The war in Yemen has killed over 17,000 civilians and displaced over three million. Alone amongst the international cultural institutes, the British Council is still operating there. Rowaida Khulaidi, British Council Country Director in the country, tells Insight about the huge challenges facing Yemen and what can be done to help.
What is the situation in Yemen?
The media portrays only one side of what’s going on. There’s another story behind the news, one of normal life. People still have their daily routine: going to the market, or going out to cafes to socialise. While some areas are better than others, those near the frontlines are suffering more. The pictures that you see on the TV are just one side of the story.
How is Yemeni society responding to the conflict?
Some state institutions are collapsing, and that creates particular challenges for example in education. Teachers’ salaries aren’t being paid on a regular basis, so some have stopped teaching, others moved to private schools that are expensive for the majority of Yemenis or just teach a couple of hours a day. Also, in some areas parents are afraid to send their children to school because of the airstrikes which have targeted some schools. All of which, amongst other factors have contributed to some 4.5 million school children being out of the education system.
When you grow up in an environment of war, fighting seems the only option and your basic freedoms are severely constrained. This outlook is shaping the attitudes and thinking of the next generation
What keeps ordinary Yemenis going? How is the war affecting them?
The hope that the conflict will end one day motivates Yemenis to keep going, but I’m sorry to say that this hope is now fading. War is becoming normalised. When you grow up in an environment of war, fighting seems the only option and your basic freedoms are severely constrained. This outlook is shaping the attitudes and thinking of the next generation, and the longer the war goes on the more embedded it will become. Additionally, the war has isolated Yemenis from the world; this is due to many factors in addition to the conflict, but we are looking at a scarred generation that is angry because of the perceived neglect of Yemen and the lack of opportunities and connections to the outside world.
What are the prospects for peace? What can bring Yemenis together after the war has ended?
The conflict hasn’t divided ordinary Yemenis in a sectarian way, and they still feel a strong sense of unity, at least on that front. But it has caused physical and emotional separation between those in different areas of the country - especially between north and south -due to the long-standing grievances that were never resolved. This will need to be addressed now and after the war, but otherwise I’m very positive about prospects for ordinary Yemenis coming together on the ground of equality and equal access to resources. The current war is political. Fighting is being driven at an elite level and peace will ultimately depend on those elite factions seeing greater benefit in peace than in war. At the moment, that’s an obstacle because of the size of the war economy that the conflict created. There also needs to be a bottom-up approach to making peace, which involves more grassroots representatives alongside those in charge of the factions, to ensure that a durable peace is reached.
What is the role of the British Council in Yemen?
Over the past 4 years the British Council focused on developing relationships that provide opportunities for young people, women, and professionals to improve their lives and their communities through themes of ‘employability’, 'empowerment', and ‘giving voice’, making a real difference to the people with whom we work.
As the war dragged on, we felt the need to refresh our vision and strategy for our cultural relations work in Yemen through a process in which people were consulted. Whilst at its core the intention for cultural relations remains as is, our focus is on using the educational and cultural resources of the UK to create opportunities for young Yemenis to network, learn, and make positive change in their communities. Ultimately, we aim to support the creation of an environment that encourages peace by acting as a gateway to opportunities for young people, who make up the majority of the population in Yemen, that others cannot provide. We aim to do this by providing training for civil society organisations, skills, education and qualifications, and creative arts programmes. These are important because they provide young Yemenis with hope in a context where opportunities are very hard to come by. They also give them a chance to feel connected to each other and to the outside world at a time when many feel they have been neglected by it.
What value do arts programmes have during a time of war?
The arts provide a ‘safe space’ in which to discuss more contentious issues and give people a voice. It’s an environment where discussion can happen. Last year we ran a photojournalism project for Yemen (as well as Lebanon and Syria), with the Thomson Foundation and the Dar al Mussawir, where Yemenis from different areas of the country were trained to tell stories through pictures. They produced some fascinating photo-stories showcasing everyday life. We are currently planning for physical exhibitions on Yemen to take place in the UK and some countries in the Middle East, and also plan to end the project with an online exhibition with one of our partners.
How is technology changing your work?
Digital is very important in helping us connect people when security and movement is such an issue. Even if the digital infrastructure in the country is poor, it can still complement our face to face interactions to ensure that we are able to engage with a large number of Yemenis. We are currently working on a filmmaking project with the Scottish Documentary Institute and three film grassroot organisations in different parts of Yemen to build the capacity of filmmaking, all online. And we’ve also started a virtual school exchange between two schools and the UK that is going well.
The British Council is the only international cultural institute still operating in Yemen. People trust us because we’ve stayed on.
Which other UK organisations or European cultural relations institutes are operating there?
The British Council is the only international cultural institute still operating in Yemen. We are one of the very few international organisations to remain in Sana’a during the conflict, aside from the humanitarian ones and International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs). We’ve certainly scaled down our activities and work low profile, but people that know us trust us because we’ve stayed on. They appreciate our decision to carry on and do what we can despite the situation. Once the war stops, this means we can scale up quite quickly, as we have the networks and infrastructure in place, as well as the trust of the community.
What is the demand for educational assistance? How should the UK be engaging now - and potentially after the conflict ends?
There is huge need for support. As I mentioned earlier, the education system is collapsing, with 256 schools destroyed and some 4.7 million school-age children in need without proper education. Firstly, there’s a need for further scoping and research to see what kind of education should be provided in this situation. We need to avoid the risk of creating a parallel system but at the same time sustain a degree of educational services that can substitute for the time being. One area to focus on will be youth and civil society. Areas such as creative enterprise and social enterprise will be important for the future. However, when preparing young people to engage with civil society in the future, it is important to hit the ground running as soon the conflict stabilises and provides for space to grow.
How are the UK’s various involvements in the country influencing how we’re seen in Yemen and around the world? Why does this matter?
Those who interact with our cultural relations programmes have a positive view of the UK. They get to see a different side of the UK from what they see in the news. This is where people-to-people connections can make a difference. By building a dialogue that’s truly mutual, people in Yemen and the UK can get a sense of the real life going on behind the news, overcome stereotypes, and build positive links between their cultures. In the current situation, this is a challenging task, but one that is more important than ever.
Alison Baily was in conversation with Rowaida Khulaidi on 09.07.2019