This transcript has been edited for clarity
Q: You were in Stockholm… There was a lot of optimism after the negotiations, after the agreement about Hodeidah, and now it seems [to be receding]. How do you see things playing out on the ground?
A: Actually I think [retired Dutch] General Patrick [Cammaert] is starting to do his job. I think the UN and General Patrick should start to implement the agreement. They did a good job, to start. Yes, there is a delay. And we hope this delay is just to build… the relationship with the two parties, and also to re-organise themselves, or even start to organise themselves, because there is no entity there [at the port], with Mr Patrick. I think what I heard from [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths is that they will start this week to implement the ports, then they will go to phase two, to prepare withdrawal from the city.
Q: Does that mean there is now agreement between the parties on what “local security forces” means? That has been a point of contention.
A: There are still discussions between the Yemeni government, the Houthis, and General Patrick. But I think they will solve it.
Q: Is there agreement on who should do security in the port?
A: I think this is clear, but there is a difference on who the people should be. There are security units, and police units, and also Red Sea port authorities, and they will be responsible for the ports. But it is about the names - who they will be. I think they will depend on [who was in the port authority] before September 2014, before the Houthis controlled the ports.
Q: But are most or many of those people, from the Red Sea port authority, not gone?
A: No… I think the military and security people, part of them left. But the Red Sea Port Authority, maybe 95 percent of the people are still there. Because they are civilians, they are doing their job, the Houthis brought new supervisors and they appointed a new director. So the change will not affect the port’s operations.
Q: So at this point you would be comfortable with the Red Sea Port Authority running the port, but it’s a question of who is on the list?
A: I am not in the negotiations. I am just following the negotiations. [The talks on implementing Hodeidah] are between General Saghir Aziz from the Yemeni government, and General [Ali al-] Mushki from the Houthi side. I will be be honest with you: Mushki was a general before he joined the Houthi side. And that’s good… Yes, he’s working with a militia. But his background, he’s not a militia guy. And that’s the difference. Yes, he’s working with the Houthis because they’re paying his salary and they’re taking care of his family. He has his reasons to work with them, but actually he is a general.
Q: You have been at various attempts at talks, including Stockholm. Does negotiating with the Houthis legitimise their role… in Yemen?
A: It’s clear to everyone. The Houthis are still a militia. And we do not deal with them as a party, because they are not a party… and they do not call themselves a party… They say “we are Houthis, we are Ansar Allah.” But who is Ansar Allah? Are they a political party? No. They are a militia. Now, I think if they start to negotiate with the Yemeni government and the other political components, they will find themselves among the other Yemeni components and they can participate in any government in the future like any other party. But [right now] the Houthis are still a militia. They themselves believe they will continue as a militia. And this is not acceptable.
Q: So you feel it is ok to negotiate with them at this point, but at some point you would like to see them transition into a party?
A: Do you mean Saudi Arabia or the Yemeni government? Because Saudi Arabia will not negotiate with a militia. We negotiate and work with governments. And our main goal is to restore the legitimate government. It is about the state, rebuilding the legitimate state. And our program here at the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, one of our main goals is to rebuild the state.
Q: One criticism of how the UN has structured the talks is that there are only two sides: the Yemeni government, and the Houthis. As you know well, Yemen is much more complicated than that, with various other groups including the southerners, Islah, and others. What do you think of the two-sided approach?
A: Yemen is complicated. If you look at the south, there is a complicated issue in the south [with a long history], what they call the southern issue. They discussed it in the Yemen National Dialogue [Conference]... Yes, the issue isn’t solved 100 percent, but they agreed on the outcomes... Also the Saada issue was solved, they have 35 representatives [in the NDC]. The Houthi side participated in the Yemeni national dialogue…. The Houthis destroyed all this. They destroyed the national dialogue outcomes, they destroyed the state, they destroyed institutions, they destroyed the army, the security, even hopes. Now we should solve the main problem… It’s not easy to solve in one day, and in one day sign an agreement. But [the UN talks] have opened the way to a roadmap to solve all Yemeni problems. And they will not be solved in a military way. They will solve it by talks, by discussing the issues at the table. I think we should start with the main problem, which is the key to solving the other problems. That is that the Houthi militia controls the state, they control the institutions. You will not find in history a militia that controls a ballistic missile or fighter jet. Please, give me an example.
