I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “All politics is local.” It’s usually credited to the former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, talking about the dissonance between Big Issues in the national capitol, Washington, and the infighting at the local level among the metaphoric “tribes,” communities and interest groups in his hometown of Boston.
Well, move your focus from a modern, centralized state like the United States to traditional, tribal societies like, say, Afghanistan and Yemen. In these impoverished, largely rural, and extremely tribal countries, politics is very local, often applied to the competing ambitions of particular counties, villages, tribes, clans and families. This makes for politics which can be, for the outsider, very confusing.
Unfortunately for the people who live in these traditional societies, wars are no longer local, but regional. The conflicts that drive the brutal wars that still dominate Afghanistan and Yemen often have nothing to do with the people caught up in the violence.
When they fight, and they often do…and very well…it’s not because they support the self-defined national movements, in Yemen the coalition between the former President Ali Abdallah Saleh and a northern tribal group called the Houthis, or the alleged current president Abdu Rabbah Mansur Hadi or the local branch of Al Qaeda or of the Islamic State. Even less are these locals loyal to the regional powers involved in the war, Saudi Arabia and Iran. What most people in Yemen fight for is their family, or clan or tribe. Their position on the regional proxy war is – please make it stop.
This very widespread expression of Yemeni local politics has the exact chance of a snowball in Hell…or a snowball in the hot high desert surrounding a village called Al Ghayil.
Our guest today, Iona Craig has reported on and from Yemen since 2010. Her reports have been carried by the BBC, RTE (Ireland), The Times of London and most recently The Intercept, among many other media platforms.
She was the last foreign reporter to be ordered by the so-called Yemeni government to leave the country in 2014. But she manages to keep going back. Her determination and the quality of her reporting have won her several prestigious awards for journalism, including those named for George Orwell and Martha Gellhorn.
She’s been to Al-Ghayil, where — in the first military strike of the Trump Administration back on January 29 — a Navy Seal named William “Ryan” Owens and as many as 30 Yemenis, including women and children, were killed, and she’s interviewed several survivors there.
Iona Craig is a British-Irish freelance journalist. In 2015, she was recognized for her work as a Yemen correspondent at The Times of London, for which she was the recipient of the 2014 Martha Gellhorn prize.
As a BBC intern, Craig studied Arabic and moved to Sana’a, Yemen in 2010 to become the managing editor of the Yemen Times, The last accredited Western journalist in the country, she left in 2014 and was asked not to return by the government of Yemen. Since then, she has snuck back into the country to report on conflicts and human rights abuses. In 2017, she reported on the tragically botched Yakla raid.
Her work has appeared in The Times (of London), The Irish Times, USA Today, Time, Foreign Policy, and Los Angeles Times, Global Post and The Intercept. She has also done regular radio reporting for the BBC and Irish broadcaster, RTÉ.
Iona has won five awards for her work from Yemen. In 2016 her reporting on the country’s conflict won the Orwell Prize for journalism, the UK’s most prestigious prize for political writing, having previously won the 2014 Martha Gellhorn Prize – the leading investigative journalism award in Britain – for her reporting on America’s covert war in Yemen. She has also reported from Turkey, Lebanon, Washington DC and the Occupied Territories.