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Volume 526: debated on Friday 1 April 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Francois.)

Mr Deputy Speaker, may I begin by thanking you for this opportunity to raise the important subject of Yemen? I should also like to refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I come to the Chamber today as the Chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, a country that I and other Members have visited frequently, but I also have a personal interest in it because my sisters and I were born there, in Aden, and the country therefore has a special hold on me and my family.

I am glad to see the Minister for Europe here today. I know that Yemen is not yet part of Europe, but I understand that the relevant Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is already on constituency business and has other important business, and I recognise that he is unable to be here. I have known the Minister for Europe for many years. We first met when we were 19 years of age, when we were debating other subjects. I do not think that he would have anticipated that, in 2011, we would be sitting across the Chamber from each other talking about Yemen, of all subjects.

We have now reached a critical time in the history of that troubled country. I want to start by thanking the Government for following the processes that were set in motion by the previous Government. I know that the Prime Minister spoke to the President of Yemen, President Saleh, in the latter part of last year, and that the Foreign Secretary chose to go to Yemen on his recent visit to north Africa and the middle east. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for doing that. Ministers at the Foreign Office and at the Department for International Development have also done that. They also accepted a request from the all-party group that the Yemeni Foreign Minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, one of the most distinguished Foreign Ministers in the Arab world, should come to Britain. Indeed, he came a few weeks ago and participated in bilateral negotiations.

As the House knows, Yemen is one of the poorest nations in the world. Its gross national income is only £659.35 per capita, and 47% of its population live on less than $2 a day. It has an elected President, a House of Representatives and a shura council that share power. We talk about the need for the countries of north Africa and the middle east to begin the process of reform, but I believe that Yemen has already begun it. It could well be said that Yemen is perhaps the most democratic of all the countries in the region.

Yemen is situated at a key point on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. It is strategically placed above the horn of Africa, and lies across one of the most utilised international shipping routes in the world. Its security and stability, and the maintenance of the same, is of paramount importance to the region—and, I believe, to the world—and is also in the interests of our country.

Yemen has become an active al-Qaeda base. In fact, it is reputed to be the most active base in the whole of the middle east. It is therefore critical to address the issues in Yemen before it becomes another Libya. Today, on the streets of Sana’a, Aden and other Yemeni cities, protests are going on. As the Minister will know, the protests are on both sides—some in support of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while others wish to see even more radical change. Up to 28 March, there were 170 confirmed deaths and many more injured. As for weapons, 16,000 guns were recently seized in Dubai on their way to other parts of the middle east, including Yemen.

I want to pay tribute to all those who have been part of the process, including the Yemeni ambassador, His Excellency Abdulla Ali al-Radhi, who wants to see a peaceful transition, as I think does everyone who cares about Yemen. What is critical about this debate, however, is the need for us to act—and to act as quickly as possible.

As we know, Yemen’s reunification occurred in 1990. It was supposed to see an end to the separatist movement in the south. The Yemeni Government claim that al-Qaeda militants have seized a weapons factory and two towns in southern Yemen, but that has not been confirmed by others. There is also a problem with the northern province of Sa’ada now entirely under the control of Houthi rebels who are running Government facilities and manning checkpoints. The recent strengthening of terrorist cells in Yemen means that the Government have to deal not just with the problem of their own people but with those who seek to undermine the whole structure of Yemeni government.

Seventeen members of President Saleh’s party have recently resigned and he has lost support in other areas. The President, however, has made it clear that he wants to stand down as President by the end of the year. Obviously, those opposed to the President believe that this should happen sooner.

The United States has tried to mediate and was, prior to recent events, funding the army. I think that the army is now split. On 16 November 2010, the Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that

“providing equipment and training to Yemeni security forces was the best way to counter the threat posed by jihadists”.

The situation is very difficult indeed. That is why I fully understand why the Government made an announcement a few weeks ago, which I am sure the Minister for Europe will re-emphasise today, to the effect that British citizens should leave Yemen immediately. I am sure that all who are there, whether it be for tourism or work, will want to do so and follow the lead suggested by the Government.

I want to say a few words about the Friends of Yemen conference, although I recognise that the issue of international development is taking second place to what is happening in the country. The Friends of Yemen process was started on 27 January 2010 when the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) decided to hold a conference on Yemen immediately after a conference on the middle east. It was prompted by the Detroit bomber’s failed attempt to cause carnage in America on Christmas day 2009. After that, we had further meetings to see what could be done further to assist Yemen.

