Interview with Yemen expert Marie-Christine Heinze

"Now is the time to start preparing for reconstruction"

Islam scholar and social anthropologist Marie-Christine Heinze is head of an academic exchange project with the University of Sanaa on "Post-conflict Reconstruction in Yemen". In conversation with Elisa Rheinheimer-Chabbi, she talks about weapons from Germany, crucial reforms and why Yemeni women are the ones healing social rifts

Ms Heinze, Yemen is currently experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. But there’s barely any reporting on it in German media. Where does this ignorance come from?

Marie-Christine Heinze: I wouldn’t call it ignorance. What we’re dealing with here is a conflict that’s highly complex and difficult to understand. Few German journalists are familiar with its background. Yemen is also far away and very few refugees are arriving here, so there’s not that much interest in this conflict. And there’s something else at play here: many Germans experience a sense of saturation when it comes to crises in other parts of the world. That is regrettable, as this war should be a matter of some concern to us, because the German government is responsible for arms shipments to warring nations.

On the one hand the government is supplying weapons, while on the other Germany is one of the top humanitarian donors in Yemen…

Heinze: Yes, and 80 percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian aid! The United Nations estimated the need for some 3.38 billion U.S. dollars in humanitarian aid for Yemen for 2020. But of this desperately needed aid, just 1.6 billion dollars had come in by December. This is partly because the Gulf states directly involved in the Yemeni war have partially or fully withdrawn as donor nations.  According to the UN organisation OCHA, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates each contributed 25 million U.S. dollars of aid in 2018.

Is the E.U. playing a role as soft power in this conflict?

Heinze: With regard to stabilisation and peacebuilding, the E.U. certainly plays a role in Yemen. But it’s not a global player, with the power to end the conflict. In Yemen there isn’t the one actor with enough influence to persuade all parties involved to adhere to agreements and treaties. Both the U.S. and Britain allied themselves with one side very quickly.

Yemen | Child with face mask carries relief supplies in Taez (photo: Getty Images/AFP/A.Al-Basha)
A lack of international aid: "80 percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian aid," says Marie-Christine Heinze. The United Nations estimated the need for some 3.38 billion U.S. dollars in humanitarian aid for Yemen for 2020. But of this desperately needed aid, just 1.6 billion dollars had come in by December. This is partly because the Gulf states directly involved in the Yemeni war have partially or fully withdrawn as donor nations

This means they have passed up the opportunity to exert any influence on the other side, the Houthis. During his final days in office Donald Trump put the Houthis on the terror list and previous governments only looked at Yemen through the anti-terror lens. I hope things will change under President Biden.

Basic foodstuffs are unaffordable

Aid organisation statistics on Yemen make difficult reading. Some 20 million people have no access to basic medical care, more than 3.6 million people are refugees in their own country, the food situation is catastrophic, more than half a million young children are acutely malnourished. The organisation Welthungerhilfe warns that the number of people who are starving in Yemen will rise to 16.2 million in the first half of 2021. Is the Saudi blockade of the key port of Hodeidah to blame?

Heinze: I find the blanket condemnation of the Saudi blockade problematic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means a fan of Saudi Arabia. But we need to be fair: the blockade is just one element of a much larger and more complex picture. Yemen has to import 90 percent of its food. But since the start of the conflict six years ago, importers have found it increasingly difficult to get credit.

The costs of inspections and suchlike are also on the rise and there’s extreme inflation of the Yemeni rial, particularly in the south of the country. Because people are often waiting months for their wages to be paid and the jobless rate is very high, this has caused a dramatic slump in purchasing power. Past fiscal policy errors, the destruction of infrastructure – there’s a convergence of many factors here.

In summary: there’s food available at markets all over the country. But people can’t afford to buy it. And then there’s coronavirus on top of everything else! In Yemen, there are so many problems it’s difficult to know where to begin…

In late December a new government was sworn in which the North and the South are now represented with the same number of delegates. Does that make you feel hopeful?

Heinze: Not really. The new government is divided, levels of mistrust between deputies are already high. They can’t even agree on the most basic issues. Some of the ministers are in favour of southern secession, others support unity. There was an attack on the newly formed cabinet in late December at Aden airport.

You would have thought government members would close ranks in response but the opposite happened: the various parties each blamed the other. But many Yemenis still have high hopes for this government. It’s certainly a small step in the right direction that the conflict parties were able to agree on a government.

