For decades, excellent academic research about Arab countries, especially Yemen, entailed ethnographic investigation via participant observation, first-hand interviews, and reading local archives. International scholars in anthropology, political science, and other fields needed to spend months or even years “in the field” in order to gather first-hand evidence, and, indeed, to obtain research grants.
Those days are gone. Safety concerns, visa limitations, and suspension of air traffic now prevent expatriate, university-based academic researchers – or news reporters from international media, for that matter – from conducting field research in most parts of Yemen since 2015.
The implications of this circumstance for Yemeni studies are multifaceted and at least somewhat paradoxical. As opportunities for foreigners to carry out research in the country shrank, interest in research on Yemen swelled. A look at the annual meeting program of the 2018 Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) illustrates both points. In one panel, experts Susanne Dahlgren, Marina de Regt, and Nathalie Peutz discussed challenges, dilemmas, and prospects for continuing anthropological inquiry on an already familiar place that has become a “no go zone.” Field interviews with refugees in East Africa or other diaspora communities and the telling of life stories are fruitful, as are phone interviews with contacts.
Overall, indicating rising interest, the number of scholarly papers about Yemen by both seasoned and junior scholars at the 2018 MESA meeting broke all previous records. Recent original research has tapped overseas historical archives, visual materials, poetry, music, digital methodologies, maps, and past data available from United Nations (UN) agencies. The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) website does not offer program details but does mention digital humanities and special analysis as well as language, literature, and classical texts.
The constraints on field research do not only affect foreigners; Yemeni scholars’ domestic mobility is limited too. With many universities and research centers shuttered, local researchers face obstacles to survey work in fields ranging from archaeology to sociology to zoology. Roads are bombed out. Armed militia impose checkpoints, extort ransoms, or take hostages. Electrical power and fuel for vehicles are scarce. Cholera and other water-borne maladies are rampant in some regions.
Nor do we have access to reliable quantitative data from what has become an information desert. For instance, the Ministry of Health enumerated 10,000 casualties (deaths and injuries) as of October 2016, including both civilians and combatants. That figure remained static, and widely cited in international media, for over two years of constant warfare, because the Ministry stopped recording fatalities and hospital visits. The nominally Aden-based government’s suspension of civil service salaries likewise suspended other ministries’ capacity to produce the socio-economic indicators UN and World Bank annual reports list.
Apart from research intended to reach academic audiences, policy-oriented studies are proliferating, and many of them are in security studies. Significant efforts to gather data about the war itself include two databanks. The Yemen Data Project (YDP), founded in 2016 in-country with grants from international donors, tracks coalition airstrikes utilizing open source materials including local and international news outlets; Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp; reports from international and national NGOs; official records from local authorities; and reports by international human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Cross-referencing as much as possible, they compile a dataset in Excel listing the type and location of targets that is available to academic researchers. The UN-based Civilian Impact Monitoring Project began in late 2017 using a similar methodology to enumerate civilian casualties and damage to civilian structures and infrastructures from all types of armed warfare in five regions. The information gathered by the two sources is quite different, but they each provide map-able, quantitative data for scholars and policy analysts alike.
The call for papers for the 2019 Exeter University Gulf Conference, entitled “Zones of Theory in the Study of Yemen”, notes that research published recently has tended to focus on (in)security and strategic policy – which, I would add, tends to rely on military intelligence or analysis. The implication, well warranted, is twofold. First, reports from policy-oriented think tanks like Chatham House and the International Crisis Group, which employ full-time Yemen specialists, along with terrorism-focused institutions like the Brookings Institution, the Jamestown Foundation and the publically-funded National Counterterrorism Center, eclipsed theory-driven scholarship. These reports are detailed, annotated from English sources, and usually factually accurate.
However, policy paper focus most of all on contemporary conflicts, rather than Yemeni history, geography, religion or local culture. Secondly, many of us professors departed from formal scholarship to pen op-eds or columns for mainstream or dissident media about US, UK, or other NATO-country arms sales or military support for the Saudi-UAE assault on the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. Mostly we ranted against arms sales and other forms of support for the Saudi-led coalition, or attempted to correct misstatements in the mass media, for instance about the Houthis, sectarian conflict, and specters of Iranian involvement.
Thus, we see, both beyond and within academia, the securitization of Yemeni studies.