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Welcome to Deconstructed. I'm Ryan Grim. In his first significant foreign policy announcement since taking office, President Joe Biden broke with former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama. This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we're ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.
Biden's announcement, which came late last week, was the culmination of years of pressure from opponents of the war in Yemen 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're joined by Representative Rokan, who has a House freshman in twenty eighteen, pushed a historic War Powers Resolution to end U.S. involvement in the war. As a sophomore, he passed it but 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 US foreign policy.
Decisions will then talk with Shereen al-Ajmi, a Yemen born anti-war 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. ACBAR 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, Representative Roxana, welcome to deconstruct it. Right? It's always a pleasure. Yeah.
Thank you for joining us. Really appreciate it. Of course, I appreciate your reporting.
So so speaking of my reporting, actually, back in twenty eighteen, 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 seemed so quixotic at the beginning off 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 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 that the leadership of both parties had to grapple with?
It'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 interest of 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 that 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 also don't have 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 twenty seventeen. 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 when make a key finding in 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, but now you just ran for president. There's no other senator wants to do it.
So 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 we ended up he ended up getting 40 some votes and then we reintroduced 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 UN, he'll tell you this Matisse took note of his Matisse started calling the Saudis, putting pressure on them, which in part led to the cease fire 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 Griffitts, part of the turning point in the war when the administration takes that in direct response to congressional action and the congressional action is in direct response to the awful. My mobilization, I mean, without going into detail, the online activists and the groups were very, very sophisticated.
I mean, they were targeting members of the relevant committees. There were certain primary runs, believe it or not, that in 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 Kosovich murder was the turning point.
Right. And so on the question, the primary. So June of twenty eighteen is when Ocasio Cortez beats Crowley in that kind of shocks the system. You know, everybody in the house starts to think, oh, wait a minute, we didn't see this coming. Could I be next? And it was a primary. You're referring to Sarah Smith running against Adam Smith, the battle of the Smiths now in Washington.
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 on Yemen.
And like you said, October twenty eighteen, Jamal Khashoggi is butchered by Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has admitted for the first time the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was premeditated.
Shaji, a fierce critic of the kingdom's leadership, which had an effect on Congress' willingness to speak out on the Yemen war. Is that right?
Absolutely. And Khashoggi, in many ways is a martyr for his own cause. As you know, he was 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 Shoji's murder that people didn't say the second sentence, the reason why he was assassinated. But that opens up and a condemnation of the Saudis and changes the sentiment in Congress, at least about the US Saudi relationship, if not about fully about the Yemen war.
So then in the spring of twenty nineteen. So now Democrats have taken over over Congress. What was it that brought Democratic leadership around to the idea that this was worth doing?
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 going to get this moving soon after, I assume the speakership.
Then the reason we're talking about this, of course, is that President Biden has come out and said that the US will no longer assist with offensive operations in the war on on Yemen. But then I want to read to you what Biden says after that. He says, At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, wave 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 carveout, given that basically since World War Two, any country that attacked another country has said that it's doing so in its own defense?
Well, the Saudis, of course, use the defense to prosecute the war in Yemen. I mean, they basically launch missiles into 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 strikes into Yemen. And we have to be vigilant to make sure that the Saudis aren't able to exploit that definition.
So do you think that means that another war powers resolution is necessary to put Congress on record, that the US shouldn't be involved in this war in any way?
So Senator Sanders and I, in fact, we had a phone call the day President Biden announced to discuss 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 on the hootin is not being designated as terrorist organization. The reason that matters is you basically had no commercial. Into Yemen with that designation, and that was aggravating the famine, we had this statement that the US was not going to support in any way, including intelligence, any offensive strikes.
So what we said is, let's hold off that there has 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 of war powers resolution becomes necessary. So we're going to be vigilant and see how things develop and what is the path to actually ending this war, like not just US involvement in it, but the war itself.
