Frankly Speaking: Does Europe still care about Yemen?

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Updated 19 June 2023

Frankly Speaking: Does Europe still care about Yemen?

  • Peter Semneby says humanitarian aid and contact with Iran give Europe sway over the peace process
  • Swedish diplomat lauds Saudi-Iran deal, but says it is still too early to expect results in the Yemen context

RIYADH: Despite the war in Ukraine dominating the foreign-policy agenda, Europe has a lot of reasons to care about what is happening in Yemen beyond just the humanitarian ones, Peter Semneby, Sweden’s special envoy to Yemen, has said.

Appearing on “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News talk show that features interviews with leading policymakers, Semneby cited maritime trade, counterterrorism and energy security as factors behind Europe’s continued interest in the conflict.

“One of the most important reasons is the humanitarian imperative. We’re engaged in any country in the world where the population is suffering for whatever reason, be it war or be it for natural reasons,” he told “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen.

“But there are also a lot of more hard-nosed interests for Sweden and the EU to engage on Yemen. Yemen is important for security, not only for its immediate neighbors but also for us.”

Elaborating on the point, Semneby said: “The Middle East is a neighboring region. We trade a lot with the Middle East. We get a lot of our energy supplies from the Middle East.

Peter Semneby, Sweden’s special envoy to Yemen. (Supplied)

“And if you look at the map, Yemen sits right on the most important maritime supply route there is.

“And this is something that has become even more important, and rather paradoxically, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one might assume that more faraway conflicts would be relegated to the backburner from our point of view. But that’s not the case. Energy security is more important than ever as a result of that conflict.”

Semneby continued: “Then I can add other security-related issues as well: counterterrorism, for example. Any country with weak institutions involved in civil war, where the political system threatens to erode as has been the case in Yemen, of course, would provide opportunities for terrorists if there isn’t the kind of support both in terms of security systems, but also in the longer term — in institution building — the EU can definitely provide in cooperation with its partner countries in the Gulf area.”

According to Semneby, the war in Ukraine and resulting sanctions on Russia, which resulted in soaring energy prices on the continent, actually made Europe’s energy interests in the Middle East an even more important consideration.

“The war in Ukraine has definitely made us think a lot harder about how we secure our trade routes, how we secure, in particular, energy supplies. And Yemen has a strategic location with immense importance for energy supplies,” he said.

“I’d also say that the humanitarian imperative is always there, and there has been a lot of additional attention to humanitarian issues in other conflicts as a result of the disruptions of the delivery of the supplies of wheat and grain that we’ve seen as a result of the Ukraine war.”

The continued provision of humanitarian assistance to Yemen — a nation gripped by near-famine conditions — is viewed by some as a form of leverage over the peace process.

Semneby said one impact of the Ukraine war has been a decline in the amount of aid available for Yemen.

He urged the Gulf states to channel their existing humanitarian contributions into UN funds to bolster the international response.

“What has changed — and which is unfortunate — is that there are less funds available for assistance of various kinds,” he said.

“There has been an enormous effort, as we know, for support in Ukraine from many countries. And we’ve seen, as we’ve asked, as the UN has asked, for funding for its humanitarian appeal in Yemen and in other countries, that it’s more difficult to get those funds.

In this photo taken on January 7, 2023, trucks cross Alwadiah port in the Saudi-Yemen border carrying dialysis supplies provided by #KSrelief to be distributed in several Yemeni governorates. (Twitter: @KSRelief-EN)

“This has to be done through a joint effort, and it’s of course not only Sweden, Europe, countries in the north that should provide funding to the UN efforts. We’re having a constant discussion with our partners in the Gulf area.

“And I’d expect that this would become an even more important topic for our joint strategizing about Yemen and all the conflicts that the Gulf countries should also contribute a larger share to the joint UN effort.

“What we see today is that they often prefer … making their contributions through their own bilateral channels, which deprives us, we believe, of some of the many opportunities that we have for taking care of synergies by working together.”

