To mark the first anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, tens of thousands gathered in Sanaa which remains in Houthi rebel hands.
These were not grateful citizens thanking Riyadh for its attempts to liberate them from the Iran-backed rebels, but supporters of the deposed President Saleh who has aligned himself with the rebels. Saleh made a rare personal appearance and was feted by the crowds. He used his speech to offer an olive branch to the Saudi-led coalition.
The demonstrations, and Saleh’s speech, were widely covered on Yemeni television; remarkably, the “legitimate” President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi – who was forced into exile when the rebels took Sanaa in September 2014 – found no television screen to appear on. The only platform Hadi could access in order to address the people from his hotel room in Riyadh was his Facebook page.
There was much fanfare in Riyadh when the invasion (code named “Operation Decisive Storm”) began and an insistence that Saudi policy under King Salman would take a more pugilistic direction, using force to deal with the Kingdom’s challengers and enemies and putting a stop to the expansion of Iranian influence in the region.
One year on, however, it seems the biggest achievement of the Saudi Storm – as we hear from Yemeni colleagues and citizens – is to vastly increase the hatred harboured by the vast majority of Yemenis towards their northern neighbour. All talk is of revenge and reprisals against Riyadh and this vengeful mood is likely to inform the attitude of Yemenis for three generations to come, at least.
I have a Yemeni friend here in London, for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration; he is known for his wisdom and strong opposition to President Ali Abdullah Saleh as well as the Houthi rebels. He told me that a large number of Yemenis who have taken refuge in Saudi Arabia, including ministers in the Hadi government, have asked him to help them seek political asylum in Europe having entirely lost hope that they will ever return to their own country.
They have lost all faith in their sponsor, Riyadh, and believe the war to be unwinnable; they believe that the Saudis are now desperately searching about for any solution which will enable them to extricate themselves from this costly intervention.
We do not believe that the coalition led by Saudi Arabia will advance towards Sanaa having seen these huge crowds of unprecedented numbers of Yemenis protesting against their “aggression.” We believe we will see a cessation, or lessening at least, of the shelling of markets, hospitals and weddings, and the slaughter of these impoverished, defenseless and downtrodden people.
Secret negotiations have been underway for some weeks between Saudi officials and their Houthi counterparts; these have resulted in a cooling of tensions at the border and the exchange of prisoners. This may represent the first steps of the Saudis away from the Indecisive Storm.
Some Saudi brothers have been making fun of the Houthis and the prisoner exchange deal, pointing out that nine Saudi prisoners were exchanged for 108 Yemenis. They forget, however, that their Yemeni opponents did not spend $ 200 billion on the purchase of aircraft, missiles and state of the art military equipment. I wish they would be more humble.
Yemeni people of all political and tribal affiliations also want an end to this war. They do not want their country to become another Libya or Somalia.
On a personal note, I would like to thank those Yemenis who raised photos of me in the streets of Sanaa; I would like to emphasize that I consider myself a brother and a friend to all Yemenis, I am not supporting one side or the other. But I do not hesitate to stand in the trenches with them against unwarranted aggression, and those who launch sophisticated missiles to tear their innocent bodies apart, kill their children, and destroy their modest mud houses.