Dr. Ahmed Al-Sayyad, former ambassador of Yemen to the United Nations Educational Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) and former assistant director-general of the organization, is one of the most important and controversial Yemeni political and diplomatic figures. During his assignment as Yemen's ambassador to the UNESCO, he adhered to a clear position on the war, declaring his rejection of the crimes committed by the "Arab coalition" led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen, calling for their documentation as war crimes.
In this interview, Dr. Al-Sayyad talks to "Khuyut" about his efforts to reject the financial pressure that Saudi Arabia was exerting on the international organization regarding Yemen and shedding more light on the suspicious role played by the "Misk Foundation" affiliated with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; So much so, that Dr. Al-Sayyad, here, says that the decision to expel him from UNESCO was a Saudi decision, and even before that he had been working without pay for more than four years.
Ahmed Al-Sayyad, who resides in Paris, in addition to being a diplomat, is a researcher and writer who has published a number of books, the latest of which is the novel “Darwish Sana’a”, which documented his testimony regarding the battle to break the seventy-day siege, and the challenges that the September 26, 1962 revolution witnessed after that historic battle.
In this interview, we raised a lot of questions related to the work of the international organization during the years of war, its stance on the destruction of historical monuments and historical cities of Yemen included in the World Heritage List as a result of air-attacks, and the challenges facing the Yemeni cultural heritage since the first day of this war... and many other points;
Accountability for war crimes
Khuyut: As Yemen’s delegate to UNESCO during more than four years of the current war; Did the organization perform what it was supposed to do about the protection of cultural heritage in Yemen from your point of view?
Sayyad: As you may know, UNESCO was established in the aftermath of World War II to counter the impacts of the devastating wars, which caused great damage and destroyed many countries of the world. At the beginning of the preamble to the founding charter of the organization came a very impressive and wise phrase that we repeat to this day, and some knowledgeable leaders and men of thought and culture cite it at the beginning of their interventions and speeches. The phrase says: “Since wars are born in the minds of human beings, it is in their minds that fortresses of peace must be built". Based on this, UNESCO came to confront the effects of war and destruction through; education, culture and the exchange of science and knowledge. It is an anti-war organization and can only act when peace and security prevail, whether at the national, regional, or international levels. Although it is customary that when the first shot is heard or a military confrontation erupts in any country, all United Nations organizations deport their staff to nearby countries that enjoy peace and security, However, the moral authority of UNESCO remains in place even with the outbreak of war, and this authority is limited to urging all conflicting parties to peace and to pursue dialogue and to solve their problems. Moreover, it demands the conflicting parties have to avoid heritage, cultural monuments and historical cities, especially those registered in the World Heritage List.
The MiSK Foundation, which is affiliated with the Saudi crown prince, tried to bestow funds on UNESCO, in order to dissuade it from practicing its duty. I have alerted to this activity when I was an ambassador, and UNESCO bodies warned against the role that the Misk Foundation plays, not only in UNESCO, but also in a number of countries.
This is what happened in Yemen since the first day of this absurd war. UNESCO officially called on the Saudi-led coalition not to attack Yemen historical sites and cities, and even provided them with maps showing where these sites are located. Likewise, it has also urged the Houthis [Ansar Allah group], not to use schools and historic sites for military purposes.
Unfortunately, the Arab Coalition destroyed tens of sites and monuments, bombed museums and schools, and killed a significant number of students on their way to their schools and institutes. In fact, the old Sana’a, which was described by a former director of UNESCO as “the jewel of the Arab Peninsula and the Gulf”, was not spared from the Saudi bombing, even the Republican Palace, which represents a distinct architectural masterpiece, was deliberately destroyed by this coalition which strives to destroy cultural and historical monuments and eradicate it. These are real crimes against heritage, for which the countries of the "Arab Alliance" must be held accountable and for the crimes they committed against the country and people.
And UNESCO cannot surrender to Saudi money unless it abandons with its humanitarian mission for which it was created, and this, I think, is unattainable.
Khuyut: What can the organization do under its own rules to protect the cultural heritage of a country during war? I mean, what can it do in particular?
Sayyad: UNESCO is doing its duty in the best way, despite the financial pressure exerted by Saudi Arabia, not only on UNESCO, but also on the United Nations system in general. UNESCO has issued a number of official statements denouncing the destruction inflicted on Yemen's antiquities and historic sites. This is the moral authority of the organization. On the material side, UNESCO obtained the support of the European Union for the restoration and maintenance of some ancient houses that were destroyed in the old Sana’a as a result of the military bombardment or because of the rains and torrential that struck Yemen recently. As the director of the UNESCO office in Doha confirmed, it is in the process of carrying out restoration and maintenance work provided that the security is respected and shall be ensured in all affected Yemeni cities and historical sites.
Khuyut: Were the statements and tone of the organization with the fighting parties at the level of their crimes, including the “Arab coalition” that bears great responsibility for the damage caused to cultural heritage as a result of its direct targeting by missile strikes on monuments, archaeological sites and historical cities?
Sayyad: In fact, the language used by UNESCO is the same as the language used by the United Nations and all its specialized organizations. If I answer you on a personal level, I would say that the vocabulary adopted in the data is insufficient and sometimes poor. But if I answer you as a former international employee, I say that the vocabulary used to denounce the destruction inflicted on Yemeni antiquities is the same language and the same vocabulary used in relation to the destruction and absurdity that occurs in various countries of the world.
The "Misk" Foundation of the Saudi Crown Prince [Mohammed bin Salman] has tried to fuel money to UNESCO in order to dissuade it from doing its duty. I was alerted to this activity when I was an ambassador, and UNESCO bodies warned against the role that the Misk Foundation plays, not only in UNESCO, but also in a number of countries. I am very happy that what I have warned against three years ago has now become a reality, as this organization or institution that disguised in humanitarian action has sent a number of its clients with the aim of pursuing and killing of some figures of the Saudi opposition in Canada, Britain and even within America.
Saad Al-Jabri filed a case before the American courts against "Misk", which have sent its agents to assassinate him, and after the goal of this wealth institution became clear, the Saudi regime announced that it is now reviewing the activities of "Misk", and that there is financial corruption in its management.
Yemeni antiquities trade
Khuyut: Did the organization intervene by issuing letters prohibiting trading in Yemeni antiquities and preventing art markets in Europe and America from displaying and selling Yemeni antiquities like what happened with Iraqi antiquities, or is the responsibility related to the country itself?
Sayyad: In fact, our country has not ratified the UNESCO Convention of 1970, regarding the excavation and prevention of the illegal import and export of cultural property, and since it has not ratified it, Yemen cannot claim its looted or stolen antiquities back.
Despite my repeated requests that this important covenant must be ratified but in vein. Fortunately, the US State Department told some employees of the Yemeni embassy in Washington that ratification of the agreement is the first step to claiming the looted antiquities. Finally, the [internationally recognized] president ratified the convention, and I, on behalf of the [internationally recognized] Yemeni government, signed the annexes to the convention at UNESCO in June 2019. Today, we have the right to claim looted or stolen antiquities, and this was the last thing I could do at UNESCO before I left the permanent delegation.
I had a lot of data indicating and confirming that this Saudi-led war aims to destroy the civilization of our people and the glories of our nation, works to divide the country, establishes a foothold in a number of Yemeni strategic sites and islands, and works to create rival geographical entities to replace the strong national state. and defiance
Yemen and Iraq
Khuyut: If we compare what the organization has done towards the cultural heritage in Yemen, and that of Iraq during the war; Is there a difference?
Sayyad: I do not think that there is a discrepancy on the part of UNESCO. The discrepancy lies in the fact that Iraq has ratified the 1970 Convention for a long time, in addition to the fact that the antiquities of Iraq were specific, limited, numbered, and sometimes photographed.
Thus, it was easy to know and track where it came from and where it is located, and this would facilitate the request of the Iraqi government, along with UNESCO, to recover these looted antiquities, and these efforts are still ongoing up to date.
On the contrary, the Yemeni antiquities, they were not identified, numbered or illustrated, except for a very few. However, scholars and specialists in the field of antiquities and museums can identify them and know how they came out and where they are located. Unfortunately, we do not have a responsible government today, and every party works at its own. Therefore, we have a long stage ahead of us in order to recover our looted antiquities.
Political and State Division
Khuyut: The war caused the existence of two Historic Cities Authorities and two National Commissions for UNESCO in Sana’a and Aden; How did you and the organization deal with this duality during your work as ambassador to Yemen?
Sayyad: Yes, this is an abnormal situation, unfortunately, and UNESCO works within the framework of the United Nations, which recognizes one legitimacy, but when I was a permanent delegate, I informed the two authorities and commissions that both works in the educational and cultural field, and preserving heritage and cities which is everyone’s duty. I asked the UNESCO offices, especially in Beirut and Doha, to accept the delegates, and invite the two bodies to participate in seminars and workshops, and we succeeded in that, and no political dispute occurred, but rather the links between them were strengthened and they exchanged information in more than one aspect.
This was a new experience that I have initiated, and I was fully prepared to face its consequences. In fact, I did not receive any reproach from any of the two governments or any party because everyone realized that what we are working for is Yemen with its museums, cities and monuments, and I used to tell everyone that policies change and governments disappear, but heritage, ancient cities and landmarks shall remain forever.
Khuyut: By following your statements to the media, I noticed how keen you are to adhere to a clear attitude of rejecting the war, to the extent that you were attacking certain parties; Did that expose you to pressure from the [internationally recognized] government, for example?
Sayyad: I believe that any Yemeni who works for his country and people must oppose this absurd war in the past, present and future.
I had a lot of data indicating and confirming that this war led by Saudi Arabia aims to destroy the civilization of Yemeni people and the glories of the nation, and works to divide the country, and establishes a foothold for it in a number of Yemeni strategic sites and islands, and is working hard to create rival geographical entities, and to replacing the strong and equal national state with these backed rival entities.
That is why I was keen and still, in my media interviews, to call things by their proper names, and I can tell you today that I did not receive any blame or criticism from the legitimate [internationally recognized] authority. Rather, some of its officials were pleased with what I have stated; that is because the minister or official residing in Riyadh cannot say that, but the Saudi regime, through its ambassador in Yemen, Mohammed Al Jaber, publicly attacked me and described my presence threatening their existence in international forums, and in particular in UNESCO. That is why the decision to expel me from UNESCO was a Saudi decision, not a Yemeni one. This decision was taken at a time when the President of the Republic was in a medical trip to America, and his entourage in his office in Riyadh carried out what was publicly requested by Mohammed Al Jaber, even though I had been doing my job without salary, and for four years, and this decision is meaningless to me and will never change my stance.
Similarly, my fair stance applies to the Houthi movement [Ansar Allah group], which strives to produce opponent views between the sons of the same family and the one homeland, believing that there are people whom God has singled out with qualities that are not found in anyone else. This delusion makes it imperative for the people of Yemen, nationwide, east and west, and from its north to its south, highly defend the ideals and goals of September and October revolutions, which put an end to such misbeliefs, and declared equality between the people and the citizens of the nation.
Khuyut: What has UNESCO provided to the monuments, cities and sites that were damaged in Yemen during the war, whether as a result of direct and indirect targeting or as a result of natural disasters?
Sayyad: According to UNESCO, Yemen is in the list of least developed countries, and this gives it priority in UNESCO's programs and activities in the educational, cultural and scientific fields.
Many donor countries are also ready to provide support and assistance in the areas of UNESCO's competence, but all of this is related to ending the machine of war and destruction, as it is difficult to build and the machine of destruction is hovering in the sky.
As I explained, there are funds available in favor of Yemen from the European Union and some donor countries, and the UNESCO offices in Doha and Beirut are seeking to implement a number of activities in the cultural and educational field, but the unjust siege on Yemen and the security situation impede the implementation of many activities.
Many countries avoid harming heritage monuments, but in Yemen, there is a feeling that this war is systematic, and it seeks to harm many heritage sites.
World Heritage List
Khuyut: Moving to the Yemeni cities registered in the World Heritage List, all of which are on the endangered Heritage list; Does the organization follow up what the threats that these cities/sites are exposed to during the war?
Sayyad: Yes; UNESCO is constantly following up on what happened to these monuments, and there are periodic reports submitted to the organization and its World Heritage Center on all the damages caused to these cities.
There are a number of people working in the [historic] city authorities who have gained distinguished experience in preparing periodic reports according to international standards, and I can only extend my thanks and gratitude to them for their wonderful efforts, especially as they perform their work under extremely difficult and complicated conditions.
Khuyut: Are there obligations that the organization committed towards the protection and restoration of these historic cities, all of which are exposed to many risks?
Sayyad: Yes, there are moral obligations in the first place, but the basic obligations fall on the shoulders of the member states whose cities and monuments are exposed to risks without moving a finger. Unfortunately, Yemen is not fulfilling its duty to protect its cities and monuments. Culture and heritage, both material and immaterial, occupy only a secondary importance in the budgets of the developing countries ones, as is the case in Yemen today.
Khuyut: Can UNESCO remove cities from the World Heritage List, or does it only include them on the list of endangered sites?
Sayyad: UNESCO follows a long and multidimensional process with regard to sites designated as World Heritage. The inclusion of sites or a city is subject to technical, geographic, historical, legal and also aesthetic procedures. A number of countries have failed more than once to register their sites on the World Heritage List; because the submitted files lack the legal aspect, or specify the geographical space, and so on. When a site is registered, it is not transferred to the List of Heritage in Danger, except when it is exposed to threats to its durability and symbolism.
Here, UNESCO asks the member state to take measures to put an end to the risks that threaten this heritage, and if the state does not fulfill its duty, the last stage is to drop the site from the World Heritage List by a decision taken by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
Khuyut: Through your long experience with this international organization; How do you view the threats to Yemeni cultural heritage as a result of the war, compared to what is exposed to heritage in other conflicting countries?
Sayyad: When wars and military confrontations erupt, UNESCO provides the conflicting parties with integrated information on cultural heritage sites that should be avoided. As a result, many countries respond to this warning and avoid harming their heritage monuments. In Yemen, there is a feeling that this war is systematic and seeks to damage many heritage sites.
That is why the Saudi-Emirati coalition bombed old dams, historical cities, museums, universities, bridges and all infrastructure, and even targeted buses transporting students to their schools, and these are crimes punishable by international law.
I call on civil society organizations to document these violations so that whoever committed them will be prosecuted as these war crimes do not expire and cannot die.
Khuyut: as we come to the end this interview, we need to know more about your experience in writing, what after the novel “Darwish Sana’a” with regard to your relationship with narrative writing?
Sayyad: In fact, my writings stem - as I have seen some of them - from a specific political event, and narrate it in a simplified and understandable way for the reader, especially the young ones who did not experience that event. "Darwish Sana’a", which you read and wrote about, deals with the epic of the seventy-day siege, and how the republicans who believed in the justice of its cause were able to defeat the Saudi-backed royal forces, which imposed the siege on the capital of Yemen, but were unable to topple it as a result of the steadfastness of the republican forces with all its components.
As for my other book, “Yemen and the Chapters of Hell,” it talks about the events of January 13 in the south of the homeland, and how comrades who were united by hopes and dreams turned into enemies, and abandoned the national, and international space in which they soared for so long, and returned to the village and the region that destroyed experience and order.
My book has been praised by Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Maqaleh - may God bless his life - and a number of Arab writers, including a Saudi writer and intellectual, who commented about this work in Al-Hayat newspaper under the pleasant title “The Hell of Yemen and the Fisherman’s Paradise.”
As for "The Last Qaramita" book, I spoke about my colleague and companion to my path, the martyr Jarallah Omar, and the first edition was issued on the first anniversary of his death. And Ali Antar and Saleh Musleh, and what were their reactions when Jarallah told them that Yemen had united and we had one national anthem and one flag, and that the Berlin Wall had fallen and Germany was unified, and other events that took place after their death.
Fortunately, this book was distributed in Yemen, and its first edition sold out within few days. As for what I accomplished after the "Sana'a Darwish", is a book about UNESCO, under the title "UNESCO as I told the Young Diplomat", and it will soon be published in three languages: Arabic, English and French.