In an op-ed published in May, The Intercept’s Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim accused the US of deliberately slow-walking peace negotiations on Yemen, effectively pushing for a resumption of the war in an effort to improve the Yemeni government’s bargaining position against the Houthis.

“A ceasefire has held for more than a year, and peace talks are advancing with real momentum, including prisoner exchanges and other positive expressions of diplomacy,” wrote Grim.

“Yet the US appears very much not to want the war to end; our proxies have been thumped on the battlefield and are in a poor negotiating position as a result. Reading between the lines, the US seems to be attempting to slow-walk and blow up the peace talks.”

Asked whether US President Joe Biden could end the war today, and whether he believes the US is doing enough to resolve the conflict, Semneby would not respond with a categorical “yes” or “no.”

He defended Washington’s efforts, while adding that Europe’s open channels with Iran could help foster talks in Yemen.

Frankly Speaking host Katie Jensen interviewing Peter Semneby, Sweden’s special envoy to Yemen. (Supplied)

“I think the US has done quite a lot in terms of getting attention to the conflict in Yemen and supporting the conflict resolution efforts,” said Semneby.

“You may remember that President Biden, in his very first speech on foreign policy that he held at the State Department just a couple of weeks after the inauguration in 2021, mentioned Yemen.

“I think it was the second country that he mentioned in that speech, and Yemen has been on the agenda constantly in discussions with both Saudi Arabia and other partner countries.

“Of course, it’s important that the Americans do this in cooperation with others. We’re working very closely with the Americans as well.

“The Americans don’t have direct communication channels with the Iranians. Others have. So I think it’s not correct to assume that the Americans by themselves would be able to do this if they did so.”

Semneby said Saudi Arabia’s restoration of formal diplomatic relations with Iran is welcome news, but the international community must wait and see what impact it will have on the situation in Yemen.

“The Saudis and the Houthis have engaged in quite extensive talks after the Saudi-Iranian agreement was announced, so it obviously opened up possibilities that weren’t there before,” he said.

“But I still think it’s still too early to say whether the two sides in those talks have adjusted their expectations sufficiently in order to actually reach a UN agreement.

“It seems that the Houthis are still … insisting on 100 percent of what they want to achieve, or maybe even increasing their demands, asking for 110 percent. That won’t do the trick, obviously — they’ll have to strike a compromise in the end.”

Iran has long been arming and funding the Houthi militia. Officially called Ansar Allah, the militia seized control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2014, sparking a protracted civil war against the UN-recognized government.

In this photo taken on January 3, 2017, newly recruited Houthi fighters train to fight pro-government forces in several Yemeni cities. (AFP file)

The China-brokered agreement to re-establish diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran was a major breakthrough that lowered the chances of further conflict and raised the possibility of a lasting ceasefire in Yemen.

However, analysts believe that much depends on the Houthis’ openness to negotiation and the sides’ willingness to find a compromise solution.

“We still have a window of opportunity, and it has been pushed a little bit more open after the Saudi-Iranian agreement,” said Semneby.

“So I’m mildly hopeful that we can see a more permanent and a more formal monitored ceasefire being negotiated.

“I do think there’s hope. We’re in a better place than we were a year and a half ago, before the Saudi-Iranian agreement.”

One solution being mooted is the partitioning of Yemen into separate northern and southern states, as they had been from 1918 until 1990, when they unified as a single republic.

Some of Yemen’s neighbors are eager that it remain a single entity, while others appear to be gravitating toward partition.

Asked how likely a split might be, Semneby said it could be “messy” but it would be a matter for the Yemeni people to decide.

Fighters affiliated with Yemen's separatist Southern Transitional Council deploy in Yemen's southern city of Aden on June 29, 2022. (AFP file photo)

“I don’t want to make any predictions. What I’d like to say is that this is a question that will have to be decided by Yemenis themselves, and this can only be done as part of a comprehensive political process.

“It may very well be that that process will result in a partition, and then the world should respect it. I’d also add that I believe that most countries would prefer a unified Yemen.

