For a long time, Americans defined Yemen in terms of counter-terrorism. Now there is a shift to defining it as a failed state and humanitarian catastrophe. When I returned to Yemen in the early 1990s I found kindness and respect. I made friends from the north and the south. When I first returned I think I also had a bit of an orientalist mindset. I saw poverty and a lack of education. I wanted to empower women. It was a real wake up call for me when I discovered that Yemenis—men and women—were already proud of who they were. They were open to change but wanted it to be slow and gradual. The roots of the current conflict lie not with the Saudi-led intervention but with the Arab Spring and former President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s decision to ally with Houthi rebels to overthrow the representative government which had formed in its wake.
The Houthis believe in genealogical supremacy where only those who claim descent from Prophet Muhammad have the right to govern Yemen. They seek a return to the theological state that existed before 1962. For many Yemenis, the focus has now shifted from Saleh and the Houthis to the Saudi-led intervention. Where the Houthis rule, they impose a totalitarian regime. In the areas controlled by Yemen’s internationally-recognized government, governance is poor and many services are outsourced to the Saudi-led coalition. If you live in the north of Yemen and were middle income before the war you are now pretty much destitute. This is due to the government of Yemen not paying salaries for civil servants in the north and the Houthis imposing high taxes on people to fund their war effort. While the Saudi-led coalition bears part of the blame for Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, they do not bear all of the blame. Even if Saudi Arabia leaves tomorrow, we will not have peace in Yemen. Yemenis are being used for an Iranian agenda. The Saudis want to get rid of that and have not been able to do so effectively. If there is anything that all Yemenis agree on it is opposition to the recruitment and indoctrination of child soldiers, which is ubiquitous.