Sadly, the next Friends of Yemen meeting, which was due to take place last week, was cancelled. I say to the Minister and the Government that I realise the difficulty in progressing the Friends of Yemen process while such a critical situation exists in the country. We should not lose sight, however, of the contribution we have made so far. I pay tribute to the Government for what they have done.

Additional spending in the form of United Kingdom aid for Yemen will reach £76 million in 2015. That is a very large increase in bilateral aid, but the problem is that the money can be spent properly only if there are organisations working in the country. Although I understand why the process may have been halted temporarily, we should bear in mind that one of the key reasons for helping Yemen is the poverty of its people. We must never lose sight of that fact.

I know that the Foreign Secretary and the Government have been extremely keen to urge the need for reform on every Government in north Africa and the middle east. I believe that the President has started that process, but—as the Government there know, as he knows and as the opposition in Yemen have been saying—it must take place at a much faster pace in order to satisfy the views of the people. What they require more than anything else are mediation and dialogue.

How can we ensure that we are able to play a part at this critical time in the history of Yemen, without interfering and acting as the former colonial power in southern Yemen but working in concert with our international colleagues, with the backing of the United Nations and with the support of the European Union? I think that what is required now is dialogue. As the Minister knows, I have said that many times when the Foreign Secretary has come to report to the House on events such as the conference on Libya. Although that conference was not about Yemen, it was certainly discussed at the margins, and I know that Hillary Clinton discussed it with the Foreign Secretary.

How can we become involved on a diplomatic and political level, while not becoming involved in a military way? I think that the answer is quite simple. We need to be at the forefront of this activity. I want Prime Minister Cameron to ring President Saleh over the weekend. I urged him to do that on the last occasion when he made a statement to the House. I handed the Secretary of State for International Development the private office number of the President—not that I think the Prime Minister needs to be handed the President’s telephone number, because he has spoken to him before.

That dialogue is very important. I want three wise people to be sent to Yemen now: someone acting as an envoy from the United Nations, someone acting on behalf of the EU, and someone acting on behalf of Britain. I want there to be a representative from Britain not just because of our colonial past in the area, but because I think that our Prime Minister and our Government are highly respected in Yemen owing to the work that has been done by successive Governments. I think that if we wait until there is civil war, it will be too late. A mission by three wise people out to Sana’a in the next few days, bringing the sides together and convening a conference there, would make a huge difference to the future of the country.

There is a risk that if we do not arrange that, the country will slide into civil war. Then people will ask, as they do about Libya, what we can do in order to stop the massacre of individual people—not by one side or the other, because there is no question of that happening. There is no similarity to what the President of Libya is doing. However, there is a similarity in terms of what might happen in the end. The only people who will gain from a civil war in Yemen will be al-Qaeda, and if al-Qaeda takes over Yemen, or even part of Yemen, there will be an impact on our country and our ability to maintain stability, not just in the region but in the context of what might happen to us here.

Let me give just one practical example of how we can help. For months I have been urging the Government to send scanners to Sana’a airport so that cargo and passengers can be scanned before they embark on flights to the United Kingdom. The importance of that was highlighted after the problems at East Midlands airport when a package arrived, originally from Sana’a, which had been to Dubai and ended up in Castle Donington in north-west Leicestershire. I have said that it is a simple matter and that we need not send great things, but should send those scanners. What the Government did was stop direct flights, which has had a huge effect on the Yemeni economy and made things very difficult for the very poor people of Yemen.

I therefore say that there are several practical things we can do now, but the most practical thing we can do is send these wise people out there right away, because what is needed is prevention rather than cure, and if we send them after the event, there is no telling what might happen.

Yemen borders Oman, a stable and friendly country to our country. It also borders Saudi Arabia. It is in the horn of Africa too, and we know about the piracy that occurs in that part of the world. Somalia is just opposite Yemen. In fact, during most of my early life there, there were a lot of Somali people who had come from Addis and had settled in Yemen.

What I am asking for can be done now, and—believe me—it is what the people of Yemen want. They want a peaceful transition, not a bloody transition and not the separation of the country into two parts. If there is a civil war and the country is split, the split will go on for ever and ever, and the cost to the international community in aid and support will be huge.

This is as simple a solution as possible. I know it is easy for me, a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, to be suggesting something like this to the Government, but the fact is that it is a simple solution to an agonisingly difficult problem. I visited Yemen when I was Minister for Europe, but the Minister has not done so, and I know you have not visited Yemen either, Mr Deputy Speaker. However, I hope that we will all be able to visit Yemen one day. Indeed, I hope that one day I will be able to take my 16-year-old son, Luke, and my 14-year-old daughter, Anjali, to Yemen to show them the country where their father was born and spent nine very happy years of his life.

