Global media and international decision-makers, right up to the president of the United States, have spent more than a week talking about what happened to missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and what it means for human rights and Saudi Arabia’s long-standing foreign relationships. Radhya Almutawakel has stayed focused on her own work in Yemen: carefully documenting how Saudi actions there have claimed thousands of lives, often with the aid of American weapons.
“We can’t deny that there is a sourness inside all of us, that Yemenis have been dying for years, thousands of them, and millions starving, and the reaction is not as strong as in this case,” she told HuffPost.
Almutawakel runs the best-known human rights organization in Yemen, where a U.S.-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been battling an Iran-linked rebel group since 2015. The war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis today, with over 20 million people now reliant on aid, experts predicting the biggest famine in a century, and more than 10,000 civilians killed.
Her group, Mwatana, and international organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have recorded and investigated thousands of violations of international law ― including coalition bombs killing civilians; the United Arab Emirates, a coalition member, subjecting hundreds to torture; and the Houthi rebel movement, the coalition’s opponents, planting deadly land mines and taking hostages.
The advocates’ work has only sporadically made top headlines around the world ― an irony that’s now commemorated in headlines like “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash That Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not.”
Better late than never, from Almutawakel’s point of view. The discrepancy in attention is sad, she said, and as a fellow critic of the Saudi regime, she feels more vulnerable seeing how far Riyadh now appears willing to go to silence dissent, potentially with international acquiescence.
But the episode has also helped her see something else: that for all its wealth and international influence, its alliances with the world’s richest countries and its massive tools of repression, Saudi Arabia is not untouchable. The world can pressure the kingdom, and it cannot act with total impunity.
People who contact her about the crisis in Yemen “keep asking what can be done,” Almutawakel said. “But now they know what can be done. They just use the power they have in their hands as civil society and media, and they make a difference.” It’s just that so far, the more powerful voices in civil society and media haven’t consistently done that for Yemen.
American lawmakers from both parties have viewed U.S. intelligence about Khashoggi and then argued that the Saudis should be held responsible for his alleged death, including through unprecedented sanctions. Major companies, most recently JP Morgan Chase and the huge media conglomerate Endeavor, have pulled back from business entanglements with the kingdom as Khashoggi’s face has remained on cable news for days. And while President Donald Trump, a supporter of the Saudi rulers, is promoting Riyadh’s denials of any role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, even he says that investigating the situation is crucial.
“Saudi Arabia is finally facing consequences for one of its crimes, which is targeting Khashoggi,” Almutawakel said. She thinks that’s in part because the kingdom has increasingly frustrated world powers with behavior like that in Yemen: “The file of violations of Saudi Arabia is getting bigger and bigger.”
As American leaders start to speak of a fundamental shift in the relationship that’s let the Saudis pummel her country, Almutawakel has a list of requests ready ― some ways in which Riyadh could be forced to improve Yemen’s situation almost immediately.
She wants the kingdom and its partners to immediately ease restrictions on travel and the import of essential food and medicine, which she described as harsh political decisions designed to get the win the Saudis seek. Saudi Arabia should also focus on re-establishing the machinery of Yemen’s government, she said. The internationally recognized president of Yemen has, under Saudi pressure, lived in Riyadh for years, and the UAE has promoted alternative leadership in areas under its control, disrupting long-standing norms and making essential interactions with the government ― say, over salaries and benefits ― more complicated.
Tucked in there too is a request that’s more personal, but also critical to any sort of accountability or normalcy in the Arab world’s poorest state. Almutawakel said the Saudi-led coalition needs to stop its harassment of Yemeni citizens at all levels, from mass arrests to the kind of detention she and a fellow researcher experienced this summer, prompting them to move to the Netherlands. She expects to be based there for a few months as she prepares to visit the U.S. to receive an award from Human Rights First. But she hopes returning to Yemen will be easier in the new year.
“It’s never too late,” Almutawakel said. “The world has proved they can do a lot.”