In October 2021, Houthi rebels began arresting local employees of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. Eleven of them are still in prison today. Houthi leadership has insinuated that the detained employees were spies supporting “American aggression” against Yemen. Other former embassy workers say what happened to their colleagues is just one part of the difficult and often disheartening saga of working for the United States from Sanaa since the anti-American Houthi militia took over the Yemeni capital in 2014.
Foreign Policy spoke with six former embassy workers as well as a family member of one of the workers currently in Houthi custody. Each of the former employees said they had worked for the embassy for at least 10 years, and some of them have subsequently left Yemen. All of the individuals FP spoke to wished to speak anonymously out of fear of retribution for themselves or their family members.
The employees in Houthi custody have had minimal contact with their families. One of those detained, Abdulhameed al-Ajami, died last spring while in a Houthi prison. Former colleagues told FP it was because he did not have access to adequate medical care. Like some of the other detained employees, Ajami was not working for the United States at the time of his arrest; he’d retired in 2017.
Despite occasional press statements from the United States urging the Houthis to release their colleagues, the former embassy employees worried that the United States was doing too little, too late. “To me, seeing these press releases time and again saying the same thing, it makes me sad to see that,” said a former embassy worker who now lives outside of Yemen.
The Houthis, who began their takeover in northern Yemen in 2011 and eventually reached Sanaa in 2014, are aligned with Iran and vehemently anti-American. Their capture of the capital precipitated a Saudi Arabia-led and American-supported war against the group. The war has killed scores of civilians, ravaged the country’s infrastructure and economy, and paved the way for famine and health crises to take hold. A recent truce between the rebels and Riyadh failed to renew last October, and while fighting since then has been at a relative low, clashes between the two sides still occur.
A senior U.S. diplomat who was authorized to speak with FP said in a phone interview that among the United States’ main priorities in Yemen were ending the conflict and getting the detained embassy workers released. “They are part of our family,” the diplomat said. “We intend to return them to their loved ones.”
“We’ve repeatedly made clear our willingness to engage,” the diplomat continued. “Unfortunately the Houthis have shown no openness in doing so.” (Foreign Policy sent multiple, unanswered requests for comments to three different officials from the Houthi rebel group, which also is known as Ansar Allah.)
Still, all of the former embassy employees who spoke to FP expressed exasperation with the way the United States had treated either them or their colleagues during a volatile situation after years of service. In 2015, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa relocated to Saudi Arabia due to safety concerns. There was frustration among the employees who remained in Yemen about how difficult it was to obtain an American visa, delayed severance payments, and even warnings from their American employer that if they were to leave Yemen, they would lose their jobs.
“You know, we’ve been working for the embassy for quite a while. We thought we would receive better benefits,” said another former embassy employee in Sanaa. The worker had hoped to obtain a visa to the United States or, failing that, a job outside of Yemen after working for the American government in a country where that connection carries an inherent risk. “[I wanted to go] somewhere where we can get a better life,” the worker said. “A better chance for our children in terms of studies, where we can go out instead of being detained.”
ANALYSIS | GERALD FEIERSTEIN, FATIMA ABO ALASRAR
Even prior to the Houthi takeover, working for the Americans was a risky business. In 2008, al Qaeda, which has a base in Yemen, launched two deadly attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. “All the people who were killed were Yemenis,” said the former employee who is now outside Yemen. “We still worked there. That doesn’t mean anything?”
Although the current U.S. ambassador to Yemen and other American diplomats are currently serving their posts from Saudi Arabia, several hundred Yemenis continued to work for the U.S. Embassy from Sanaa after the embassy relocated. That number has been significantly reduced throughout the years, although the U.S. State Department won’t comment on the exact number. The remaining employees not only had to deal with deadly Saudi attacks against northern, Houthi-controlled Yemen, but they’ve also had to manage anti-American Houthi repression.
The Houthi rebels detained Americans in the early months of their takeover as well as Yemenis perceived as critical of their regime. In 2017, former employee Hisham al-Omeisy, who had criticized the Houthis on social media, was held in Houthi custody for five months. Around the same time, an embassy employee named Osama al-Ansi was arrested and held for a few months by the Houthis, though his arrest was less publicized than Omeisy’s and the reason for it was less clear. Then, in early May 2018, yet another embassy employee, Rami al-Haj, was detained by the Houthis and released several months later in a prisoner exchange facilitated by Oman, a former co-worker said, though this prisoner swap has not been confirmed by the State Department. In addition, the Houthis have been accused of torture inside their prisons.
“We had to keep a low profile, even with our relatives,” said a third former employee , who said he worked for the United States from Sanaa until quite recently.
The United States was well aware of the risks they were asking embassy employees to take. In 2018, an official embassy email obtained by FP from the “Regional Security Office” sent around to local staff and addressed “to all Sana’a caretakers” warned of reports that the Houthis have “ordered any aide organization connected to the U.S. be shut down and anyone working/worked with any U.S. aide institutions, public or private, be interrogated.”
After the arrest of Haj, some embassy employees started to consider leaving Sanaa more seriously and wondered if they could work remotely outside Yemen since the embassy, after all, was technically in Saudi Arabia. However, a letter emailed to Yemeni local staff from the Yemen Affairs Unit in Saudi Arabia on May 29, 2018, and obtained by FP stated clearly that if the Yemenis tried to work remotely from outside Yemen, they could expect to lose their jobs.
“Locally Employed Staff who elect to move out of Yemen (to live outside Yemen), will be moved from caretaker status to non-caretaker status, and separated from embassy employment,” the letter said.
Employees Foreign Policy spoke with who continued to work for the United States from Sanaa after this point said they did so because they needed the job, there was little prospect of employment elsewhere, and they just hoped that if they kept their heads down, there wouldn’t be any repercussions from the authorities in Sanaa.
“After a while, when Hisham and Osama were released, we thought maybe the situation will calm down,” the third embassy employee said.
The State Department did help a relatively small number of Yemenis who still worked for the embassy from Sanaa move to Egypt after the Houthi’s arrests in 2021, former embassy employees told FP, but not all current and former locally employed staff received this assistance. Why the arrests happened at that specific time or why the 11 Yemenis still in detention specifically were targeted remains unclear. But another former employee still in Sanaa that FP spoke with felt that his former employer did not give enough credence to Yemenis’ complaints that the Houthis were amping up violent rhetoric toward them.
“We were telling our supervisors that the Houthis are escalating,” that employee said in a phone interview.
Unlike their Afghan counterparts who can apply for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) after one year of U.S. government employment, Yemenis can only apply for an SIV if they’ve worked for the United States for more than 15 years, according to former employees and an internal State Department memo obtained by FP.
“We were astonished how they treated Ukraine and Afghanistan conflicts,” said the employee stuck in Sanaa. “We’ve been going through this for the past five years now. No support has been provided to us. … You have no idea how hard it is to get a job when you say you’ve worked for the U.S. Embassy.”
“The U.S. is considered to be the first enemy of the Houthis,” said a relative of a detained employee.
Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a Yemeni analyst and senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, said the Houthis use high-profile detainees—such as former embassy employees—as bargaining chips to try to broker a deal with the international community.
“When it comes to leverage, I will say that the Houthis are still looking for ways through which they can negotiate with the international community to achieve certain goals and needs, and they believe the Americans are key in this issue,” Shuja al-Deen said. “But at the end of the day, the detainees are Yemeni, and the Americans will not use all of their power to pressure for Yemeni citizens, even if they had worked for the embassy.”