A: No. They bring it from outside but they cannot control the Lebanese jets. They bring them from Iran and build them.
Q: So you do think that the two track approach is right for now to solve the main war?
A: Yes, and then the Yemenis should be at the table in Sana’a, talk to each other, about their future. South, north, if you look at the Yemenis who have suffered from the Houthis, they will not accept this happening again. If you are in Taiz, if you are from Hodeidah, or even from Saada or Marib you will think about your future or your kids’ future. You will say, “look, how can we stop anybody from repeating this.”
Q: But there are many different groups part of your alliance - they don’t necessarily take orders from who they are supposed to and they don’t have the following of the local population. So if the big war ends, is there a possibility that Yemen will become a series of smaller wars?
A: Don’t try to imagine more and more. Make it simple, because we know Yemen before [President] Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Let’s talk about Ali Abdullah Saleh’s time [as president]. He just controlled three cities: Sana’a, Taiz, and Hodeidah. And sometimes Aden. The other cities, he didn’t control. The local authorities, the local tribes... that’s what controlled these provinces. We know 100% Ali Abdullah Saleh did not have a strong government. He just controlled by establishing fighting between the tribes. And trying to cause differences between the people. After the war, yes, the situation will not be good. But it will open doors for everybody to speak out about his issues. And then we will start, all of us - the Yemeni government, GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, and the international community - to support this government to build their capacity, to expand to control all of Yemen. And that will take time.
If you look at Iraq as an example, the USA was there. The USA spent billions of dollars [on reconstruction], but also Iraq has a lot of resources - the government has oil, rivers, and agriculture. But because nobody supported the government in political competence, they lost it [control of the country]. We will not [let this happen] to Yemen. All Yemeni parties - Houthis, southerners, Taiz - should participate in the government, and should work together on a roadmap. They will need time. They need two, three or four years to start bringing their country back.
Q: Speaking of time, we’ve heard the next round of talks will be in January… There is a very limited agreement for Hodeidah, the Taiz part is not going anywhere, do you really think there is a prospect for a political solution at this point?
A: I think the UN and some other countries would like to have a round two tomorrow, not at the end of January… but I think the most important thing is the implementation in Hodeidah. If there is implementation in Hodeidah, from two sides, especially from the Houthis, as they are controlling the ports and city… if they withdraw and start to implement the agreement, that will open a big door to a comprehensive political solution.
Because Yemen does not belong to Hadi or the Houthis. There are a lot of Yemenis [parties] [lists GPC, southerners, Islah, others in the government alliance]... Some of them don’t care about Hadi himself. They care about the project of Hadi, which means the legitimacy of Hadi, the legitimacy of the state. If you have a president, you should keep him until you transfer to another president in a peaceful way. This is what Yemenis are looking for. Even if they are with Hadi now, they are not [all] with Hadi himself, they are with this project. In Yemen there are two main projects. One is the state project, which still now is in the hands of Hadi. And there is the militia project, which is mainly in the hands of the Houthis.
If you can convince the Houthis to accept engaging with the state project in a roadmap: to handover their weapons, to stop using military means… then we will have a new government with all Yemeni components to control Yemen. Then everybody can support this state, which is still fragile. And we will work to support them, to unite them, to build security.
I think there is no effective round of talks between Yemenis if Hodeidah is not implemented. Maybe they say “ok, we will go to Jordan, or Kuwait, or Germany, or wherever [for further talks].” But they will not do any good. And [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths will find himself at a wall. Because everybody will blame him because he did not do anything at Hodeidah. That is the negative. The positive is, if I am Yemeni, a Yemeni political figure, if I saw with my eyes that Hodeidah was implemented, I would put pressure on Hadi to accept the framework, to accept a comprehensive political solution which sometimes might even hurt Hadi’s authority. That means, if the Houthis implement Hodeidah, everybody will pressure all parties to come to the table and make it succeed.
