Could education in Yemen be new 'proxy battleground' in the Gulf?

Published 11.11.2019 00:29
Updated 11.11.2019 10:26

The Saudi-led coalition entered Yemen four months after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain returned their envoys to Doha following the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) diplomatic spat of 2014. At that time, Qatar was keen to demonstrate its commitment to maintaining warm and brotherly relations with Riyadh. Fearing another crisis in Qatar-Saudi relations, Doha sought to present itself as a Gulf state that was ready to help the kingdom push back against Iranian influence in the region.

Thus, during the Yemeni civil war’s earlier stages, Qatar and Yemen’s U.N.-respected government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi were on the same side, in alignment with Saudi Arabia against Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels. Doha played a vital role in providing border security on Saudi’s southern border, holding back Houthi incursions into the Kingdom – doing so upon Riyadh's request, even weeks after the 2017 Saudi-Emirati blockade on Qatar began.

Disinformation warfare

Today, however, Yemen is one of numerous areas in a campaign of disinformation warfare waged against Doha by the very partners Qatar had supported in their war in Yemen in 2015. The blockade against Qatar, which Yemen’s internationally recognized government joined the day of its implementation, left hundreds of Qatari soldiers and officers stranded in the kingdom, which they had set out to protect.

On June 5, 2017, Hadi’s government, which functions as a puppet of Riyadh, announced its decision to sever relations with Doha, accusing Qatar of “dealing with the insurgent militias and supporting extremist groups in Yemen, which contradicts the aims agreed upon by states supporting Yemen's legitimate government.”

Withdrawing from the campaign, which Qatar only reluctantly joined in 2015 for its lack of political strategy, was a blessing in disguise. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who had borne the main burden in the Yemeni war, the campaign had increasingly derailed into a strategic communication disaster. In the face of mounting outrage over Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe in Washington and Europe’s capitals, the narratives Saudi Arabia and the UAE had tried to advance to justify this war have lost traction.

Nonetheless, the strategic communication disaster in the West over Yemen did not stop Riyadh and Abu Dhabi from using Yemen as a platform for its war of narratives against Doha. As part of a disinformation campaign against the emirate that has raged since May/June 2017, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have accused Qatar of siding with the Houthis.

Such claims are part of efforts to portray Doha as a player that destabilizes the region by partnering with “terrorists” and “extremists” – narratives that have already been floated in the West to justify the siege against Qatar.

In July 2017, Asharq Al-Awsat published an article titled, “Analysts: Qatar Backed Yemen’s Houthis with Iranian Coordination to Target Saudi Arabia.” The piece quoted Dr. Khalid Batrafi, who stated that “Qatar’s ties with the Houthis exist, and they are strong. It is better that they are out in the open than being under the table, because you can better follow and confront actions that are done in the open.”

The following month, Egypt Today published a piece quoting Najib Ghallab, a Yemeni political analyst, who attributed the Houthi rebellion’s prolongation to alleged Qatari sponsorship. “Qatar sought to support the Houthis just when they were on the brink of dying. The Arab Coalition could have destroyed them had Qatar not interfered through an agreement with Iran.”

In November 2017,, a website funded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, accused Doha of leaking the Saudi-led coalition’s coordinates to the Houthi fighters, leading to the death of dozens of Emirati troops. “... (Qatar) welcomed Houthis to its studios to directly threaten Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, 'Yemeni rockets will target vital targets inside KSA as well as the UAE,'” said a Houthi spokesman on Qatar TV.

The latest example of Yemen becoming a flashpoint issue in the GCC crisis came earlier last month when Hadi’s government lashed out at Qatar, accusing the emirate of financing hateful textbooks to sow sectarian hatred in northern Yemen.

According to the Yemeni government’s Ministry of Education, Qatar Charity is guilty of paying for Houthi-produced textbooks that promote the Islamic Republic of Iran’s agenda and ideology.

Even prior to the Yemeni civil war, Yemen, which was the poorest Arab country, had a major education crisis. For easily understandable reasons, Yemen’s educational system has suffered enormously from this war.

Teachers have not received salaries for two years, and many schools have been physically destroyed while many of those still operational cannot be safely reached by students due to violence.

Challenges of education

Currently, 2 million Yemeni children are unable to attend school due to the war. Within this context, any outside state attempting to help Yemen meet its extremely difficult challenges of educating its youth amid this warfare can obtain influence and soft power in the conflict-torn country.

A question raised by Elisabeth Kendall is whether Yemen’s education crisis has become the Middle East’s newest “proxy battleground.” The narrative about Qatar Charity financing hateful textbooks in northern Yemen, which Hadi’s government and its backers in the GCC are pushing, is that Qatar is allying with Iran and the Houthis to produce, as one Yemeni scholar put it, a “new sectarian generation” among the youth in Yemen.

This narrative is inconsistent with the inclusive work that Qatar Charity is doing in Yemen. Against the backdrop of Qatar’s global education agenda, enabling more than 10 million children to get liberal education across the world through organizations such as Education Above All, Qatar Charity, a government-licensed nongovernmental organization, would not work to undermine Qatar’s formidable legacy in education.

Moreover, since the blockade began, Qatar’s Ministry of Education has taken a stance at home against sectarianism, removing any such references in its textbooks that originate from Wahabi teachings in Saudi Arabia.

Thus, the purpose of this disinformation campaign is not a genuine concern for Qatar’s work in Yemen. Instead, the goal is to advance the narrative that Qatar is actually colluding with Iran and its local surrogates against the West’s interests.

The Hadi government, which is ultimately Riyadh’s surrogate in Yemen, levying such accusations not only factors into Saudi Arabia’s current foreign policy aimed at ostracizing Qatar but also into a longer history of the kingdom fearing Qatari influence in Yemen.

In the 2000s, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa was the emir of Qatar, Doha sought to play a mediating role in Yemen’s conflict of that period. Like today, Saudi Arabia saw Doha’s constructive engagement in the conflict in Yemen back then as a threat to its position in what had historically been its own “backyard.”

Today, as Riyadh has reached a hurting stalemate in Yemen, it sees external engagement in what it believes is its sphere of influence from a position of weakness. Riyadh sees even Abu Dhabi’s activities in Aden and other parts of southern Yemen as undermining Saudi Arabia’s position in the war-torn country.

Seeing Qatar returning to Yemen albeit through humanitarian aid and being able to serve people on all sides of the conflict equally from a position of neutrality is hard for the kingdom to accept at a time when the Yemen war might be the biggest stain on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s reputation, both domestically and internationally.

* Lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London and fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies

** CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy

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