Activists condemn 'Saudi and Emirati aggression' in their homeland
DETROIT, United States - As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman dangled his wealth and US investments in front of President Donald Trump in the White House on Tuesday, Washington's humanitarian grievances over the war in Yemen seemed to vanish from public discussions.
Yemeni Americans watched the exchange of praise between the two leaders with a kind of detached weariness after years of war in their homeland and economic and civil rights hardships in the US, activists say.
"It's painful that he would be welcomed in a democratic country like this one. He's a war criminal," Abdulnasser Soofi, a 44-year-old Yemeni American, said of bin Salman's visit to Washington.
"This is a man who oppresses his own people. He kills children and has besieged 27 million Yemenis. It's shameful."
This is a man who oppresses his own people. He kills children and has besieged 27 million Yemenis. It's shameful.
- Abdulnasser Soofi, activist
Thousands of Yemeni Americans reside in Detroit and its suburbs. They hail from different regions in Yemen and espouse diverse ideologies, but they all want peace in their homeland, local organisers told Middle East Eye.
Soofi said Yemeni Americans seem unmoved by bin Salman's trip to the US because they are focused on more immediate needs.
Since March 2015, Riyadh has led a bombing campaign in Yemen to push Houthi rebels out of the capital and reinstall the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as a proxy for its archrival Iran, but the rebels deny receiving military help from Tehran.
The war has come to a standstill. Saudi and UAE-backed forces control much of the southern part of Yemen, which was an independent communist republic until 1990. The capital Sanaa is still in the grip of the rebels.
Dubbed by UN officials as the world's "largest man-made humanitarian crisis", Yemen has witnessed a massive cholera outbreak, shortages in basic needs and more than 10,000 deaths.
Bin Salman has blamed Iranian "ideology" for the war in a thinly veiled sectarian argument.
"The Iranian ideology penetrated some parts of Yemen. During that time, this militia was conducting military manoeuvres right next to our borders and positioning missiles at our borders," he told 60 Minutes in an interview aired on Sunday.
Soofi dismissed the prince's statement, saying that Iran is being used as a scapegoat for the Saudi royals' crimes and failures.
"Iran has no border with Yemen. Maybe it has some influence or it offers political support [to the Houthis]; it's a regional power," Soofi said. "And if you want to push against Iran, what's the solution? You kill and starve Yemenis? If you have a problem, Iran is right there, go and fight Iran."
Akram Alward, who owns a restaurant in Detroit, echoed Soofi's comments.
"The country is besieged from the air, sea and ground; Yemenis are dying of hunger," Alward told MEE. "How can the Saudis say Iran is sending weapons. If indeed it is, it's a sign of the Saudis' own incompetence."
He added that the war's aim is to systematically destroy Yemen in order to subjugate its people.
Yemeni American Akram Alward says Saudi Arabia aims to systematically destroy Yemen (MEE/Ali Harb)
Although Yemeni Americans have periodically organised protests against the war, the death of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh at the hands of the Houthis in December seems to have split the anti-Saudi camp.
Saleh became an unlikely ally of the Houthis at the beginning of the crisis, but the uneasy partnership ended late in 2017. On 4 December, Saleh's convoy was ambushed by the rebels, and he was fatally shot in the head.
Walid Fidama, a Saleh supporter, said his stance against the "Saudi and Emirati aggression" has not changed.
They want to 'liberate the country. Liberate it from whom? Liberate it from the Yemenis themselves. This is not possible
- Walid Fidama, Yemeni American
Fidama, who had helped organise anti-Saudi rallies, said the Houthis' "hideous crime" in killing Saleh does not change his negative views on the Saudi royals.
"I'm still against the war on my country, but that doesn't mean I support what the Houthis are doing," he said.
He added that Libya and Iraq prove that foreign military interventions do not work.
"They want to 'liberate the country,'" he said. "Liberate it from whom? Liberate it from the Yemenis themselves. This is not possible."
Mohamed Saeed Abdulla, executive director of the Dearborn-based Yemeni American Association, also stressed the need to end the war. But peace should be sought from Yemenis themselves, not bin Salman, he said.
Abdulla accused the Houthis and Saleh of creating the crisis by orchestrating a coup against the "legitimate government" of Hadi and turning their guns against their fellow citizens.
"As Yemenis, we are paying the price of these miscalculations... The solution should be found by Yemenis. We shouldn't blame our problems on Saudi Arabia and the US and the UN."
Locally, Fidama explained, it's not difficult for Yemeni Americans to manage their disagreements over the war.
Despite concern for their homeland, Yemeni Americans have their own challenges domestically. Yemen has been placed on all three of Trump's "Muslim ban" executive orders, and activists have been working to secure the renewal of the Temporary Protected Status for Yemenis.
Like other Arab and Muslim communities in the US, Yemenis have also experienced a rise of xenophobic rhetoric against them.
"We have interests in the United States that unite us as Americans," Fidama told MEE. "We don't import disagreements from beyond the oceans. We keep the mutual respect we have for each other. We don't argue over these issues because we won't reach a resolution."
We all agree that this is not a war for Yemenis. Everyone is demanding a meaningful peace process.
- Rasheed Alnozili, Yemeni American News publisher
He said all Yemeni Americans help their home country by regularly sending money to relatives in need.
Rasheed Alnozili, publisher of the Yemeni American News, a Dearborn-based bilingual newspaper, said the community itself is a lobby, highlighting local leaders' efforts to reach out to lawmakers and government officials about the situation in Yemen.
But local Yemenis' modest resources cannot compete with the financial and political might of Saudi Arabia, he added.
In talks with Trump at the White House on Tuesday, Bin Salman touted a potential $400bn Saudi investment in the US economy.
And Trump displayed a chart featuring Saudi-bought US weaponry, saying that their price tags - in the hundreds of millions of dollars - are "peanuts" to the Saudi prince who was sitting by his side.
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"Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they're going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world," Trump said on Tuesday.
According to Alnozili, the Yemeni community in the Detroit area is home to wildly different views on the conflict, from Houthi supporters to Saudi partisans to people who loathe all the parties involved.
However, there's agreement over the notion that the war is a part of a global "game".
"There's no fighting inside the community... We all agree that this is not a war for Yemenis. Everyone is demanding a meaningful peace process," Alnozili said.