Q: Speaking of pressure, before the Stockholm talks there were warnings Yemen was about to fall into famine, the killing of [dissident Saudi journalist Jamal] Khashoggi, there was a lot of pressure on Saudi Arabia and a lot of press attention on Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen. How did that affect the negotiations?
A: Look. Everybody repeats that, you are not alone. But I will explain it to you in a different way. Let’s talk about Kuwait [in 2016]. We were there, and we supported the Houthis engaging in good faith. We invited them to come to the south of Saudi Arabia in a city they call Dahran al-Janoub. We spent two weeks there with them. We sent ten convoys to Saada to support them. We released Houthi prisoners and they released Saudi soldiers. And also we met with [Houthi negotiator] Mohammed Abdelsalam Faleitah, myself I traveled with him five times to Kuwait. And also I engaged myself to talk to the Houthis, to convince them to engage with Yemeni parties.
And at the end of these talks Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the ex UN envoy to Yemen, introduced what they called his initiative. It consisted of two parts: a security arrangement, and the a arrangement. He said we should first sign on the security arrangement and then we can go on to sign another one. The security arrangement [talked about withdrawal from “Zone A.” The Houthis were to withdraw from [that zone, which was] Taiz, Sana’a, and Hodeidah - just the cities, not the provinces. There was a High Yemeni Committee for Military and Economy, which was going to be responsible for Hodeidah. In the beginning the Houthis accepted. But before the talks finished on the 17 of Ramadan 2016, Mohammed Abdelsalam Faleitah traveled to another country for two days and he came back, and he said no. And Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in front of the Security Council, said clearly that in Kuwait we succeeded until the last days. And the Houthis refused. And you can review what he said in the Security Council exactly.
If you look at what happened in Stockholm, it’s the same thing. The Houthis will withdraw from the ports, and will open the siege on Taiz... In this agreement in Stockholm, in Taiz they will open corridors, and they will have a ceasefire for the city and they will demine there. Now if you look at the situation now it is the same as Kuwait, it is the same goal.
Yes, it’s talk time... but what we asked for at [previous rounds of negotiations in] Kuwait is happening now, because of [pressure on] the Houthis, not because of us. Everybody says maybe because of those pressures [we are ready to deal], they make connections with the timing. That’s not true. The truth is we succeeded in our diplomatic efforts. We used political means to satisfy our goals to restore legitimate institutions and government to Yemen.
If we finish in Hodeidah and Taiz, we have just Sana’a [to negotiate]. And that will be easy for the Houthis and for us.
Q: To make an agreement on? Why would the Houthis want to withdraw from Sana’a, when that would basically leave them with just Saada?
A: There are different kinds of withdrawal and it is a complicated issue... If they would like to stay in Sana’a without weapons, this is possible.
Q: So you still consider UNSC Resolution 2216 the framework?
A: Yes, we [can] apply it in a different way. Let’s say if we are out of Hodeidah, 100 kilometres away, because in Kuwait [the plan] was 150 kilometres… We were surrounding the Houthis from three sides. The Houthis were under pressure. They knew in the next days we would take over the ports and city [of Hodeidah].
Q: So you are saying there was more pressure on the Houthis than on you?
A: Sure. The Houthis would not agree to come to the table without military pressures.
Q: But was there not pressure from your allies?
A: Yes, there was pressure on us. But even with this pressure, we satisfied what we are asking for.
Q: Surely your allies, like the Americans, must have given you a push.
A: No, it’s not a push. Think about it. If we attacked the port, if we attacked the city, and we… destroyed the city, what would happen to the US government, UK, our allies there? It is clear. They would find themselves in a bad position. So they had two choices: to listen to their people, and that means they would hurt us. Or they hurt themselves, and they would lose their authority [with their own people]. So they would go with the first option, to hurt us, which would hurt our relationship between the governments. So that meant wanted to help them, and they wanted to help us [by making a deal in Hodeidah].
And they have given us good advice from the first day of the war. And we discuss it, we… discuss and debate. It’s not about orders, it’s about their interests, and our interests.
