What's Happening in Parliament

14/12/17
The death of Ali Abdulleh Saleh is the biggest development in Yemen’s near 1000 day long civil war. On the morning of Monday the 1st of December grainy footage was released showing the corpse of Yemen’s former President of 33 years, carried ignominiously by his former allies on a blanket with a fatal head wound and dumped in the back of a van. Hours later the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh was confirmed, killed by the Houthi’s while trying to escape Saana, the site of an uprising he inspired 72 hours earlier. Those who knew Saleh will be aware of the immense presence that he had in Yemen. Dashing, bold, charismatic and strong Saleh inspired a committed following among supporters that will endure long after his death. For his critics, Saleh was an individualistic power maximiser constantly putting his own interests above those of his country.
On December 1st Saleh, the man who many Yemeni’s believed ‘could not fail’ successfully seized a number of buildings and choke points in Saana. This uprising marked the culmination of Saleh’s courting of the Saudi led coalition which had been thinly veiled since the massive (around 700,000 attendees) August 24th rally in Saana. Yemen watchers have long speculated when the marriage of convenience between the Houthi’s and Saleh would collapse and it appeared that the man renowned for ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’ was making his move. For 48 hours the battle for Saana lay in the balance. However, by the evening of Sunday the 3rd of December it was clear the Houthi’s superior firepower the uprising would end in failure. Did Saleh the consummate deal maker look to make one deal too many? Perhaps. What is clear now is that in Saana and across Yemen a major power vacuum has emerged and now there is race from all sides to fill it.

As the news of Saleh’s death was breaking, I was flying to Riyadh to meet with President Hadi, the democratically elected President of Yemen. Hadi’s government is specifically referenced in the United Nations Security Council’s only resolution (UN Res 2216) on Yemen as the legitimate government.
In the meeting with the President, Hadi maintained that the position of his party and his government was clear, to carry out the terms agreed in the National Dialogue Council (NDC), which the United Nations Security Council Resolution specifies as essential. The NDC concluded in 2014 and was a comprehensive cross-party attempt to address reconciliation issues in Yemen. President Hadi was adamant that having both signed the document Ali Abdulleh Saleh and the Houthi’s had reneged on their promise to the Yemeni people.

Hadi went to great lengths to describe how the NDC had looked to address the concerns of the Houthi’s. According to Hadi, each of the Houthi’s 11 points raised during the NDC negotiations were included in the settlement. This included army pensions being paid to families of dead fighters and a full Government apology. President Hadi laid the blame for the collapse of the NDC squarely on the shoulders of Iran. According to Hadi, Iran has long been planning for war in Yemen and they wanted the state to fail and turn into to the Middle East’s equivalent of Somalia.

Hadi believed the Houthi’s pulled out of the deal under Iranian instructions to do so and suggested that the Houthi’s were now wedded to the idea of Iranian style religious institutions governing Yemen. The President made a final claim about Iran’s regional intentions, suggesting that if Iran controls Yemen through the Houthi’s it will have control of the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al Mandeb straight. With access to these major chokepoints, Hadi suggested Iran’s rogue regime would be catapulted to the status of great global power without firing a shot.

Hadi still reportedly has access to oil revenues in the east of the country but state sector workers have not been regularly guaranteed income for the past 15 months. Regarding Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, Hadi was absolute in his confidence claiming that in government-controlled areas the payment of teachers, doctors and judiciary had occurred since September 2016 when the Yemeni Central Bank moved to Aden. Unfortunately, having spoken to experts from the UK Embassy to Yemen in Riyadh, it is clear that this is not the case.

Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen incite the anger of Members of the Commons, NGO’s and the public. This is unsurprising given the decision to initiate a full blockade on Yemen costing potentially thousands of Yemeni lives. In meetings with the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al Jubeir and the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al Juber, both ministers expressed their grave concerns for Saudi security. We should not underestimate the major blow to national prestige caused by the firing of an Iranian supplied missile at Riyadh on November 4th. Riyadh’s 7.5 million population were able to see the missile on its descent into their airspace. The example that both the Foreign Minister and the Ambassador used was, how would the United Kingdom react if a missile was fired directly at Heathrow terminal 5 by a terrorist group from outside our borders?

