start up his own operation, hiring other fixers, working with international journalists, but also doing his own reporting on the situation in Yemen.
RG: Right. And so how did he run crosswise with the UAE?
AA: So this UAE link is fascinating and deeply alarming. Because the UAE is, of course, one of the U.S.’ closest partners in the Middle East; it has a reputation as being this moderate Muslim, more advanced and forward-looking regime.
The UAE withdrew from Yemen, allegedly, in 2019. Of course they didn’t — they continued to fund, arm, and otherwise support Southern secessionists in Yemen, in the area where Adel lives. The interesting thing about how the bounds of this had shifted is Adel knew the lines, right? He knew how not to get into trouble. He had been detained before, been released. He knows everyone in power. What’s been striking, and I think why his attorney and his family were willing to go public with us now, is that the rules seem to have changed. The UAE backs the militia in the South that is currently holding Adel and has tortured him, hasn’t given information on when he sees a judge, when he’ll be out; he hasn’t seen his newborn daughter who is less than a month old. The UAE for some reason has decided, starting in September, that it is more worthwhile to keep him behind bars to prevent him from reporting on potentially UAE-linked activities than avoiding the PR nightmare of detaining a journalist.
RG: It’s interesting, because when Western media covers the area, it’s going to be more — not necessarily a black-and-white view, but it’s not going to be nuanced enough to get deeply into what specifically the UAE is doing on the ground and who in particular it’s backing and what those people are doing. So do you think that because he was starting to report with a finer tooth comb, that that contributed to him rubbing up against the guardrails that the UAE had set up?
AA: That’s certainly the feeling among his family and his advocates. They also feel just confused, right? I think initially, with the people around him, there was a sense of, well, he’s established himself. I mean, he’s had interactions with these people, including with UAE officials, right? So it’s not that he’s not a known quantity. It’s bizarre that they would then choose to keep him behind bars, and really create the sense of, if you were public, you’ll be in greater trouble.
And it’s an interesting pattern with the UAE, Ryan. You and I have worked on cases of Americans detained by the UAE, for instance, right? And there’s always the pressure of keep this quiet, do it privately, and it’ll work out. And in so many of these cases, no progress is ever seen until there is a public move.
RG: Right. Do you think that the administration changing has something to do with his lawyers and his interest in coming forward? Because coming forward while the Trump administration is still in control and Yousef Al Otaiba still has his direct line to Kushner and to Trump probably isn’t going to work. So do you think that played a part, too?
AA: I think to some extent that played a part. I think the kind of trail of broken promises, particularly in that transition period, right? So all of this is happening in parallel — right? In parallel, the U.S. is moving towards Biden, and particularly in November and December, Adel and his lawyer are being fed these lies of: You will be released tomorrow, all charges have been dropped, we are changing the charges. I think this built up frustration and this feeling that the process is entirely — it’s dystopian, right? It’s not a direct legal process that is fair.
RG: I also wanted to get your take on something as a close observer of the region. So we spoke with Representative Ro Khanna earlier in this episode. And he told us that during one of his meetings with Otaiba about the situation in Yemen, Otaiba started shouting at him, which I don’t have to tell you is a rather unusual dynamic for a diplomat and a congressman. What’s your sense of what that says about how Otaiba is feeling about his situation and his position in Washington?
AA: I think it’s extremely telling about the period in which Ro Khanna began talking about Yemen, which was at the start of the Trump presidency. The Trump presidency led the Emiratis, and, you know, beyond them, the Saudis, the Israelis, folks from a number of different regimes that grew extremely close to Trump, to have this sense of entitlement, right? To feel that they could berate lawmakers, berate anyone because they felt they had this halo.
You also saw this happen with Pramila Jayapal, right? The Indian Foreign Minister from the regime — again, very close to the Trump administration — committing human rights abuses and the Indian Foreign Minister thought he could snub her.
AA: And what’s super interesting to me, and I wonder how much this will shift, just this week we’ve seen Ambassador Danny Danon, who is Israel’s representative to the U.N., call out Joe Biden on Twitter and say: Joe Biden, why haven’t you called Netanyahu? And it’s an extremely aggressive way to approach the President of the United States, right? [Laughs.]
RG: Mhmm. [Laughs.]
AA: I mean, if you want him to call Netanyahu, set up the call. But don’t publicly attack him. So I think we’re going to see a lot of people like Otaiba, like the Israelis, have to recalibrate and not act with this kind of impunity and sense of aggression and presumption, I would say.
RG: Or do they have some other path? Do they feel like they have enough regional power and that they can balance out a relationship with China, that they can allow Biden to refer to Saudi Arabia as a pariah and continue? Or do you think that it’s going to dawn on them relatively quickly that they are still actually client states of the American Empire?
AA: Yeah, you know, this China-Russia thing is such an old talking point. And I think, particularly the Biden State Department will raise that. The Trump people maybe didn’t have the historical context to understand that. But going back to the 80s and 70s, these Arab states have said to the U.S.: If you don’t give us everything we want, we are going to be best friends with China and Russia.
AA: Look, you have a U.S. trade, military, everything you have is interoperable with U.S. equipment. Yeah, maybe you buy Chinese equipment — you can’t fly it, right? What are you going to do with it? Like, it doesn’t work.
RG: Right. Right.
AA: You saw this with Otaiba, again making a really, to me, surprising public statement recently — it was around maybe February 1 or something. The Biden administration has announced that they are reviewing weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia wants $750 million in new bombs, which they are using to bomb Yemen. The UAE wants $23 billion, including $10 billion in bombs and missiles. So that’s all on hold right now. And it’s on a review that Biden has said is a serious review. Otaiba, at a public event — again, this is public, shocking to me – said: It’s a pro forma review, it’ll happen, don’t worry.
RG: Hmm. Right. Right. Right.
AA: That degree of overconfidence and hubris is unsustainable.
RG: We’ll see if it bears out.
Finally, what has to happen for there, finally, to be peace and redevelopment in Yemen?
AA: It’s not just the end of American involvement, but that goes a long way. Should American involvement actually shut down as Biden has said it will, that creates some conditions for the Saudis to negotiate with Houthis. But I think you have to see people bring pressure to bear on the Houthis, and the extent to which they do that. Again, going back to work that we’ve done, right? Iran told the Houthis not to invade Sana’a, which sparked a civil war; the Houthis said: too bad, we’re doing it anyway.
AA: The Houthis are militarily getting stronger; their motivation to negotiate might be weaker. But it could happen as part of a broader Iran regional deal that could happen under Biden, and that would be, I think, what a lot of Yemen watchers would want.
RG: Well, Akbar Ahmed, thanks so much for joining us on Deconstructed.
AA: Thank you very much.
RG: That was Akbar Ahmed, and that’s our show.
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