Q: You brought up public concern about the war, and I think there is a growing awareness in the US and other countries about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Was this part of the pressure, or as you say, discussions with your allies?
A: No. The humanitarian situation is a pressure on everybody. Because nobody, even us, we don’t want to see kids in Yemen in a bad situation. We do not just say that for you or for the media. They [Yemenis] are our brothers. And we are fighting there to restore hopes, not to kill Yemenis. We spent billions of dollars to support the war, the economy, the humanitarian situation. And we will continue to support Yemen. We don’t want Yemenis to hate us or to see us as their enemy. We are not their enemy. Yes, maybe the Houthis and some people under the Houthi control or some people who don’t understand the situation, but most Yemenis know that Saudi Arabia is there to support them.
And yes, we’ve made mistakes, like other countries do, during the war. But we did a lot of things for the Yemeni people. For the humanitarian [side] we spent [billions of dollars]… And we are also very upset by the humanitarian situation…. We have our YCHO [Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations] plan. We did that. It’s not about pressure. It’s about the situation in Yemen. We are there to help them, to bring hope...The Houthis are very aggressive and they use the humanitarian situation and try to escalate the situation by different means.
Q: How do they do that?
A: They continue to violate the humanitarian convoys, they take the convoys sometimes. They steal relief and humanitarian staff… But we have a lot of evidence of this, and we’ve sent it it to the UN organisations... The Houthis put pressure on [aid workers], and if you are there in Sana’a, and you are with UNICEF or WHO, who will protect you? Nobody will protect you. Yes, your organisation will be very upset. Your organisation will try to save you. But nobody will protect you if they kill or hurt your friend. But if somebody in Saudi Arabia or the coalition hurts someone in the UN organisation, we are responsible state. We will be responsible to respond to these people, to the courts, to the states. But in Yemen, nobody will hold them accountable.
Q: What about your accountability to civilians? Coalition airstrikes are considered to have caused the majority of civilian deaths on the ground. JIAT has investigated and said it will pay compensation in some cases, has this been paid?
A: Yes, they started.
Q: How many people have been compensated?
A: I don’t know exactly but I know they started with the Yemeni government, who as a part of the coalition, are responsible for its people. They sent us a list and there is a fund responsible for that. And they started to do it. I think we are trying to accelerate this mechanism, and it will work more and more, because it just started a couple of months ago.
Q: On the humanitarian situation, the coalition has been blamed for delaying ships coming in, particularly to Hodeidah.
A: This is all a story, and it has been solved. There was misunderstanding and miscommunication between the UN, the special envoy, and the coalition. As YCHO we met with different UN organisations like UNVIM, WFP, and OCHA. And we have a good mechanism to ensure clearance in less than 24 hours, 24 hours maximum. And… if you look at any statement it doesn’t mention anything about the clearance, even [UN resident coordinator in Yemen] Lise Grande and [UN relief chief] Mark Lowcock, when we talked to them, they said “thank you for that. Thank you for your mechanism for the ships going to Hodeidah.” I am sure about that.
Q: In the war at large, airstrikes have hit civilians, healthcare facilities and infrastructure in Yemen and contributed to the humanitarian crisis. What’s your answer that Saudi aid and reconstruction efforts are just a PR effort, trying to fix your image?
A: It’s not PR. And anybody who says that wants to hurt us. But if someone is neutral, he should study and see with his eyes and research how much Saudi Arabia did for the UN organisations, King Salman [Humanitarian Aid and Relief] Center, Saudi Development and Reconstruction Plan for Yemen, and for the economy.
I will give you an example. When we deposited 2.2 billion dollars to the Central Bank, is it PR? No. It is 2.2, just for the Central Bank. When we provided $60 million US dollars in oil derivatives for electricity power stations, is it PR? When we issued $350 [letters of credit for] businessmen to import basic food to the Yemeni people, is it PR ? They are our permanent brothers, and we are there to support Yemeni government and Yemeni people also.
But… they still say it is PR.