The Saudi’s understand their failure to communicate why they are involved in this conflict. In a meeting with the coalition spokesperson Thurki Al Malaki this was pointed out to him. Saudi Arabia’s draconian policies towards Yemen have not been backed up by a suitable explanation as to why they are involved. This could be a result of a desire to project strength, but it has served only to turn international opinion against the regime.

The Houthi’s, in international opinion, are a small mountain-dwelling tribe, embarrassing the Saudi regime at every turn. Such a description greatly undersells their military capacity. The quashing of Saleh’s competent GPC forces in 72 hours in Saana and their ability to launch long-range missiles across the border show a very competent military capability. Bolstered by consistent and proven Iranian support the Houthi’s have transformed themselves into a serious military force, with designs on running Yemen as their Hashemite predecessors did centuries ago. Their ambitions have come a long way since the conclusion of the NDC.

Perhaps the most apt comparison for the Saudi’s current situation with Yemen is the relationship between the UK and Ireland 500 years ago. Back then the predominantly Catholic states of Spain and France would look to use Ireland to destabilise the United Kingdom. The Saudi’s made clear they will not accept an Iranian proxy on their border. Iran has no business in Yemen, and their continued support of the Houthi’s has amounted to a thinly veiled Iranian missile attack on Saudi Arabia. In a region which is renowned for its instability and with an ambitious new Crown Prince, continued Iranian interference in Yemen should be a concern to us all.
With Saleh dead, the question now turns to what is next for Yemen and whether this development makes peace more likely. As the conflict continues Yemeni’s continue to die in their thousands with an estimated 130 children dying each day from preventable causes. The announcements by Saudi Ministers Adel Al Jubeir and Mohammed Al Juber that they are preparing to launch $10billion aid programs for Yemen will be welcomed when they are introduced. But critically it is essential that they need to immediately announce the opening of all ports to humanitarian and commercial aid. If this promise is delivered it will abate the suffering of the 20 million Yemeni’s currently in need.

Meanwhile, the conflict has changed dramatically and the split between the Houthi’s and the GPC may provide a new roadmap to ending the war. There are already claims that forces loyal to Saleh have switched sides and now fight with government supported troops in Taiz and Saada. Saleh’s son Ahmed Saleh arrived in Riyadh days after his father’s death and is now reportedly returning to Yemen to lead government supported troops, with the support of the Emeriti’s. The Saudi’s are embracing a three-track policy towards Yemen with military, economic and political components. Putting this pressure on the Houthi’s while easing the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni population could be key in turning public opinion away from the Houthi’s and towards the coalition and government supported troops.

The United Kingdom’s policy towards Yemen has been sadly inconsistent and at times non- existent since this conflict began. We must make certain that we now adopt a coherent approach to the conflict and attempt to bring it to an end as soon as possible. The UK must use all the instruments in its diplomatic arsenal to ensure that Saudi Arabia delivers on its promise to open Yemen to aid groups and stops bombings that might kill civilians. The Quint meeting last month in London showed green shoots of progress, but this must be built on immediately in a productive way. In the House on Monday Boris Johnson said that the next meeting was planned for next year. Yemen can’t wait that long.
The UK needs to ensure all sides come to the peace table. After all, Boris Johnson said that this was our ‘top priority’ and that he was receiving daily reports. A new UK-led UN resolution to bring the conflict to a close would be an important step in bringing the war to an end.

On Wednesday in the House of Commons Aid Agencies and the Yemeni Diaspora’s MP’s and Ambassador’s gathered for the Second annual Yemen Day. The situation in Yemen is shambolic and tragic and its outcome remains unclear. However, with recent developments, there is hope that the conflict is edging towards a conclusion. Saleh’s son Ahmed now appears to have momentum behind his bid for power. However, fortune in Yemen has been shown to be fickle. Whether Saleh’s son does take control, whether the Yemeni government will continue to be backed by the Saudi coalition or whether the Saudi’s will back off and initiate a power-sharing agreement with the Houthi’s will become apparent in the coming weeks. There are now only 13 days until Christmas Day during which time a further, 1820 Yemeni children will die from preventable causes. This war remains a stain on the world’s collective morality. Whatever the outcome of Yemen’s new political drama all parties involved must work tirelessly for the end of this senseless war.