Living in poverty: a man searches through rubbish in Aden for anything salvageable (photo: picture-alliance/Xinhua News Agency/M.Abdo)
Living in poverty: a man searches through rubbish in Aden for anything salvageable. Extreme inflation of the Yemeni rial, particularly in the south of the country, and extremely high unemployment have caused a dramatic slump in purchasing power. "There’s food available at markets all over the country," says Marie-Christine Heinze. "But people can’t afford to buy it"

The big question for a potential peace process is: will the parties be in a position to put up a joint peace delegation that can try and negotiate a solution with the Houthis? If that doesn’t work, then it may come to a de facto division of Yemen into northern and southern nations, similar to Somalia.

Start preparing for reconstruction now

You lead an academic exchange project with the University of Sanaa on "Post-conflict Reconstruction in Yemen". There’s still no foreseeable end to the war and you’re already thinking about the reconstruction?

Heinze: This has to happen now, not when the war is over! That’s why we – German and Yemeni academics – launched a study programme for Yemeni master’s degree students. These are first and foremost young women and men studying in tandem with their jobs working for international organisations in Yemen. We organised a Winter School in 2019 in the Jordanian city of Amman attended by German and Yemeni students; it all took place digitally last year because of the pandemic.

We taught a seminar on questions concerning the reconstruction for 25 young women and men. Unfortunately, we’ve had to put the project on ice for a few weeks. We’re waiting for our DAAD grant to be extended, then we can continue.

What does this kind of study programme look like in the midst of a war?

Heinze: We’re not as far away from the post-conflict reconstruction phase as might appear at first glance.  Not all regions have been as badly affected by the fighting and destruction. For example, eastern parts of the country haven’t seen any military clashes. And reconstruction projects are already underway in the south, for example in regions where the Houthis were driven out. This is also the case for parts of the port city of Aden.

What subjects do you focus on in your seminars?

Heinze: They are concerned with all aspects of political and social life: from economic aspects and good governance, through to sustainability, with the keyword green recovery after the war. We also cover the issues of reconciliation, overcoming trauma and questions of transitional justice. A reform of the security sector is also crucial – this is a subject no one dares to approach in Yemen, even just talking about it isn’t allowed there.

Aid workers recover dead bodies from the rubble of a prison in Yemen after an air strike by the Saudi military coalition (photo: Hani Al-Ansi/dpa/picture-alliance)
Yemen conflict largely ignored by German media: for Marie-Christine Heinze, this has less to do with ignorance and more with the fact that the conflict in Yemen is highly complex and difficult to understand. Few German journalists are familiar with its background. What's more, many experience a sense of saturation when it comes to crises in other parts of the world. "That is regrettable, as this war should be a matter of some concern to us, because the German government is responsible for arms shipments to warring nations," says Heinze

Why is it such a sensitive issue?

Heinze: There’s no parliamentary control of the security sector whatsoever. Just as in other Arab and north African countries, the police and the military enjoy huge powers, almost forming a state within a state. In the past, senior security sector posts were filled by relatives and friends of the president. The system is seen as sacrosanct. But within a transition process, we need to be able to raise such questions – even if it could be decades before we see any change.

Western concepts are not helpful

What could a meaningful reform of the security sector look like?

Heinze: Yemen is home to many tribes that provide security on a local level. They could be integrated into the process. In a nation as poor as Yemen, all the cash shouldn’t be channelled into the police and military budget, as is currently the case. Instead, the government enact alternative, useful investments, utilising and integrating the security structures that already exist locally. That would also help to nurture trust between state and populace. A change in mindset is also necessary here: security forces must guarantee the security of the people – not that of the regime.

Of course, the people you’re working with are members of the elite. How is it all relevant to regular people just trying to survive on a daily basis?

Heinze: My Yemeni colleagues have developed important concepts regarding transitional justice and reconciliation processes, through the integration of religion, for example, which plays a significant role in Yemeni life. My colleague Abdulsalam al-Rubaidi for example is trying to combine international concepts of justice with religious ideas on the issue. After all it’s clear that if we just show up with our western concepts, not many people are going to be interested. That’s why it’s great for me to be able to learn from him.

What role do Yemeni women play in civilian conflict resolution and peace building?

Heinze: Women play a very important role. Many Yemeni women have taken on jobs during the conflict, working mainly for aid organisations. It’s relatively easy for women to go into people’s homes, find out what’s needed there, in order to pass the information on to aid organisations. Such visits would be more problematic for Yemeni men; if a woman and her children are home alone, questions of honour and decency would make it impossible for her to be addressed by a man she doesn’t know.