About the damage that you mention. I am sure 100 percent the coalition is implementing IHL [international humanitarian law]. And we are responsible countries - we are twelve countries [in the coalition] - and we implement NATO standards. And also we investigate in each accident and sometimes they say yes [we were wrong], and sometimes no, they clarify their position. And they continue to investigate… This is war and some things happen because of the war. I think the coalition did a good job. It is a clean war for us. Because we are aware of what we are doing there in Yemen. We are there to reinstate their state.
Q: You talked about reinstating the state, and you have talked about reconstruction. How do you plan to reconstruct a country during a war? How can you plan for what people need when a war is still going on?
A: First of all, this connects to your previous connections about existing in Yemen. This war is for two main things: to restore the legitimate government of Yemen, and to secure our national security. Yemen is a poor country. Before the war, Yemen’s rank in terms of poverty was 138. The Yemeni government budget is less than around $10 billion. It’s nothing for a big country like Yemen with 26 million people.
Our strategy in Yemen is to develop and reconstruct, and these are two different things. Development - there was no development in Yemen before the war and we are trying to develop now areas that are out of the war, like Mahrah, Hadhramaut, Socotra, Marib, Jawf [provinces]. They are safe, so we can start there. Because we spent time to push, to convince, to urge the Houthis to come to the table and accept a deal... so we will start where there is security and stability and there is no war there... And we have convinced the Yemeni government to work with us. And I think in 2019, we will have a lot of projects in Yemen, in different provinces in Yemen, from Saudi Arabia, from Emirates, from Kuwait, and also from the Yemeni government. And I am sure America will engage, and Europe will engage, because they will not wait for the Houthis to engage. Yemenis are dying. Yemenis are in a bad situation. Not because of the humanitarian cases, because of the economy.
Q: But I think it’s the same thing. The economy is so bad that you can’t buy food.
A: So we can start. Now in Saada, Amran, Hajjah, how do the people live there? In all Yemen, 70 percent of Yemenis depend on agriculture, and fishing. This is a big field, we can work on the agriculture, we can work with the fisherman to give them a chance to live. To grow food, sell it in the markets, also to export it to Saudi Arabia. We will have a mechanism to support all Yemenis everywhere, through different access. We are not in Saada, we are not in Amran, we cannot go to Sana’a, but we can work with institutions, private and semi-governmental like the social fund, workers’ fund, villagers’ fund, and private sector. And also we can work easily in some areas controlled by the Yemeni government.
Q: What specifically are you doing to revitalise the economy. I know you deposited money in the Central Bank, but it is not for use, it is for shoring up the currency. What else are you doing?
A: For the Central Bank we are working with the governor - not just Saudi Arabia, the quad - US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, and with IFC [International Finance Corporation] and also the World Bank to build and support the Central Bank in Aden. We deposited the $2.2 billion, and we are urging other countries like the Emirates to also deposit another billion to the Central Bank. That will help the economy, and it will help the rial. Also if you look at the $60 million dollars [in oil derivatives] that we gave to the Yemeni government to operate power stations, we cut that from the Yemeni budget. So now they have in their hands $60 million they can use to, say, bring services. We urged them to do it. And that will help people. Any amount in Yemen, it makes a difference.
Q: What about encouraging the Central Bank to issue more letters of credit to importers?
A: We are doing it. Saudi Arabia has issued more than $350 million letters of credit and they will continue to do so. Last week we issued more than $50 million letters of credit from Saudi Arabia’s central bank. We received the orders from them [Yemen’s Central Bank], because there is a mechanism [for letters of credit to go through Saudi Arabia] - the Houthis and previous Central Bank governor spent our [previous deposits] for nothing. We have to be sure the Yemeni government or Central Bank will be used to help Yemeni people.
Q: So the letters of credit that were issued just now are to Yemeni importers?
A: Yes, to Yemeni importers only.
Q: One of the biggest issues in Yemen is poverty. It’s not necessarily there isn’t enough food in Yemen, it’s that people don’t have money to buy it. What else are you doing for that?