It's more pressure on the Saudis. I mean, Griffiths is doing a phenomenal job as a UN envoy, and he has not had a partner with the United States in putting pressure on the Saudis to 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 the Saudis really need to understand that it's not just the US 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, can have the leverage to end the war.
Biden, rather remarkably, during a debate during a presidential debate, referred to Saudi Arabia as a as a pariah.
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 of the in the present government in Saudi Arabia.
Is this the number one thing that Biden wants of Saudi Arabia? For them to end this war in order to repair the relationship was so fractured over the last four years?
It seems to me it is. I mean, I from my conversations with the Biden administration and from the fact that this is the first foreign policy speech really of President Biden and 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 are part of the Obama administration who genuinely regret what has happened and view it as part of their legacy and the matter of their conscience to fix the situation.
I think when they greenlighted in some ways the 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 to suggest that. And I think Bob Marley in Iran suggests that the administration is going to prioritize ending the war.
And what do you make of the reports that Matt Duss, Burnie's top foreign policy adviser, may be headed to the State Department? Do you think that sends the same signal? That's terrific.
I mean, he can play so many different roles. I think it does send a signal on a human rights foreign policy and more generally, obviously, Yemen being one of those areas. And my understanding is that it's going to be involved in a lot of the anti-corruption initiatives and someone who will put liberal democracy and human rights centre of our foreign policy. I think he's going to be a huge asset to Tony Blinken.
Well, speaking of corruption, what's your sense of what the role of the United Arab Emirates is in ending this war? I've often thought of them as sort of sidekicks to Saudi Arabia that this 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 on some other questions. Do you see the UAE becoming a player here? Because UAE also has a lot of damage to repair over the last four years?
I do. And I think that they were certainly supporting the Saudis, but I think their involvement is probably more than has been reported. I've never had a ambassador of another country come to my office and literally yell at me, but that's what I had with the ambassador, the UAE. I mean, I think that they were used to the ambassador of UAE and the ambassador to 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 might change if a Democrat came to the White House. So I think they have also 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.
That's Ambassador Youssoufou Otaiba that you're that you're talking about. And toward the end of the Obama administration, he was kind of openly, openly feuding with some of Obama's advisers and really did kind of feel as though. 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, this is your congressman in the United States of America. How did you respond to that?
It was a surprise, but I met with the Saudi ambassador in particular, new one, of course, very much. We disagree and I have a 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.
Yeah, well, when I first profiled him in twenty fifteen, 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.
You remember was that your first meeting with him or was that more recently?
No, this was a meeting back a couple of 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. Yeah.
So what can people who want to see this war and do, like what should what should people who are trying to bring an end to all the suffering there do?
Well, they need to continue to be vigilant on are the United States's 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 the humanitarian relief, because if you talk to Martin Griffitts, it's going to be four to five billion dollars to try to rebuild Yemeni 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.
Roxana, thank you so much for joining me.
Thank you. Appreciate it. Ron.
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That was California Congressman Rokita. We reached out to Richard Mintz of the Harbor Group, which represents Otaiba and the UAE and Washington, and he denied that Otaiba raised his voice with Conna. 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 next by Shereen LDV, a Yemeni born activist who's been speaking out about the war in her home country over the last several years.
Shirin, welcome to Deconstructed.
Thanks for having me. Right. So the Arab Spring came to Yemen in 2011.
Tens of thousands of protesters poured into Yemen's streets again today, two months into an uprising against the 33 year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Can you talk a little bit about what the politics of the country were at that point and how it arrived there? Who were the dominant forces at the time jockeying for power?
Yeah. So one thing to probably get back to is 1990, where South and North Yemen united 1990.
Yemen was formerly 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.
They had been two separate countries under different colonial leaders. And so in 1990, when both countries got together, we were uniting very different countries. The South had been a Marxist government with the capital IDN and then the North had been under first the Ottomans and then late kingdom and then went through a revolution. And so, you know, 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 nineteen seventy eight.
So fast forward to 2011 when people were protesting.
They were protesting largely celestial, hundreds of thousands demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down on the footrot we've endured, sullies corrupt government for 33 years and also his entire clan.
