It was a chilly day in Sanaa in January 2015 when the Iran-backed Houthi militias abducted the secretary general of the National Dialogue. The move was symbolic of the Houthis’ abduction of the entire state, said the victim himself, current Foreign Minister Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak.
The academic had never expected that his career would lead him to politics. He assumed several political positions after the announcement of the 2011 Gulf initiative. He served as secretary general of the National Dialogue office in 2013, then director of the president’s office in 2014 and ambassador to Washington from July 2015 to September 2020. He was appointed foreign minister in the recently unveiled power-sharing cabinet that was formed in line with the Riyadh Agreement.
Ahead of his arrival in the interim capital, Aden, with the rest of the government, bin Mubarak sat for a virtual interview with Asharq Al-Awsat to discuss opportunities for peace in his country, his expectations from the new American administration and Iran’s malign role in Yemen. The interview was held before Wednesday’s terrorist attack on Aden airport, which happened as soon as the plane transporting the new government landed at the facility.
12 days in captivity
“On a personal level, the experience was painful and difficult,” recalled bin Mubarak of his abduction. “However, compared to the suffering of our people, it was nothing to what they endure.”
“My kidnapping was symbolic of the state’s abduction by the Iranian project and the halt of the democratic process that we had kicked off with the national dialogue. The Houthis were part of these talks,” he noted. Moreover, he said that his kidnapping was just another in the numerous abductions that the Houthis have committed. Many detainees are still being held in Houthi jails.
“I spent 12 days in captivity. I was kept in a dark room, completely isolated from the outside world. I was often blindfolded with my hands tied and was subject to hours of interrogation,” said the minister.
Houthis and peace!
On whether he believes that the Houthis still have the opportunity to achieve peace, bin Mubarak replied: “Peace is our choice. We assume the responsibility and the cost of this choice as part of the legitimate government. The Houthis must take national decisions that favor the nation, not individuals or groups or foreign parties, such as Iran.”
Iran, he added, is seeking to not only destabilize Yemen, but the entire Arabian Peninsula.
“Peace is still possible and they must seize the opportunity to help save the country and so that they have a role to play after the war is over,” bin Mubarak told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Addressing skepticism that the new government will fail in its duties, he remarked: “Those who are excessively pessimistic are usually shortsighted or do not want peace. They probably want the conflict to go on and are probably benefiting from it. These parties will unfortunately seek to obstruct any success that we seek to achieve.”
“The will of sincere Yemenis will prevail with the help of friends and brothers,” he vowed.
The Yemenis are reconciliatory people and are good at making concessions, he continued. This trait was demonstrated in their skill as merchants throughout history and has been “employed by the main sponsor of the Riyadh Agreement, our brothers in Saudi Arabia,” he added.
Saudi Arabia, he stated, is the country that understands Yemen the most. “The Kingdom is close to all parties and supports the legitimate government and unity of Yemeni territory,” the minister stressed, citing its leading role in promoting the Gulf initiative and Riyadh Agreement.
The initiative, he told Asharq Al-Awsat, was a landmark achievement that averted civil war in Yemen at the time. Unfortunately, the country was dragged towards such a conflict later when the Houthis staged their coup, he lamented.
Priorities as minister
As foreign minister, bin Mubarak is tasked with organizing diplomatic affairs and tackling political negotiations.
“Yemeni diplomatic work and restoring the foreign ministry, along with others in Aden, requires great and immediate logistic and administrative effort,” he noted. “Pressing political issues, such as the humanitarian file, are top priorities for us.”
On peace negotiations, he said his ministry has the task of rallying international support behind the national government to end the Houthi coup and war and achieve fair and sustainable peace. The ministry is also in charge of Yemen’s relations with other countries and seeking the interests of the Yemeni people abroad.
In the not-too-distant past, the United States believed in the need to establish back channels with the Houthis to try to convince them to abandon Iran.
“We all remember when former US Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Houthis in Muscat,” said bin Mubarak. “We have no doubt that those attempts were aimed at reaching a solution and helping the Yemenis out of their crisis. However, we have always said that this approach will not help reach that goal.”
“We must first understand the Houthi movement and its ideology and how it approaches international initiatives. The international community must not grant it the opportunity to exploit international efforts to communicate with it. This sends the wrong message, weakens the UN path or may help promote the idea for the world to treat it as a de facto authority,” he remarked.
What about Biden?
The Yemen government said it was prepared to work with the new American administration to achieve common interests. Is the government concerned about President-elect Joe Biden’s statements on Yemen? What sort of relations will Yemen have with the new administration?
Bin Mubarak said the US is a major power with firm interests. The manner in which these interests are achieved may change with successive administrations. However, the main objectives remain and this is where political and diplomatic work comes in to reach understandings with the friends in the US and other friendly countries to choose the best way to help ease Yemen’s suffering, said the minister.
Ending the crisis
Despite the political and popular weariness from UN mediators, bin Mubarak stressed that the UN course is “central to resolving the Yemeni crisis.”
He explained that several issues and solutions have been discussed in several rounds of talks and consultations with the international organization in line with its resolutions, the Gulf initiative and national dialogue. This, therefore, makes the UN central to ending the crisis.
Moreover, the minister stressed that he was in contact with UN envoy Martin Griffiths. Talks and meetings have been ongoing ever since the minister was served as Yemen’s permanent envoy to the UN. “The legitimate government has supported his efforts from the moment he assumed his duties. We are bound by our common goal to achieve peace and end the Yemeni people’s suffering,” the FM stated.
Any UN envoy acts as a representative of the will of the UN Security Council, he continued. “This is where Yemeni diplomacy comes in. It must exert efforts with these countries and clarify events in cooperation with its brothers in the Arab coalition. Yemeni diplomacy must work hand in hand with Saudi diplomacy.
Several reports have said that the US was studying the possibility of designating the Houthis as a terrorist group. On whether such as a move will impact the peace process, bin Mubarak told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Yemeni government supports just punishment for anyone who carries out a terrorist and criminal act. This goes beyond designation.”
“Anyone who uses war for personal enrichment, loots humanitarian aid, terrorizes the people and kills arbitrarily is a terrorist,” he declared. “We must not remain silent over anyone who threatens international interests and marine navigation, uses the Yemeni people as human shields and attacks neighboring countries.”
“The Houthis still have the opportunity to avoid the terror designation and international prosecution. They should not, however, bet on biding their time and prolonging the conflict because that will only compound the misery of the Yemeni people and increase their ire against them,” he added.
“The international community, meanwhile, must not accept the Houthi practices by citing its keenness on reached peace,” bin Mubarak said.
Peace rejected by Iran
He revealed that back in 2016 when talks were ongoing in Kuwait over ending the war through a peaceful resolution, that some members of the Houthi delegation supported the cessation of hostilities and reaching peace.
“However, the decision to refuse the solution came from Iran,” he charged, saying that the Houthi militias are “being held prisoner by Tehran that is using them in a war to destroy their nation. This war does not cost Iran a thing, but generates it a lot of gains.”
“Iran has no right to interfere in Yemeni affairs. It has no right to assume to represent any sect. Yemen has never known the kind of sectarianism that is promoted by Iran,” he stressed.
“We ask Iran to respect sovereignty and to alter its behavior, not just in Yemen, but in countries that suffer from its backing of militias that operate outside the authority of the state,” he continued.
“If Iran wants to be accepted, then it should cease meddling in the region,” he demanded.