A: All UN organisations are trying to ignore Aden. They are ignoring Aden port, I don’t know why. Maybe I can guess. They would like to save Hodeidah, they are afraid to mention Aden port and say it’s a good port, they are afraid somebody will attack Hodeidah port.
If you look at Aden, it is the biggest port in Yemen. We can give you the numbers to clarify our position. Last week we provided two cranes to Aden port and we helped Aden port authority to govern and try to increase the capacity of the procedures, of importing. Also we provided one crane to Mukalla. And we will open another port from al-Khadra in Najran, so there will be two land ports [from Saudi Arabia into Yemen].
Q: But international organisations say Aden is at capacity and doesn’t have the capacity to store and mill grain like Hodeidah. Is that something you would look into in your reconstruction plans?
A: That’s not true. Aden is the biggest port and can receive millions of tons from different kinds of food or commercial shipments. It is about the location of Hodeidah. They are trying to hurt Aden port to save Hodeidah. Hodeidah is the second port of Yemen, and we know the figures before the war.
But I agree with them if they close Hodeidah, there is seventy percent of the people of Yemen in the north and it is not easy to bring the food from Aden to the north.
Q: It is very expensive to do this if you consider…
A: It is very expensive, it is very risky, there are a lot of issues… and because of that they say a lot of false, wrong information. In 2016 [former UN Relief Chief] Stephen O’Brien said in of the Security Council said Hodeidah port is receiving 80 percent of the imports to Yemen. We have 21 ports to Yemen. This guy is crazy.
Q: Could he have made a mistake?
A: No he meant it. I will give you know another number and you can check it yourself. The UN and other international organisations now repeat the number that there are 1.2 million government workers who do not receive their salary workers. Did you see that before?
Q: I’m familiar with the issue of the salaries.
A: How many people?
Q: I don’t have an exact number in front of me.
A: The last tweet from the ICRC two weeks ago, they made it emotional. It’s PR…[They said] that in Yemen there are 1.2 million government workers who do not receive their salaries for more than two years.” That’s not true.
Q: Ok, so what is true?
A: The truth is that 650,000 [government employees] receive their salaries.
Q: Every month?
A: Every month.
Q: Paid by whom?
A: Paid by the Yemeni government, through the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance.
Q: Is that only people in government controlled areas?
A: Yes and also civilian workers everywhere. If he works in Sana’a and goes to Aden to do his job there he will take his salary.
Q: And what about a teacher who lives in Sana’a?
A: They do not receive anything. That’s true. But when you repeat the number 1.2 million just to convince the people to give you money, it’s just not true.
Q: You mentioned the UN and international organisations several times. Do they back your reconstruction plans? Are they involved?
A: No, we talked to WFP, we talked to the World Bank, we talked to Islamic Bank, and also we talked to Mark Lowock and Lise Grande, we briefed them and invited them to come and participate any time.
Q: So they are not involved?
A: World Bank yes, we will work with them. Islamic Bank would like to engage and work with us. USAID, DIFD, are engaging and would like to work with us. And also the French visited.
Q: So this support is still in discussion?
A: Yes, because we started only five months ago.
Q: I understand it is early days. I saw the presentation [on the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen al-Jaber heads] but a lot of it appears to be what is going to be built in the future. Is there an actual plan now?
A: We hit the ground, we are there.
Q: In some places, yes. But is there a larger plan other than the PowerPoint, are there more than feasibility studies?
Q: The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about [the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen’s] projects in Mahra in which locals objected to the Saudi presence there. What’s your response to the argument that redevelopment and reconstruction is just part of the military effort, that it is a continuation of the war and and effort to keep Saudi Arabia’s power in Yemen?
A: Mahra is the gate for smuggling. Before the war, during the war, and after the war. And we have a strategy in Yemen: secure, stable Yemen.
And our goal won’t end if the Houthis come into the government. We should keep supporting the Yemeni government with or without the Houthis. If the Houthis participate in the government, we will support this government. Even if the prime minister is a Houthi, we will support this government. Because it is not just about Yemen. It’s about our national security. When they smuggle drugs from the Arabian Sea [from Mahra] they don’t want to bring them to Yemen, they want to bring them to Saudi Arabia. If they smuggle weapons [they are headed to Saudi Arabia]. Because the price in Saudi Arabia is different. A [handgun] gun in yemen is $500. If you smuggle it to Saudi Arabia you can sell it for $5,000 dollars.