Right. The power structure, the Islamic Party, the Islamist party in Yemen were very dominant. Sadat's party was 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 Assad government.
And so who are the Houthis? The Houthis are I mean, they call themselves Ansarullah, the Houthis, the family, 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 Saige, and they had been preaching against both Siletz 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 zaidee Muslims and about 40 percent of Yemenis are Zaidee and the other 60 percent are Shafei 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 were 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 like. In fact, it probably made them even stronger as a movement.
So how does the US drone war play into the equation, into the stability of the country at the time? And what was the kind of ostensible goal of that drone war, that ongoing drone war?
Right. So Saleh was a strong ally of the United States, as many dictators are around the world, and he allowed the US to come in the EU. IMF authorizes drone strikes on suspected terrorists, but in Yemen, they were causing mass casualties. They were continue to target not just people who are suspected of terrorism, but 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 Saada.
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.
And so in twenty fourteen, the 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 US picked up intelligence. They picked up communications between the Houthis and the Iranians. The Iranians were telling them, do not take Sanaa, that it would be a mistake for you to march on Sana'a at this moment. You're. Consolidate your position now, continue negotiations, etc. 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 and where we are today? 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 that, what 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 what Tehran dictates.
And so they felt that they would march on to Sana'a. By then, Sadat had been removed from power. He voluntarily transferred power to his VP in late 2011. His VP was Heidi, but remain the most powerful man in Yemen as Hadi fumbled through a two year term that was extended by another year but still left out the southern secessionist STC, which later formed us. At the time, it was called the Herock.
And these agreements with the Gulf left out the Houthis. And so the Houthis felt like they would apply pressure to Heidi to try to get all groups into a unity government. But, of course, they ended up taking over the capital and precipitating all of this intervention under the pretext of restoring Hadi to power. The US and the Saudis have been destroying Yemen for the past six years.
It was there much debate within the Obama administration about whether or not to support this, the Saudi effort, or was it one of these things we said, well, this is our ally there. They're going to war here. Hopefully it'll be quick. Let's just support them.
It was the latter. So the war began on March twenty fifth, and by March twenty six, the US 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 was unconstitutional, as we found out later through the passing of the war powers bill in twenty nineteen presidents aren't authorized to go to war.
And that statement was careful to say we are not going to war. But in essence, they went to war with Yemen right at the onset.
Right. Did the War Powers Resolution debate change Trump's behavior, US behavior at that time with regard to the war?
What the war powers did was the culmination of years of trying to get mostly Democrats to oppose this war. 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 twenty eighteen, twenty, nineteen. But Trump was very clear from the beginning, unlike Obama, with his statement about protecting Saudi territories. He was very clear. He said, you know, they pay in cash. They're making a lot of money from this relationship with the Saudis.
In twenty eighteen, when Mohammed bin Salman, who was the architect of this war, when he had this long tour in the US 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, the AC 130 airplanes, the Hercules great plane, three point eight dollars billion.
The Bradley vehicle attacks one point two billion dollars. The Poseidon's one point four billion dollars.
That felt like an utterly humiliating moment, too. And it was so tacky as well. 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. Three billion dollars.
Five hundred and thirty three million dollars. Five hundred and twenty five million dollars. That's peanuts for you increase it.
Was I the only one that read that as something of a humiliation? And then you're right. He actually like 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.
Exactly. He was just making it transparent. The Saudis, I understand and also can interpret. We're very embarrassed by that. You don't talk about money that way. You know, I think they'd like to see themselves as allies of the United States, not just people who put money in US banks in US weapon defense companies accounts. Right. And so I'm sure that wasn't a happy or, you know, proud moment for members, 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 US 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 the decisive storm. Storms come and go. Right. There's nothing decisive or stormy about what happened. Right. 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 Bourbon Street, 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 over? The anti Saudi, anti us, what does that mean then, for the six point two million barrels of oil and oil products per day that go through government, the strait which Yemen controls to Europe and to Asia right now?