“I think the partitions of countries are, although they’ve happened, are always difficult and messy matters. But ultimately this has to be for the Yemenis.

“But … it’s a secondary issue. The primary issue that all Yemenis need to focus on at this moment is to bring an end to the war and to sit together at one table, or in one room, to discuss all the very important and very difficult issues that Yemen is faced with.”

There is even a danger that splitting Yemen in two could lead to further, regional fractures, with provinces such as Hadramout peeling off to form their own state.

“If you start separating one part of the country, there are always those who aren’t going to be happy with the people in charge of that part separating, so … there’s always the risk of a chain reaction,” said Semneby.

“Today we need to focus on the more urgent problems. And I think that those making decisions in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, they agree on this.

“Their prime concern is that Yemen will be stable, that it won’t be a source of insecurity anymore, that it will be sufficiently prosperous economically to support itself to a much larger extent than is the case now, that it will be able to export its natural resources and so on.

“So these are all the things to concentrate on. And I’m sure that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi agree on this most important and most urgent task in Yemen.”


Israeli authorities release 150 Palestinians detained from across Gaza

Updated 6 sec ago

Israeli authorities release 150 Palestinians detained from across Gaza

  • Palestinian detainees were delivered to Kerem Shalom border crossing into Rafah in southern Gaza Strip

GAZA: Israeli authorities released on Monday morning 150 Palestinian detainees who had been arrested in different parts of the Gaza Strip.

The detainees were delivered to Kerem Shalom, a crossing on the border of Egypt, Israel and Gaza, into Rafah in southern Gaza, according to an Arab News reporter in the besieged Palestinian enclave.

Among the released detainees is Sufian Abu Salah, who told local reporters he was arrested “perfectly healthy” and “walking on both legs” but has had his left leg amputated in detention due to torture and neglect.

A video circulated on social media showed Abu Salah skipping on one leg with the support of a wooden stick he used as a crutch.

He told local journalists that while in detention, his foot became infected but Israeli soldiers refused to send him to a hospital. Within seven days, the infection had spread, and he had his leg amputated.

Abu Salah lost his leg due to torture followed by medical neglect in detention. (Supplied)

An internal UN report compiled last month by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees described widespread abuses of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons.

Methods of abuse include “physical beatings, forced stress positions for extended periods of time, threats of harm to detainees and their families, attacks by dogs, insults to personal dignity and humiliation such as being made to act like animals or getting urinated on, use of loud music and noises, deprivation of water, food, sleep and toilets, denial of the right to practice their religion (to pray) and prolonged use of tightly locked handcuffs causing open wounds and friction injuries,” according to the UNRWA report.  

“The beatings included blunt force trauma to the head, shoulders, kidneys, neck, back and legs with metal bars and the butts of guns and boots, in some cases resulting in broken ribs, separated shoulders and lasting injuries.”

The prisoners released on Monday also include a child and a doctor. 

Israeli authorities have arrested at least 4,000 Palestinians, including women and children, since the onset of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza on October 7, which was triggered by a surprise Hamas attack on southern Israel.

Kuwaiti ruler names Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister

Updated 15 April 2024

Kuwaiti ruler names Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister

  • Kuwaiti Emir also tasks the new prime minister to form a government

DUBAI: Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah has appointed Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister, state news agency KUNA reported on Monday.

The Kuwaiti ruler also tasked the new prime minister to form a government.

The Kuwaiti ruler last week accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Al-Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, after elections were held to choose new members of the National Assembly.

He also instructed the cabinet to act as caretakers until the formation of a new government.

Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

Updated 15 April 2024

Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

  • Opposition leader: ‘Jewish terrorist violence’ against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank ‘out of control’
  • ‘If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us’

JERUSALEM: Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of leading to a “total loss of Israeli deterrence” in the wake of an unprecedented Iranian attack.
In a scathing criticism posted on X, former premier Lapid also said that under Netanyahu, “Jewish terrorist violence” against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank was “out of control.”
Netanyahu, who returned to power in late 2022 at the helm of a coalition with far-right parties, has brought “heaps of destruction from Beeri to Kiryat Shmona,” Lapid said, calling for early elections.
Beeri, a kibbutz community near the Gaza border, came under attack when Hamas militants stormed the area on October 7, triggering the ongoing war, while the northern town of Kiryat Shmona has suffered during months of cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Lapid’s remarks came two days after Iran — which backs both Hamas and Hezbollah — launched more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel in retaliation for a deadly strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus.
Israel, the United States and other allies intercepted nearly all launches in the late Saturday aerial attack — the first direct Iranian military action against arch foe Israel.
Netanyahu’s cabinet has weighed Israel’s response to the Iranian attack, but the prime minister has not made any public comments.
In the West Bank, where violence has soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Israeli settlers torched Palestinian homes and cars over the weekend, killing at least two people, after an Israeli teen was “murdered in a suspected terrorist attack,” according to the Israeli military.
Pointing to surging “terrorist” settler attacks, Lapid said: “If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us.”
The government, which includes hard-line settlers, has prioritized Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Netanyahu has faced in recent months mass protests over the fate of hostages held in Gaza and pressure from a resurgent anti-government movement.
The prime minister’s Likud party responded to Lapid in a statement stressing Netanyahu’s part in “the global campaign” to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons — which Tehran denies it is seeking.

UK government reveals talks with Sudanese paramilitary group

Updated 15 April 2024

UK government reveals talks with Sudanese paramilitary group

  • Meetings held between Foreign Office, Rapid Support Forces in bid to end fighting, increase aid supply
  • News criticized by some experts as RSF accused of crimes against humanity

London: The UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has revealed that it has held talks with Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which has been accused of committing ethnic cleansing and other atrocities.

The Guardian reported on Monday that a freedom of information request to the FCDO revealed that the UK government had opened diplomatic channels with the RSF, including a meeting on March 6.

The FCDO told the newspaper that the talks were aimed at increasing humanitarian aid flow and access in Sudan, as well as ending the fighting between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces.

The RSF has been engaged in a civil war in Sudan for the past year, and has been accused of crimes against humanity by the US, including massacres, mass rape, looting and ethnic cleansing. The UN said the RSF’s activities in Geneina in West Darfur have left 15,000 people dead.

The war has claimed the lives of many thousands of Sudanese civilians, with around 8 million displaced by the fighting.

The UK’s willingness to meet with the RSF has drawn condemnation for what some say is a policy that could normalize a paramilitary group accused of crimes against humanity.

Dr. Sharath Srinivasan, co-director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at Cambridge University, told The Guardian that although talking to potentially unsavory groups is perceived as necessary in some diplomatic circles, “talking to the guys with the guns has been part of the perpetuation of violence and authoritarianism in Sudan for the last two, three decades.”

He added: “When (the RSF are) committing untold levels of targeted violence against ethnic groups, and women and children, at a scale that is absolutely horrific and was, even 20 years ago, (the UK is) putting a lot of moral credibility and decency on the line.”

Ahmed Soliman, a senior research fellow at international affairs think tank Chatham House, said the talks are justifiable as part of efforts to end the war and alleviate civilian suffering.

“How is aid going to get into western Sudan unless you engage with the Rapid Support Forces? They control 95 percent of Darfur,” he added.

“This is the dirty reality of the war. It shouldn’t negate engaging with civilians, but it has to be part of trying to ensure that there is a solution, both to ending the war in the near term, and then providing assistance for civilians.”

However, Maddy Crowther, co-director of the Waging Peace human rights group, described the talks as “a terrible move,” saying negotiating with the RSF could prove futile.

“These talks also assume that the RSF are good-faith actors,” she said. “Chatting to the RSF has never resulted in the outcomes that the UK says it wants to achieve in Sudan. I have no sense of why that would change at the moment.”

She added that “for the Sudanese, it will be experienced as a real slap in the face,” and that the diaspora will interpret the news as a “complete abuse of trust that people have placed in the UK and other powers to negotiate or advocate on their behalf.”

An FCDO spokesperson told The Guardian: “The UK continues to pursue all diplomatic avenues to end the violence — to prevent further atrocities from occurring, to press both parties into a permanent ceasefire, to allow unrestricted humanitarian access, to protect civilians, and to commit to a sustained and meaningful peace process.

“The SAF and RSF have dragged Sudan into an unjustified war, with an utter disregard for the Sudanese people. We will do all we can to ensure that they are both held accountable.”

Israel presses on in Gaza as death toll reaches 33,797

Updated 15 April 2024

Israel presses on in Gaza as death toll reaches 33,797

  • Fears persisted over Israeli plans to send ground troops into Rafah, a far-southern city where the majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge
  • On Monday death toll in Gaza reached 33,797 during more than six months of war

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Israel struck war-battered Gaza overnight, Hamas and witnesses said Monday, as world leaders urged de-escalation awaiting Israel’s reaction to Iran’s unprecedented attack that heightened fears of wider conflict.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Monday that at least 33,797 people have been killed in the territory during more than six months of war between Israel and Palestinian militants.
The toll includes at least 68 deaths over the past 24 hours, a ministry statement said, adding that 76,465 people have been wounded in the Gaza Strip since the war began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7.
World powers have urged restraint after Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel late Saturday, though the Israeli military has said nearly all were intercepted.
The Israeli military said it would not be distracted from its war against Tehran-backed Hamas in Gaza, triggered by the Palestinian armed group’s October 7 attack.
“Even while under attack from Iran, we have not lost sight... of our critical mission in Gaza to rescue our hostages from the hands of Iran’s proxy Hamas,” military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said late Sunday.
As mediators eye a deal to halt the fighting, fears persisted over Israeli plans to send ground troops into Rafah, a far-southern city where the majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge.
“Hamas is still holding our hostages in Gaza,” Hagari said of the roughly 130 people, including 34 presumed dead, who Israel says remain in the hands of Palestinian militants since the Hamas attack.
“We also have hostages in Rafah, and we will do everything we can to bring them back home,” the military spokesman told a briefing.
The army said it was calling up “two reserve brigades for operational activities,” about a week after withdrawing most ground troops from Gaza.
The Hamas government media office said Israeli aircraft and tanks launched “dozens” of strikes overnight on central Gaza, reporting several casualties.
Witnesses told AFP that strikes hit the Nuseirat refugee camp, with clashes also reported in other areas of central and northern Gaza.
Hamas’s attack that sparked the fighting resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,729 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting Sunday following the Iranian attack, where Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the region was “on the brink” of war.
“Neither the region nor the world can afford more war,” the UN chief said.
“Now is the time to defuse and de-escalate.”
More than six months of war have led to dire humanitarian conditions in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Rumours of a reopened Israeli checkpoint on the coastal road from the territory’s south to Gaza City sent thousands of Palestinians heading north on Sunday, despite Israel denying it was open.
Attempting the journey back to northern Gaza, displaced resident Basma Salman said, “even if it (my house) was destroyed, I want to go there. I couldn’t stay in the south.”
“It’s overcrowded. We couldn’t even take a fresh breath of air there. It was completely terrible.”
In Khan Yunis, southern Gaza’s main city, civil defense teams said they had retrieved at least 18 bodies from under the rubble of destroyed buildings.
Responding late Saturday to the latest truce plan presented by US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators, Hamas said it insists on “a permanent ceasefire” and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.
Israel’s Mossad spy agency called this a “rejection” of the proposal, accusing Hamas of “continuing to exploit the tension with Iran.”
But the United States said mediation efforts continue.
“We’re not considering diplomacy dead there,” said the National Security Council’s Kirby.
“There’s a new deal on the table... It is a good deal” that would see some hostages released, fighting halted and more humanitarian relief into Gaza, he said.