Another example: drugs. Nobody in Yemen uses drugs, except for qat. But in Saudi Arabia there are a lot of people… kids… they will use it. And that has a high cost. Now in Mahra the coast is 50 kilometres. There were no coast guard soldiers there. Zero. Nobody was protecting this area.
Also from Omani territory there are some smuggling networks that are continuing to do their jobs from before the war, using the weakness of the Yemeni side... We talked to our brothers in Oman, and they are now doing a good job to protect their side. But from the other side there was nothing, from the coast or from the land. What we are doing there is training the security and the coast guard. And we are also doing development and reconstruction for the people of Mahra. Because if I am a Mahra citizen and you said, “Ok, I will bring the coast guard and I will bring the border guards and there will be no security and new arrangements,” but there is no income, how will I work? But if we develop, and provide the security… and also education and also schools - we started to build eight or nine schools - and hospitals, [school] busses, agriculture, fisheries, and boats and airports that means Mahra will be strong enough to continue to work. Even if we withdraw from Mahra after the war, it will be a strong province.
And look, Mahra and Hadhramaut...We already transferred the power from the Saudis and Emiratis to the Yemeni side.
Q: How is that working?
A: It’s working. Because we are still there to supervise and train. They need somebody to lead them… it’s complicated. If they work, let’s say, we will decrease the smuggling… unless those people work with the smugglers, as a mafia. Those people in Mahra and Hadhramaut are good people. They don’t want to work with the smugglers, they are ashamed to work in smuggling… now we finished in Hadhramaut and Mahra we will continue to support the Yemeni government in places like Abyan and Lahj [provinces]… also with terrorism - al-Qaeda and Da’esh [so-called Islamic State], after Syria, they might decide to go to Yemen. If we are not ready to fight them in Yemen before they enter we will find ourselves after this war fighting al-Qaeda and Da’esh.
Q: So you do see development as part of a security strategy?
A: Yes. We built also an anti-terrorism center there.
Q: What does that mean?
A: That means there is no center to fight al-Qaeda. If we build this center in Mahra airport that means all countries, all allies who are fighting al-Qaeda, they can find themselves in a good place to support the Yemeni government in fighting al-Qaeda or Da’esh… It’s preemptive… we are trying to prevent Yemen from falling into the hands of Da’esh or al-Qaeda after this war.
Q: Is [the presence of Da’esh or al-Qaeda] something you are worried about?
A: Yes, we are very worried. Because after this war, some people in Yemen would like to have Da’esh and al-Qaeda, especially the Houthis, they are very happy to have Da’esh and al-Qaeda, to continue fighting, saying “I am here to fight al-Qaeda and Da’esh.” They said that in 2014 when they controlled the north of Sana’a and Amran... They said “we are here to fight al-Qaeda.” And they will continue to repeat that. And that means some people, some tribes in the middle and the south also say they will engage with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis.
Q: As you suggested, people and groups officially allied with the coalition are working with al-Qaeda because they want to fight the Houthis. Is this a concern?
A: We are afraid of that. We have a lot of Zaidis [the sect the Houthis belong to] fighting with the Yemeni Hadi government: military leadership, tribal leadership, political leadership, half of the people fighting the Houthis are Zaidi. Because it is not about Zaidi or Sunni or Shafi’i[the Sunni majority in Yemen]; it’s about security and stability.
Q: I’m going to ask you about another media report, the New York Times report that there are child soldiers from Sudan fighting with the coalition. What is your response? Are there child soldiers fighting with the coalition?
A: It is false. How did this guy go to this Sudan, make a report, find some kids and say let’s make a story about Saudi Arabia and the kids. Why not come to Aden, Jezzan, Saada, Hajjah, or anywhere…
Q: Well, it’s not easy to go there.