I think that's still a battleground for control because the province where government is actually where I'm from originally, which is says and part of TASES with the hands of the coalition. The other part is with the hands of the Houthis. It remains the frontline battleground for control over bombardment of straight. But whoever controls government wins the war. Major strategic interests 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.
And so what did you make of President Biden's statement that he was going to end support for offensive operations?
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 twenty fifteen. But I invite people to look it up. Look up what the White House said at the time. And they said they were defending Saudi borders from Houthis.
And healthy missiles, by the way, didn't start raining down on Saudi Arabia until Saudis attacked, but that was the pretext 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 twenty fifteen. How are they going to decide what's offensive and what's defensive? And and the broader question is why? Why should US 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.
And do you think that Congressman Condit and Senator Sanders should push forward with the with a new war powers resolution?
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 US 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 US is helping the Saudis and ensure that all of these come to an end.
And what are the other steps that have to happen to actually fully end the conflict on the ground?
You know, it's a complicated conflict. I think there's no hope for Yemenis as long as there is foreign intervention. The US has played a major role in. So ending U.S. intervention is the biggest step toward an eventual peaceful resolution in Yemen. The UN can work with other parties in Yemen, Yemenis stakeholders, the Houthis, the CDC, the how the government, all these are the 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 arms sales or who have played some kind of role in destruction in Yemen and mass killing and starvation shouldn't get to decide what happens next. I think those countries need to be held accountable, like Saudi, the US, 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 UN or through countries that have remained outside of this conflict.
Thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for having me.
That was Shereen Élodie, me. This week, Huff Post 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 Romita. Abdul Aziz is the senior foreign affairs reporter for Huff Post and joins us now. Akbar, welcome to Deconstructed.
Thank you. Very excited.
So, Ackbar, tell us a little bit about the story that you broke this week about the journalist Ortal al-Hasani, because there is a a code for people who aren't part of the 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 Ottos attorney felt like an ordeal himself, felt like that had run its course.
So who is Abdul al-Hussaini and how did you make the decision that you were going to report on this now?
So Aadil has been a fixture in Yemen and as a journalist, Yemeni political analysts, extremely knowledgeable and well-connected. He's been working on this since 2015 and tell people what a fixer is for those who don't aren't aren't in the trade.
A fixer is a local contact on the ground, you know, in war zones, in complicated situations, very often Western outlets, Western reporters who have the resources and have the audiences will be exciting but may not have local contacts or information on those that are doing that work in 2015 with Peter Thornsberry, who is a former journalist now with the International Crisis Group, extremely well respected. And he loves the work and he loves telling the world about what was happening in this country, which is experiencing the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
And he's been doing it since then. He's contributed to a gas project in twenty eighteen that won the George Polk Award last year. He's contributed to reports for CNN, the BBC, a lot of big names. He's based in London. And the interesting thing about analysts, he's done this work, got this international audience and tried to take a lot more about what it means to be a journalist reporting on this huge crisis implicating major international companies, corporations, global powers.
And he's really started to push back against the idea that all the agencies should be with the mass. Right. So I had really started to set up his own operation, hiring other fixers, working with international journalists, but also doing his own reporting on the situation in Yemen. And so how did he run crosswise with the UAE?
So the theory link is fascinating and deeply alarming because UAE is, of course, one of the US'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 to the 19. Of course it did. And they continue to fund and otherwise support southern secessionists in Yemen in the area of other lives. The interesting thing about how the balance of this that shifted is adding new the lines.
Right. He knew how not to get into trouble. He had been detained before being 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 back from the militia in the south that is currently holding out and has tortured him, hasn't given them any information on Manning the 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 illegal activities than avoiding the PR nightmare of being detained journalists. 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 kind of nuanced enough to get deeply into what specifically the UAE is doing on the ground and who and who in particular its backing and what those people are doing.
So do you think that because he was starting to report with a fine tooth comb that that contributed to him rubbing up against the guardrails that the UAE had set up?
