By Kathrin Ammann
Feb 18, 2020 – 11:00
The war in Yemen has been raging for five years, at huge human cost. Some experts believe that neutral Switzerland, which is well respected in the region, might have a role to play in bringing peace.
Switzerland has good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which support opposing sides in the Yemen war. Its relations particularly with Riyadh have come in for criticism at home, especially regarding the sale of arms which have sometimes ended up being used in the Yemen war. In January, for example, it was reported that Saudi Arabia used anti-aircraft guns from Switzerland to try and protect its key Abqaiq oilfield from a drone attack by Yemeni Houthi rebels in September 2019.
Swiss exports of war materiel
Since the conflict escalated in March 2015, the Swiss government has banned exports of arms to Saudi Arabia that could be used to commit human rights violations in the context of the war. But an exception is made for spare parts for air defence systems, which Saudi Arabia has already procured from Switzerland from the 1980s onwards. In 2021, Swiss citizens are expected to vote on an initiative to ban all exports of Swiss war materiel to countries that systematically violate human rights or are involved in a conflict.
Former Swiss President Ueli Maurer’s visit to Saudi Arabia
last year in the wake of journalist Jamal Kashoggi’s murder also came in for some harsh criticism at home, with human rights defenders and left-wing politicians saying Switzerland was putting its economic interests above human rights.
Switzerland well positioned in the region
But Bern defends its tradition of neutrality and talking to all countries. Since March 2018, Bern has been representing Iran’s interests in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia’s interests in Iran. These “protecting power” mandates are certainly not tantamount to a mediation role. But Switzerland would be well placed to support a peaceful solution in Yemen, according to Monika Bolliger, former Middle East correspondent for the German-language daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung. She says the Alpine country not only has good relations with Riyadh and Tehran but is also respected throughout the region, thanks to its status as a neutral country, its humanitarian tradition and lack of colonial past.
Switzerland supports the UN-led peace process for Yemen and has hosted several rounds of negotiations in 2015 and 2018. When asked about a possible role as mediator, the Swiss foreign ministry writes that the process is very complex and that efforts must be carefully coordinated. “To ensure coherence, the UN must remain in charge,” it told swissinfo.ch.
Swiss and Yemeni political scientist and author Elham Manea thinks it is too early to talk of a “Swiss intervention”. She says all the parties to the conflict need first to meet round the same table, and that Yemen’s eastern neighbour Oman could play a key role here. “Because of its neutral and constructive position, Oman has good relations with all the conflicting parties in the region,” she says.
Switzerland as an expert
Switzerland could play a role within Yemen itself to help bring together a fragmented Yemeni society, according to Manea. This is not going to be an easy task, as the Yemeni government is finding it increasingly difficult to provide answers to the country’s problems. These difficulties pre-date the intensification of the conflict in 2015, as a civil war had been brewing for years in the north along with separatist tendencies in the south. “The conflict has led us to see ourselves as members of one group or another,” says Manea. “We no longer consider ourselves as fellow human beings and Yemenis.”
She thinks it possible that Switzerland and Oman are already working together on this. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out in retrospect that Switzerland was already active at this stage,” she said.
Swiss humanitarian aid
Yemen is a humanitarian aid priority country for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). This aid focuses primarily on water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as the protection of civilians.
Switzerland has been active in Yemen since 2007, before the outbreak of the current conflict. Five years later it opened an office in Sana’a to work with the government to create training centres for the impoverished rural population. But these projects could not be continued, for security reasons and also because the Yemeni government was losing control of some of its territory. The Swiss foreign ministry closed the office in December 2014, and activities in Yemen have since been coordinated from the SDC’s head office in Bern.