A: You can go. A lot of journalists visit... i think some people are working for some countries or organisations that would like to hurt Saudi Arabia and [they] say “let’s keep Saudi Arabia in a bad situation” because of Khashoggi’s case. They would like to use different cases to make Saudi Arabia out as a bad country. We are clear: There are no kids fighting with us, from any country, from Yemen, from Sudan, from any country. And anybody who would like to be sure, who would like to… report, he is welcome to come, meet, and go there... but don’t try to play games [and write] bad things that are not accurate.
Q: In your opinion, what responsibility does Saudi Arabia have for the current humanitarian crisis in Yemen?
A: Actually are the ones who make it lower. The Houthis are increasing the humanitarian situation. We are the ones who are trying to facilitate humanitarian and commercial shipments to Yemen, through Jeddah and Jizan through our land, through Wadiyah, from everywhere.
At the same time we are the ones who support the UN organisations with money to fund them, from 2015. From 2015 we are the ones who covered the UN pledge. Yes, there is a war. But that doesn’t mean that this war, we can stop it, because the Houthis want to control the country. We are trying to make a balance between security, stability, and restoring the legitimate government. At the same time we are trying to avoid Yemenis from the humanitarian situation.
If we look at this war Saudi has a main strategy, the main track is the political track, which did not start now, it started in 2011. If the analysts would like to be fair they should think about that. Saudi Arabia started the political process in 2011 when we introduced the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] initiative. Which is a Saudi initiative, although we call it the GCC initiative because our brothers participated in it.
From 2011-2014 we spent $7 billion to support the Yemeni government: $3.2 billion in oil derivatives; $1 billion to central bank $450 million for the social fund; $3 billion for infrastructure and social service projects.* Electricity in the north of yemen, 80 percent of the electricity power stations there are Saudi-funded, it’s not Yemeni or international, it’s Saudi funded. [Look at] Marib 1 and Marib 2 [power stations], and we are ready start with Marib 3, which will increase the capacity of the power stations.
In 2014 when the Houthis took over Sana’a, we did not engage, nobody engaged, because the Yemenis found themselves with a partnership agreement that gave Houthis six seats in the government, and when it changed from Saleh to Hadi government, we did not engage in a war. We tried to take the Yemenis from civil war to the political track. Then the Houthis continued to attack, and Hadi himself escaped to Aden, and when he escaped to Aden, we did not bring our troops there. We were waiting and trying to convince the Houthis and other parties to stop fighting. And Hadi, his first statement, when he arrived to Aden, said “please, Houthis stop the war, we are ready to engage back and talk at the table.” The Houthis and Saleh refused. Then the war came, and then it was a war of necessity not a war of our choice. We supported the talks in Geneva in 2015, we supported the Kuwait talks in 2016, and we are the ones who supported the talks in Stockholm and that is what Mr Martin Griffiths said clearly to the media and the Security Council. And we will continue to support Mr Martin Griffiths to find a solution… we will support the political process. This is the main track.
We have another two tracks. The military track: the main aim of the military track is to support the political track to force the Houthis to come to the table. And also to restore the legitimate [government], to restore the state… We will not accept Yemen to become a Somalia, and we will not accept another Hezbollah in the south of Saudi Arabia. We are not Israel, and they are not Hezbollah. They are Yemeni, they are our brothers, we have the same culture, the same traditions and we help them and will continue to do so.
The third track is the humanitarian track, and please go back to 2013 and look for the UN HRP [Humanitarian Response Plan] 2013, it is 10.2 million people in Yemen need help. You can read it again.
This is the fourth track: it is economy, development, and reconstruction. We are the ones who support the economy. Nobody [else] supports the Yemeni economy. We saved the rial, we saved the Central Bank, we saved the electricity power stations, we saved the private sectors and we are trying to support everybody. This, my friend, is the Saudi strategy to support Yemen.
When the Yemenis agree on a comprehensive political solution, we will stop the military track which supports the legitimate Yemeni government and we will support their security, economy, the political process, and work with Yemenis to finish the political process, to build their economy and develop and reconstruct their country.
*IRIN could not independently verify these or other figures