That's certainly the feeling among his family, his advocates. Do you also feel just confused initially with the people around him that it was a census? Well, he's he's established himself. I mean, he's had interactions with these people, including with U.S. 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 will, public, you'll be in greater trouble.
And it's an interesting pattern with you. You and I have worked on on cases of Americans detained by the UAE, for instance.
Right. And that's always the pressure of keep this quiet, do it privately. It'll be. And in so many of these cases, no progress has ever seen until there is a public right. Do you think that the administration changing had something to do with his lawyers and his interest in and coming forward? Because coming forward while the Trump administration is still in control and use the facility, but 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? I think to some extent that played a part.
I think the kind of trail of broken promises, particularly in that transition period to all of this, is happening parallel. Right in parallel, the US is moving towards Biden and in parallel, particularly in November and December. Aadland, his lawyer being said these lies and you'll get released tomorrow. All charges have been dropped. We are changing the charges. I think this built up frustration and a feeling that the process is entirely dystopian. It's it's not it's not a direct legal process that is fair.
I also wanted to get your take on something as a close observer of the region. So we spoke with Representative Roxana 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?
I think it's extremely telling about the period in which I began talking about and which was at the start of the Trump presidency. The Trump presidency led the underactive and beyond the Saudis, the Israelis, folks from a number of different regimes that grew extremely close to Trump jihadist sentiment. You'll be right to feel that they could reached lawmakers, believe anyone, because they felt they had this hero. You also saw this happen with prominent gypo like the Indian foreign minister, former regime gotten very close to the Trump administration committing human rights abuses.
The Indian foreign minister felt he could snub her. And what's super interesting to me and I wonder how much associate justice to be Ambassador Danny Danon, who is Israel's representative to the U.N., call out your 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. I mean, if you want to call Netanyahu, set up the call, but don't really attack him.
So I think we're going to see a lot of people like Otaiba, like the Israelis, has to recalibrate and not act with this kind of impunity and sanction, aggression and presumption, I would say. Or do they have some other path? Like do they feel like they have enough regional power and that they can balance out a relationship with China? That they can be 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?
You know, just because it's China, Russia thing is such an old talking point. And I think particularly the Biden State Department will reset and the Trump people maybe didn't have the historical context to understand that. Right. But going back to the 80s and 70s, these Arab states have such nuance. If you don't give us everything we want by going to be best friends of China and Russia, look, you have a US trained military. Everything you have is interoperable with US equipment.
Yeah. Maybe you buy Chinese equipment, you can fly it. Right. What are you going to do with it? It doesn't work. But I do think you'll see what you saw this with Otaiba again, make it really to me, surprising public statement recently. It was around maybe at first or something. The Biden administration has announced that they are reviewing the to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Saudi Arabia. One hundred and fifty million in the U.S. bombing in the UAE, one twenty three billion dollars, including ten billion in bonds 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, it's ugly. Again, it's a public shock to me, said it's a pro forma review. It'll happen to consider some kind of hubris is unsustainable. We'll see if it bears out.
Finally, what has to happen for there finally to be peace and redevelopment in Yemen? 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 create some conditions for the Saudis to negotiate with the Houthis? But I think, you know, you have to see you have to see people bring pressure to bear on the Houthis and the extent to which they do that.
And I'm going back to what could be right. Iran told the Houthis not to invade Sanaa, which sparked a civil liberties not to bother doing it anyway. All right. The Houthis are militarily getting stronger. Their motivation to negotiate might be weaker. They could happen as part of a broader Iran regional deal. That could happen on the bottom. And that would be, I think, what a lot of Yemen have to watch as well.
Akbar Ahmed, thanks so much for joining us on Deconstructed. Thank you very much.
That was Akbar Ahmed. And that's our show, deconstructed as a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Brian Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Borshoff. That's you read is the intercepts editor in chief. And I'm Brian Grimm, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you'd like to support our work, go to the intercept dotcoms. Give your donation. No matter what, the amount makes a real difference.
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