Kamal Al-Solaylee is a professor of journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto and the author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes and Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone).
Compassion fatigue is not supposed to happen when the dying and the starving hail from your country of birth, where your family still lives. It’s that feeling that well-meaning but easily distracted First Worlders experience when they’re bombarded with footage of emaciated brown and black children and families on the run elsewhere, far away. Or, as the President of the United States prefers to call them, “shithole countries.”
As the Battle for Hodeidah – the main port in Yemen and the gateway to 70 per cent of the international food and medical aid it desperately needs – intensified this week, I couldn’t shake off a certain “here we go again” feeling. My heart goes out to the people of Hodeidah, but this is just another onslaught, a different list of casualties and the same old crisis of water and food shortages. Either out of selfishness or self-preservation, I prefer to focus on the safety of my immediate family in Sana’a, the capital.
That happens when a war enters its fourth year and betrays telltale signs of either a stalemate or a quagmire for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The two Gulf powerhouses are the leading forces in the Western-backed effort to restore the legitimate government of Yemen and defeat the Houthi rebels who have taken over, lost ground and regrouped multiple times since they stormed Sana’a in September, 2014. If the coalition drives the Houthis out of their stronghold of Hodeidah (putting the lives of 250,000 civilians at risk, according to the United Nations), that moves the war to the next battleground: Sana’a. This doesn’t constitute a “turning point” in the war, as the coalition claims, but an expansion of its terrain.
But as journalists trot out the chronology and the statistics about the suffering in Yemen, the numbers are morphing into something at best boilerplate and at worst meaningless. There’s the “conservative” estimate of deaths so far: 10,000. The cholera cases: one million. The internationally and internally displaced: more than two million. The number of people who don’t know when or where their next meal will come from: almost nine million. And then there are obligatory references to the Arab world’s “poorest country,” the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis” or, for the geopolitically inclined, the “next Syria” when it comes to a looming refugee crisis or “the next Afghanistan” for that special failed-state designation.
I’ve been collecting, updating and sharing this data (and journalistic tropes) for several years now, and yet the reality of Yemen as a site of unspeakable suffering has barely changed or elicited more than collective sighs on the global stage. It’s exhausting for Yemenis outside the country and crushing for those within its borders. The media and the global community need to explore other narratives, other ways of thinking about the war in Yemen, to stop it from becoming the next anything or the worst of everything. This war tells us as much about power structures in the world today as it does about Yemen’s tribal divisions. The time has also come for Canada to play a different role than its current two-faced one of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia one minute and doling out aid the next.
A good place to start recalibrating the story of Yemen is on the geopolitical level. There’s a lot more to this showdown than a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Sunni) on one side and Iran (Shiite) on the other. In this revised narrative, the UAE plays a larger, more sinister role than the (fairly) maligned Saudi Arabia. In the course of this decade, the UAE has been trying to expand its sphere of influence over several ports in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. As it continues to reinvent its economy into a post-oil-exporting model, the UAE is using various strategies – annexation schemes, proxy governments, military operations – to control shipping routes in the southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. This includes deals with Somaliland for the control of the Port of Berbera and a military presence in Eritrea’s Assab Port to serve as a base for its operations in Yemen. As Abdulwahab Al-Qassab, a researcher and visiting scholar at the Arab Center Washington DC, wrote recently, “Essentially, the UAE seeks to increase its strategic reach by building military installations overseas that can be staging grounds or simply bases for projecting power.”
Yemen’s location on the Red and Arabian seas is a gateway to the industrial north and global south. Seen this way, the UAE’s involvement plays out like the plundering of a poor neighbour’s resources to beef up the fortunes of a wealthy one. Turkey, China and Russia are all conducting their own versions of this new New Colonialism. At the hands of “strongman” nationalist leaders, it’s about regional powers gobbling up smaller, presumably defenceless ones or controlling them from a distance. Say what you will about the Houthi rebels, who have accumulated their own record of war crimes, but they have stood in the way of this new model of territorial expansion. It’s hard to predict what will happen if and when they cede ground to the coalition, but by then the situation in Yemen might be more amenable to diplomatic and political solutions.
And this is where I’d like Canada to come in.
I don’t believe that the current government will change its position as an exporter of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, despite that country’s human-rights abuses. As Canada faces threats to its economy from an isolationist White House hellbent on dismantling Western liberal democracies, it’s unlikely the Trudeau government will give up other trade partners so easily. Harsh economic realities and the lowering of moral standards go hand in hand. In the past few weeks and months, I’ve also given up on the idea of Canada taking in a sizable, or any, number of Yemeni refugees. The grand gestures that allowed us to take in Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s, Somalis in the 1990s and Syrians over the past three years will not be extended to Yemenis fleeing the war. And with the UNHCR reporting as many as 68.5 million refugees worldwide as of this week, there’s only so much Canada should do and so many it can take in. (Although it can and should do more and take in more, of course.)
But can we leverage our economic ties with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to take on a larger role in a long-term diplomatic resolution to the situation in Yemen? We have the right government body to take the lead: In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set up the Peace and Stabilization Operations Program (PSOPs), giving it $450-million over three years and a mandate to “stop violence” and “create space for dialogue and conflict resolution.” While the program’s mission applies to various trouble spots around the world, it seems ideal for the situation in Yemen – ideal for Canada if it wants to maintain its reputation as a “determined peace builder,” as a PSOPs news release trumpeted, and for Yemen if it’s to stand a chance of a postwar reconstruction.
The global collective interest will be better served if a relatively stable Yemen emerges from this war. As it states on its site, PSOPs is part of Canada’s “toolkit for promoting international peace, security and stability.” While al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may have been weakened in Yemen by a combination of U.S. drone attacks and UAE military incursions, the Islamic State sees an opportunity in the chaos. It has instructed its followers to relocate to Yemen now that its self-declared caliphate has been degraded militarily and reduced geographically. Canada owes this much to Yemen and the world.
I write here as someone with a vested interest in both countries, exhausted as I and other Canadians of Yemeni origin watch the suffering in one place and the silence and complicity in the other. We are a small group – fewer than 700, according to 2016 figures from Statistics Canada, if you allow me one last by-rote figure. But our interests and Canada’s align naturally when we all recognize the war in Yemen as more than just a humanitarian crisis. If nothing else, it will recast Yemenis as partners in the way forward, not just helpless citizens.