Russia and the Middle East: Diplomacy and Security

Interview with Yemen's Ambassador to the Russian Federation Ahmed al-Wahishi on the Yemen Conflict and Russia-Yemen Relations

October 3, 2018

Ahmed al-Wahishi is Yemen's Ambassador to the Russian Federation. He was appointed on the recommendation of Yemen's President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi on July 13, 2017, and was Yemen's first sitting Ambassador to Russia in 6 years. Before serving in this position, Ambassador al-Wahishi held numerous senior diplomatic posts, and was notably the Arab League's Ambassador to India. On September 25, I interviewed Amassador al-Wahishi to hear his thoughts on Yemen's relationship with Russia, Moscow's potential conflict arbitration role in Yemen, and the obstacles to peace in Yemen. The transcript of our discussion is below:

Russian Ambassador to Yemen Vladimir Dedushkin recently described Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States as “among the key external political players in Yemen” and stated that Russia seeks to find common ground and make compromises with the United States. Why do you believe that Russia is interested in expanding its arbitration role in Yemen?

We believe that Russian foreign policy contributes to world peace and security. Russia has an important role to play within the United Nations (UN) and has actively supported the efforts of UN special envoy Mr. Martin Griffiths to achieve peace in Yemen. It is worth mentioning that Yemen has a historical relationship with Russia. This year we are commemorating the 90th Anniversary of the Friendship Treaty between Yemen and Russia that was signed on November 1, 1928. Since that time, Russia has provided a great deal of economic and cultural assistance to Yemen. It has helped develop Yemen’s infrastructure. Many civilian government and military personnel are graduates of Russian institutions (approximately 50,000 cadres).

Accordingly, we believe that Russia could contribute to the security, stability and prosperity of Yemen by recognizing its legal government, which is defending our country and making every possible effort to restore the rights of our people, which were jeopardized by the Houthi coup d’etat. The Houthis have hijacked the capital of Sana’a and plundered Yemen’s material resources. The legal government of Yemen is repeating its offer to the Houthis that all financial resources be deposited in Yemen’s central bank. Once this centralization is achieved, the legal government of Yemen will use the Yemeni central bank to fulfill its obligation to ensure that all state employees are paid salaries in every region of the country.

In February, Russia vetoed a UN resolution to pressure Iran over its illegal supply of missiles to the Houthis in Yemen. How did this decision impact relations between the Yemeni government and Russia? And do officials within President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government view the growing strength of the Russia-Iran relationship as a factor that weakens Russia’s ability to act as an objective mediator in Yemen?

On September 21, 2014, Houthi militias carried out a coup d’etat in Yemen against the legal President H.E. Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was elected by the Yemeni people. The UN Security Council resolutions concerning Yemen have denounced the coup and there was no objection amongst UN Security Council members to UNSC Resolution 2216 and other resolutions. Russia maintains relations with all parties to enable it to contribute to the peace and stability of Yemen, and is working with many countries to support UN special envoy, Mr. Martin Griffiths. Moreover, Russia is among the countries that sponsor political processes and is an ally of Yemen. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denounced the use of missiles against oil tankers and any threat posed by the Houthis to maritime security in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait.

This support can be explained in part by the fact that Russia is one of the countries that has been most affected by terrorist activity. Terrorists have tried to destabilize Russia. Russia supports governments across our region to defend the sovereignty of their countries, including Yemen. Russia has firmly supported these countries’ efforts to combat terrorism and supported governments facing violent militias. Russia’s support has extended to Yemen’s struggle against coup d’etats and coup attempts. The Houthi militia, since the 2014 coup d’etat, has tried to prevent any effort for a political solution in Yemen and has obstructed progress in three national, regional and international forums. The Houthis have tried to stymie the GCC peace initiative, prevent positive outcomes to national dialogues and have challenged the legitimacy of UN resolution 2216.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has frequently been accused of providing assistance to south Yemeni separatist militias and was widely criticized for annexation of the island of Socotra on April 30. What is your response to these allegations of UAE collusion with South Yemeni separatists? Has Russia proposed a potential solution to this challenge to Yemen’s national unity?

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are important members of the Arab alliance that supports Yemen’s legal government. The Yemeni government will work closely with the Arab Alliance to achieve peace in all parts of the country. Saudi Arabia sent a committee in May 2018 to Socotra to resolve any difficulties that emerged during that time. The last visit of H.E. President Hadi to the UAE was a reflection of the firm bilateral relationship between the two countries and its peoples. The UAE, like other members in the Arab alliance, supports the legal government and the unity and stability of Yemen. Also, Russia has expressed its position in support of a united and peaceful Yemen.

The relief provided by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Yemen is unprecedented. Together with Kuwait, they have made huge contributions to the UN humanitarian relief plan for 2018, which will provide Yemen with $1.25 billion in relief assistance. In addition, during the most recent session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, H.E. President Hadi, while receiving H.H. Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the UAE, emphasized the strong brotherly relations of Yemen with the UAE. This reflects the united nature of the aims held by the Arab alliance led by Saudi Arabia.

The December 2017 death of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been interpreted by many Western analysts as a blow to Russia’s strategy to resolve the Yemen conflict. Russia also suspended its diplomatic presence in Yemen, and many diplomats relocated to Saudi Arabia. How, in your view, has Saleh’s death impacted the trajectory of the Yemen conflict?

The assassination of ex-President Saleh by Houthi militias provides further evidence that this coup force cannot be trusted. The sequence of events that culminated in Saleh’s death demonstrates that the Houthis were radicalized. A delegation of Yemen’s legal government recently arrived in Geneva for peace talks, but the talks could not take place because the Houthi delegation did not come. The Houthis have followed the agenda of the Iranians and their expansionist policies, which discouraged them from attending the talks or considering confidence building measures, like the release of prisoners from militia-held jails.

This issue should not become a tool to mislead public opinion, as it is a humanitarian issue in the first place. H.E. President Hadi mandated the government delegation at the last supposed talks in Geneva to consider the case of political detainees as a priority. The President recently met with many leaders of the Congress Party, emphasizing that all political forces should jointly defend the people of Yemen to achieve peace and prosperity.

The coup force is the main actor responsible for the economic suffering of our people. By dumping 200 billion riyals in the market, the Houthis are aiming to exchange them with a new bank-note, while knowing the government will cancel the old banknote. This is a vivid example of how measures undertaken by the Houthis are harming Yemen’s economy.

Russian state media outlets designed for an international audience, such as Russia Today, have frequently drawn attention to civilian casualties inflicted by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Given the Saudi-led coalition’s recent admission that the August 9 airstrike on a bus containing children was mistaken, can you shed some light on how the coalition will attempt to prevent similar airstrikes against civilians in the future? How has Russia approached the issue of civilian casualties in its diplomatic relations with Yemen’s government?

Russia has good relations with our country and with the Arab alliance supporting our government. This enables us to consult on all issues of mutual concern. Yemen and the Arab Alliance military operations are carried out in the best possible way, according to international humanitarian law and international rules of engagement. The provision of information on military operations in Yemen aims to be transparent. There are investigations by the Enquiry Committee of any mistake and compensation is provided to those who were affected.

With the ongoing operation on the western coast of Yemen and Hodeidah, in particular, Yemen and the Arab Alliance give a lot of importance to the safety of citizens and relief workers. They have established a humanitarian operation cell to evacuate people who need help and have informed all parties concerned of alternative safe paths. A note with these measures has been sent to the office of the UN that coordinates humanitarian affairs.

In addition, it is important to consider this statement by United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis on the actions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen: “I endorse and support Secretary Pompeo’s certificate to Congress that the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are making every effort to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage to civilian infrastructure resulting from their military operations to end the civil war in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition’s commitment is reflected in their support for these UN-led efforts. Alongside the Department of State, we are actively engaged with Mr. Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy to achieve a negotiated end to this fighting.”

The Houthi militias are the only beneficiary of the revenues of Hodeidah port, while the inhabitants there are starving since the beginning of the coup d’etat.

Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy and Russia’s relationship with the Middle East. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2.

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