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Houthis take journalists hostage: Separating the optics from reality

There is a peaceful and mutually beneficial solution that can secure freedom for the hostages and secure the safety of Sana’a.

Shortly after killing their erstwhile comrade, former Persident Saleh, the Houthi forces along with many previous Saleh loyalists, took all of Yemen’s capital Sana’a.

In the process, they either destroyed or occupied property belonging to Saleh, his family and close allies. Among the properties occupied were the studios of Saleh owned Yemen Today television.

The studio building is now home to 41 international journalists who are apparently being held hostage by the Houthis.

Among the journalists help hostage is a reporter from Russia’s Sputnik. 

It is always deeply unfortunate and worrying when civilians, including foreign journalists are held hostage in a war situation and while the Houthis holding journalists hostage may appear to be crude or even violent, the subtle reality behind the situation is far more nuanced.

As a Shi’a resistance movement fighting much more powerful foreign powers who have destroyed much of their homeland, the Houthis have to be on guard at all times. The Houthis, unlike Takfiri groups who practice a distorted and false version of Sunni Islam, are not in the business of beheading, torturing or mass killing.

In the chaos that has ensued since the killing of President Saleh, the Houthis are looking for an insurance policy against Saudi airstrikes against the UNESCO protected Sana’a. In the fog of war, the hostages may indeed be an attempt to find such an insurance policy. This is not to justify the taking of journalist hostages, but it does serve as a clear explanation for why this happened at such a tense time.

While the details about the situation are not fully known at this time, it does not appear that any of the foreign journalists are being harmed in any way. There have been some reported deaths at Yemen TV, but these were related to earlier clashes between Houthis and Saleh loyalists who have now either fled or been neutralised.

From the Houthi prospective, the journalists may be a bargaining chip to raise international voices against Saudi bombing campaigns against Sana’a which many have predicted are forthcoming, int he aftermath of the downfall of Saleh.

Saudi’s airstrikes on Yemen are notoriously deadly and equally notorious for their inaccuracy. As Yemen TV’s studios are in the heart of the city, a new Saudi bombing campaign in the region, could easily kill the hostages.

While Saudi Arabia has no qualms about killing and starving Yemeni citizens, it most certainly does not want to kill foreign journalists, including Russians and westerners.

Under Saudi’s de-facto ruler Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has gone on a kind of international charm offensive in Europe and the United States, as well as a more subtle one in Russia. The aim is to win support for MBS’s Vision 2030 plan which is capped off with the building of a new mega-city in the country which aims to be a kind of Hong Kong meets Geneva on the Red Sea.

Because of this, Saudi’s propaganda machine has been touting a less Wahhabi and more woman friendly/secular tourist friendly image. If Saudi fighter jets were to mistakenly slaughter journalists who right now do not appear to be in any danger, the optics would elicit condemnation of Saudi from the same countries that have looked the other way when Riyadh’s jets do the same to innocent Yemenis.

In this sense, the hostage situation may be part of a wider Houthi attempt to bring international attention to their demands that Saudi Arabia cease with its gruesome airstrikes. Thus far, it has worked insofar as Saudi has not destroyed central Sana’a over night as some intelligence experts reported it would try to do.

The hostages of course must be peacefully freed and the intelligent way to go about this would be to combine a deal to release the hostages with a simultaneous deal to force Saudi to de-escalate its attacks on the de-facto Houthi state of “North Yemen”.

The sooner this is accomplished the sooner an ugly situation could possible make a turn for the better.

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