So, this is also an opportunity for women to contribute to the family income – much to the disappointment of young men. Many men feel they have been passed over for the few jobs that exist. This is a serious problem for them. After all, men are expected to earn enough money to marry and feed a family. But how are they supposed to do that if women get the jobs?

Women underrepresented, but moving mountains

Politically though, Yemeni women are disadvantaged, aren’t they? The new government is all male…

Heinze: That’s correct, and it’s also caused outrage on social media in Yemen. Many feminist voices have denounced this situation. Others take a more pragmatic view and say: “This government is corrupt anyway – why should we argue about being a part of it? One or two women in government doesn’t mean we’ve attained equality.”

Save the Children press photo | Yemen war: this boy was seriously injured in two air strikes (photo: Save the Children/Sami Jassar)
Children all too often the victims of war: the boy in the picture was seriously injured in two air strikes. Germany has also supplied weapons to the warring nations in Yemen, although according to the political principles of the Federal Government, providing armaments to conflict zones is inadmissible. "If we already have criteria and standards in place over the question of which nations should be receiving armaments, then these should be observed," says Marie-Christine Heinze. "Particularly as we know that the United Arab Emirates is running secret prisons in Yemen and that all nations involved in the war accept civilian deaths"

There have been female politicians in senior positions in the past, but this didn’t improve conditions for female participation in the long-term. Nevertheless: In the National Dialogue Conference that took place during the failed transition process, a 30 percent quota was agreed on for women in all government positions going forward. I feel it’s important to emphasise that although women in Yemen don’t hold particularly visible, representative roles, they still move mountains

In what areas?

Heinze: Women regularly play a key role in conflict mediation. For example, they are often involved in mediating local conflicts over water and land. They negotiate prisoner exchanges or they go into prisons themselves to bring food to inmates. And: they try to keep families, neighbourhoods and villages together. The war has torn deep wounds in society. These rifts run through communities, but also through families.

It’s often women who are nevertheless able to build bridges on a personal level. One example: If the neighbours hold different political views this can easily result in tension, mistrust and hatred during times of war. But if a woman still visits her neighbour to ask how she’s managing and if the two offer each other neighbourly support, this can be decisive in maintaining social cohesion. This isn’t activism, just everyday actions of enormous importance that are not being sufficiently appreciated.

Yemen expert Marie-Christine Heinze is a scholar of Islamic studies, and a peace and conflict researcher with a focus on Yemen at the University of Bonn and Chair of CARPO (Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient)
Yemen expert Marie-Christine Heinze is a scholar of Islamic studies, and a peace and conflict researcher with a focus on Yemen at the University of Bonn and Chair of CARPO (Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient)

So, what do you expect from the international community in this regard?

Heinze: There’s no fundamental need for external intervention for this kind of work, it could actually be counter-productive. But aid for programmes to deal with trauma or facilitating some kind of exchange between women beyond neighbourhood boundaries could further support the everyday actions of women.

Since 2008, you’ve been working as an adviser for development, peace and political change in Yemen. It is not frustrating to promote peace while the German government (via a circuitous route) supplies weapons to nations directly involved in the war such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates?

Heinze: Of course, it’s frustrating. If we already have criteria and standards in place over the question of which nations should be receiving armaments, then these should be observed. Particularly as we know that the United Arab Emirates is running secret prisons in Yemen and that all nations involved in the war accept civilian deaths.

Over the past few years have there been any glimmers of hope, moments when you’ve seen something changing for the better?

Heinze: (after a pause). I barely have any hopes that the conflict can be resolved in the near future. But smaller-scale developments on a local level are encouraging, for example in the province of Marib: there are large oil and gas reserves here and the local governor managed to convince the president that a portion of the revenue should remain in the province.

The plan was a success and suddenly the region is booming: there’s now a university; what was once a small town has become a huge city with a robust commercial life. This goes to show that when money is made available for local projects, when the right people are in power and they have the freedom to make decisions, things will change. Amid all this darkness, these are pin pricks of light that can be expanded.

Interview conducted by Elisa Rheinheimer-Chabbi

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Marie-Christine Heinze is Chair of CARPO (Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient) in Bonn. She is a scholar of Islamic studies, political studies, international and European law as well as peace and security studies. Her 2015 doctorate from the University of Bielefeld focused on material culture and socio-political change in Yemen.

 

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