Q&A: ‘Yemen has gone 100 years back in time’

Yemen’s information minister spoke to Al Jazeera on the humanitarian crisis and the fate of political settlement.

'The Yemeni people are suffering and the conflict is growing every day,' Saqqaf said [Getty]

As the five-day humanitarian truce in Yemen enters its third day, aid agencies have been struggling to send in food and medical aid shipments into the country before the truce expires.

Aid officials describe the situation in Yemen as “catastrophic” pointing that the country “has gone 100 years back in time” as a result of the bombing campaign.

Al Jazeera spoke to Nadia al-Saqqaf, the information minister in the current Yemeni government based in Riyadh and head of the high relief committee. 

Saqqaf is the first Yemeni woman to occupy a high ranking post in the government led by Vice President Khaled Bahah. She spoke to Al Jazeera about the aid efforts, the negotiation process and what went wrong during Yemen’s political transition.

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Al Jazeera: How would you describe the humanitarian situation in Yemen today?

Nadia al-Saqqaf: The situation in Yemen is catastrophic. The Yemeni people are suffering and the conflict is growing every day. There is no food, water, or electricity. As the head of the government’s high relief committee, we are in charge of coordinating the relief efforts but we are not supposed to carry out relief work on the ground because there are UN-affiliated organisations in charge of this.

Every day, there are shipments of food and fuel coming into the country. There is some relief happening but it’s very slow and small. What we need is to push for more. Our role is to coordinate with other relief agencies – for example – if somebody had Aden covered in terms of medicine, we ensure that we direct it to other places. 

Al Jazeera: Which Yemeni government are you referring to?

If the air strikes didn’t happen, we would have had Ahmad Ali Saleh [Saleh’s son] running the country, we would have a dictatorship regime. We are trying to figure out what’s the next step.

Saqqaf: This is the government that was formed in November 2014 in Sanaa. Following the Decisive Storm campaign, the government has been divided into three parts; some ministers went with the Houthis, a few others vanished or left the country, and a third reconvened in Riyadh.

Being part of the Riydah-based government, we are working on three tracks: First creating an executive team to manage the relief efforts. A second track is diplomacy by trying to initiate a negotiation process with the aim of going back to Yemen. The military aspect and the air strikes campaign is a third part of that effort. There is also the Riyadh conference which is expected to take place on May 17.

Al Jazeera: So has there been any attempts to approach the Houthis?

Saqqaf: As a government we are not part of that dialogue because we are an executive body. President Hadi has a number of advisers and they are in touch with most of Yemen’s political parties who have representatives in Riyadh [including al-Islah party, the Nasserists, the Socialists and even from the General People’s Congress, the party headed by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh]. The Houthis, however, have no representation.

Al Jazeera: And you think a dialogue over conflict settlement is feasible without having Houthi representation at the table?

Saqqaf: Definitely not, you need to have solid agreement with the other party who’s taking action against you. Consider it like this: In Yemen an armed faction created a mess so the Saudis and the Gulf allies intervened to support Yemen against this rebel group. Once this rebel group is quieted down and disciplined then the allies have to go a step back and allow Yemen to create its own project. The question, however, is do you have a conversation with someone who’s still pointing a gun at you?

Al Jazeera: But do you think the air strikes alone will resolve the issue?

Saqqaf: Air strikes are just a tactic, a means to an end. And this is exactly why we are in Riyadh – for decision-making process. There has to be a vision for the process of going back to Yemen. However, it’s not clear yet because when the Saudis began the air strike campaign, they didn’t know how long it would take. But if the air strikes didn’t happen, we would have had Ahmad Ali Saleh [Saleh’s son] running the country, we would have a dictatorial regime. We are trying to figure out what’s the next step.

We need to renew a political process to allow the government to go back to Yemen.

RELATED: Timeline: The rise of Yemen’s Houthi rebels

Al Jazeera: What went wrong in Yemen during the transitional period?

Saqqaf: Yemen has gone through a very terrible phase since 2013. The milestone was the end of the national dialogue conference in March 2013. There should’ve been action immediately after to implement the outcomes. There was a plan whereby we would have a constitution and elections but the plan did not play out properly because of slowness in action, violence and other factors.

After the Arab Spring in 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s initiative allowed for the transition of power from Saleh to Hadi. Unfortunately, the actual transition didn’t really happen. Saleh remained in control of the army, the money and one of the strongest political parties [GPC]. Being in the country and having all this power and influence, he didn’t allow for the actual transition to take place. In fact he planned to take revenge of all the people who put him out of the limelight and he has been able to lobby or align with the Houthis.

Al Jazeera: According to the Houthi spokesperson, before the start of the war, 50 percent of the problems were settled among the Yemeni parties but the war disrupted that process.

Saqqaf: If there was any truth to this as the Houthis claim, they would have implemented the partnership agreement signed in 2014 which stated that they leave Sanaa [Houthis took over the city in September 2014] and allow the government to function. The Houthis stormed my office and took papers and documents and told me that I cannot sign any documents.

Al Jazeera: How would you assess both the role of Iran and the GCC in the Yemen conflict?

Saqqaf: Yemen has always been the playground for other [external] actors. Saudi Arabia wielded a significant influence. We call it ‘the big brother’ and Iran has attempted to maintain influence in Yemen through the Houthis.

Yemen always tried to join the GCC but it was always shunned. I believe that if the GCC had been more welcoming to Yemenis and assisted in Yemen’s development, and if the money that had been poured in to buy loyalties was invested in jobs, and the borders had been opened for Yemenis to work in the Gulf region, I don’t think we would have reached where we are today. 

Al Jazeera: Is the conflict in Yemen sectarian?

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Saqqaf: I don’t believe the conflict in Yemen is a sectarian conflict. It’s a geographical conflict. What I mean to say is unfortunately there has never been a national project.

For example, if you ask a Yemeni what does it means to be a Yemeni, nobody has a straightforward answer but everybody knows what it means to be from Sanaa or from Taiz or from Aden.

Yemenis live with affiliation to a geographical location and it has been very strong recently because of the conflict. People from the south against the north and there is the north against the east, so we go back to our own villages and our own tribes forgetting that we belong to a larger context.

What the government hopes to do is launch a national project through the federal system that will allow for regional identities to exist within the larger context of citizenship.

Al Jazeera: What’s the best exit strategy for Yemen?

Saqqaf: Some political discourse needs to take place and it needs to take place between equals. We have to pick up our constitution and study it to see if it’s what we want for Yemen. When we [the government] go back to Yemen we will start from where we stopped.

Source: Al Jazeera