The #COMETOGETHER exhibition, revolution and the Gulf

Ripples of the Arab Spring felt in the Gulf States.

The #COMETOGETHER exhibition opening in London’s Brick Lane may be about modern and contemporary art by Middle Eastern artists, but it is also about how revolution has affected seemingly stable Gulf States.   As Stephen Stapleton, organizer and founding member of Edge of Arabia points out: “In bringing these artists together at this time we want to explore the frontiers of technology and ideology that are shaping the contemporary borderland between East and West.”  The case of Saudi poet and columnist Hamza Kashgari who published a conversation with the Prophet on his twitter account is illustrative of Mr. Stapleton’s point.  Saudi Arabians were divided as to how to deal with him crossing red lines.  

The #COMETOGETHER exhibition then, reflects and explores the fissures and cracks that the Gulf States are experiencing. The art of Ahmed Mater focusing on the huge changes that Mecca is experiencing is a good example. The investment and the rise of high rise hotels have wiped out the archaeological heritage of Islam’s founder. It has in the words of author Henry Hemmings caused a sense of dissonance.  It’s hard to focus on the House that Abraham built for God when halal Big Macs, Dr. Dre headphones and Ann Summers lingerie calls you within a huge clock tower that resembles a cross between Big Ben and the tower of Mordor. Whilst none of the latter is sinful of course; Mecca’s worldliness has disturbed many Saudis and has no doubt contributed to shaping the world view of many radicals.  The kingdom has lost the spirit that it was initially founded on. #COMETOGETHER not only explores the discord between Gulf States and its citizens but also reflects how the Gulf States are trying to adapt to their new environment.

Admittedly the Gulf States are not adapting very well.  Saudi Arabia has dealt with the Arab spring through a combination of repression and pay rises.  It is still somewhat unsure about what it should do with petitions like that presented in February 2011 which asked for a state based on institutions and rights. These were signed by thousands, not just islamists but by a younger generation willing to challenge religious authority.  Oman, described as the world’s most charming police state, has similar problems. Since Sultan Qaboos seized power in the 70s, Oman has been staunch ally of the West. With the Arab spring compounded by the fact that the sultan has no designated heir and oil resources are declining; Omanis are becoming increasingly restless. Dissent has been expressed through social media sites and protests in the oil sector. Kuwait and United Arab Emirates have also seen its Islamist parties gaining confidence. As a recent Chatham house paper suggests the authorities view the Islamist’s manifesto for democracy as a veiled attempt to gain power.

So what course of action should the Gulf States adopt in order to avoid instability? It cannot adopt a Bahraini or Syrian attitude. Neither can it think short term and do what the Saudi king or the Omani sultan did: pay rises, release political prisoners and remove some ministers.  In order to survive fundamental changes need to occur. Political reform probably in the form of constitutional monarchy must happen with real accountability. Strategies that deal with the post-oil economy and bridges the socio-economic cleavages that the region is experiencing must be implemented.

As for the West, how can it ensure stability yet maintain good relations with these Gulf States? Britain’s good relationship with the Gulf States can prove instrumental in managing these relationships. Encouraging educational contacts through scholarships or British universities expanding in the Gulf help create an alternative political culture. Cultural contacts like #COMETOGETHER strengthen relationships with the younger Arab generation and allow them to create their own political role models.  Oman for instance, is bringing award winning British Graffiti artist, Aerosolarabic this December to change young Omanis’ penchant for fast and furious driving and pimping up their rides. Cultural contact is the best medium for future political reform and dialogue. #

#COMETOGETHER opens at the Old Truman Brewery, E1 6QL, on 6 October at 6pm

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood