When Yemeni activist Samira al-Houri was released in 2019 from a prison in the capital Sana’a, which is under the Houthi group’s control, she was offered a safe and luxurious stay in neighboring Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. On April 17, 2022, al-Houri was forcibly disappeared by Saudi authorities after she reportedly tired of repeating false claims dictated by Saudi officials against the Houthis.
Revealed by a prominent Yemeni politician recently, al-Houri’s case served as a stark reminder of the systematic Saudi policy of silencing and forced disappearing of dozens of Yemeni activists and politicians who have defied Riyadh’s talking points regarding Yemen. Some fear she may have met the same grim fate as Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist brutally murdered in 2018.
Since launching its military intervention in 2015 in Yemen to help reinstate its allied Yemeni government deposed by the Houthis, Riyadh has attracted hundreds of Yemenis to conduct a propaganda war against its foe. Released prisoners held by the Houthis have been of particular interest to the Saudis, who offer them monthly kickbacks and comfortable residence. Al-Houri was released after three months in captivity. Soon after arriving in Riyadh, she was a frequent guest on prominent Arabic tv channels, talking about the Houthi’s abuse and torture of activists during detention. Al-Houri’s testimonies might have contributed to the sanctioning of a Houthi leader by the United Nations Security Council. After spending some time in Riyadh, where she was assigned two spy agents who would make sure she toes the line, al-Houri moved to Cairo, which has served as a media hub for dozens of Yemeni activists affiliated with Saudi Arabia.
While in Cairo, al-Houri kept talking about her case and others who had been detained and abused by the Houthis. But Saudi officials in charge of the propaganda war in Yemen were asking more than that. According to Ali al-Bukhaiti, a London-based prominent Yemeni politician who defected from the Houthis, al-Houri phoned at noon on April 17, 2022, and pleaded for help, fearing Saudi agents would soon disappear her. Al-Bukhaiti was in Riyadh at the invitation of the Saudi government. He told her he was busy but would call her later in the day.
Enjoying good relations with Saudi diplomats, including Saudi envoy to Yemen Muhammad Al Jaber, al-Bukhaiti was the viable option for al-Houri. Indeed, al-Bukhaiti enjoys the attention and respect of the Saudis and Western diplomats more than anyone in the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. In that brief call, al-Houri asked him to help her flee Saudi Arabia as she feared an imminent punishment by the Saudi officials who suspected her of planning to expose their claims once out of Riyadh. Al-Bukhaiti called her later that day, but her mobile was off. Ten days later, while still in Riyadh, he tweeted that al-Houri had gone missing and authorities should disclose her whereabouts. Members of the al-Houri family asked al-Bukhaiti to stop talking about it as they feared it would complicate her release.
According to al-Bukhaiti, Saudi officials requested that she add claims about the Houthis instructing her and other detained activists to use sex to manipulate rival politicians and prevent defection. Al-Houri, however, stated that this particular claim is untrue. While al-Houri disputes this specific aspect, she maintains the truthfulness of other statements she made about the Houthis on television. After al-Houri ignored repeating that claim in her talk to the media, Saudi officials summoned her to Riyadh, banned her from traveling, then disappeared her along with her son on April 17, 2022. After being informed by some family members in Riyadh, the police attempted to break into her apartment. However, the owner told them they couldn’t as the apartment belonged to some intelligence agents. Through his connection with senior Saudi officials, al-Bukhaiti said he had since tried to allay their concerns about al-Houri’s perceived threats. While he received confirmation from Saudi officials regarding her detention, he also confirmed that he has evidence of their confessions. Al-Bukhaiti said his attempts to free her failed, and Saudi authorities have yet to acknowledge her case. Fearing losing connections with his Saudi officials if he talked about it, al-Bukhaiti said that he reached out to the BBC on August 27, 2022, but they stated that they didn’t have the budget to investigate such a story.
After over a year of failed backdoor diplomacy, al-Bukhaiti went public via his Twitter account with over one million followers. Several tweets and spaces have gathered thousands of viewers, including from Saudi and Yemeni allied activists defending Saudi Arabia. Only after reaching a deadlock with the Saudi officials did al-Bukhaiti speak up despite the risk of losing his ties with senior Saudi diplomats. He said his campaign mainly aims to raise the issue of dozens of Yemeni activists who have been forcibly disappeared by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the main Saudi partner in its war effort. “There’s a systematic policy of forcibly disappearing Yemenis in both UAE and Saudi Arabia,” said al-Bukhaiti in a phone interview. He said the only way to help free al-Houri, and others is through social media campaigns and leading rights organizations’ pressure on the Saudi government to free her. “At such point, those countries won’t dare treat Yemenis this way,” said al-Bukhaiti. He vowed to ramp up the pressure by organizing protests across a number of Western countries until al-Houri’s case is addressed.
He said the reason al-Houri’s case kept being in the dark till now is the inaction by the Saudi-allied Yemeni government and other Yemeni activists residing in Riyadh. “They don’t want to lose their payoffs,” said al-Bukhaiti. “Also, none would dare talk about it because they’re going to be jailed [by Saudi Arabia].” Another reason al-Houri’s disappearance didn’t make it to the mainstream media is the relatively low profile of al-Houri. He drew a comparison between her case and that of Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent Saudi dissident, and Washington Post contributor who was murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents in Turkey. Intensive media coverage of Khashoggi’s case eventually forced Saudi Arabia to admit his murder after it had kept silent for weeks. “What might put an end to these violations [by Saudi Arabia] is the pressure that would free al-Houri and hold those responsible to account,” said al-Bukhaiti.
For most Yemenis, Saudi violations against its allied activists have been well-known for years. Yet, the lack of mainstream media attention coupled with the incompetent and puppet Yemeni government have contributed to the media blackout and encouraged the Saudi regime to ignore addressing their issues. The social media campaign may not have produced the desired results so far, but it’s apparently growing up this time, marking the first bold endeavor after years of silence.