I went there as a first-generation immigrant. My parents went from India to Yemen back in those unfashionable days to find work, and they settled in Aden. There was a very large British community there, and they exercised their right to come to this country and bring me here when the civil war began and our troops were made to leave Yemen. I know what it was like. I can remember the British soldiers being killed and their funerals, which took place very near where we lived. My family were immigrants, but we were treated so well. We were Catholics in a Muslim country, but they treated us with such kindness and dignity. I think we need to return the favour—to act now before it is too late. I beg the Minister from the bottom of my heart to pass this message on.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate. Anyone who heard him speak will know of the importance of the issues he has brought before the House, most obviously to the prosperity and well-being of the people of Yemen, but also, as he rightly said, to the security of the United Kingdom and the wider global community. Anyone who listened to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech will also have been left in no doubt about the depth of his knowledge of Yemen and his deep and abiding affection for the country and its people.

The UK has a long-standing relationship with Yemen, and in recent years we have, under successive Governments, sought to work with the Government of Yemen and the international community to bring about greater stability, prosperity and democracy in Yemen. The current situation in the country is a cause of deep concern, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned at the start of his speech the advice the Government are giving to British nationals currently living in Yemen, and it will be of assistance to the House if I make it clear again today that we changed our travel advice again earlier this week, and we are now advising British nationals that they should leave Yemen now, while commercial carriers are still flying. Because of the violence and political turbulence in Yemen and the dangerous security situation, the ability of the British Government to provide consular assistance is very limited. If British citizens do not leave, it is highly unlikely that the British Government would be able to evacuate them or to provide consular assistance if the situation worsens further. We are therefore strongly advising British nationals to plan on that basis.

Recent protests have brought into sharp focus the economic, political and social challenges that have faced Yemen for some time. The Yemeni protestors have raised their voices in a peaceful manner to demand a more open political system, and their bravery has been apparent to everybody. It is clear to us that the time has come for political change in Yemen. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Yemeni people have made it clear that they want greater political participation, greater respect for human rights, and peace and prosperity. The United Kingdom Government support those aspirations.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has led Yemen for more than 30 years and has steered his country through substantial change during that time, not least the unification of the two Yemeni republics. He has confirmed that he will not seek to run again as President of the Republic of Yemen, although the protestors are calling for a more immediate exit from power. I wish to make it clear to the House that it is not for the United Kingdom to determine how Yemen should be governed or who should be its President. The exact terms of the transition have to be worked out in Yemen, but we believe that it should be carried out on the basis of a credible and inclusive dialogue, that it should be peaceful and orderly, and that it needs to command the support of all sides in that country. The fundamental values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law should be upheld, and we stand ready to do what we can to support dialogue and transition, whether bilaterally or with our partners in the international Friends of Yemen group.

In response to the right hon. Gentleman’s final comments, I would say that the Foreign Secretary, Baroness Ashton on behalf of the European Union, and their counterparts in the United States are in close touch with the neighbouring countries of the Gulf on how best to offer assistance to the Government of Yemen. Sometimes we make clear in public what we are doing, but sometimes these contacts are made in private, for reasons that he will appreciate. Our judgment is that private messages are best at the moment and that a public mission would risk moving the focus from the responsibility of both the Government and opposition in Yemen to talk to each other, to whether an international mission with a high public profile would or would not succeed. Although I take the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal seriously and will ensure that the Foreign Secretary is made aware of it, we think that providing detailed and frequent support in private to those who have the responsibility to ensure transformation is the right way forward.

The violence that we have seen in recent weeks is shocking and unacceptable. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear on a number of occasions that we need to help find a way to reduce tension and avoid confrontation. All that violence does is undermine trust further, and that trust is essential if there is to be a successful negotiation and a period of political transition. As President Saleh has acknowledged, the Government of Yemen have a responsibility to protect protestors and uphold the rule of law, and that needs to be done with full regard to Yemen’s international human rights obligations.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, violence and the political crisis in Yemen take place against a background of a serious social and economic situation in that country. Yemen has a large and fast-growing population, huge unemployment, significant rates of child malnutrition, and rapidly declining oil and fresh water resources. As he said, more than 40% of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day, and the inflation in world food commodity prices is hitting even wealthy Yemenis hard. That is happening to such an extent that major international non-governmental organisations are seriously concerned about the potential for a significant humanitarian disaster in Yemen in the coming months. Government revenues there are decreasing and Government expenditure is increasing. The economy is in serious decline and the current political instability threatens to make an already fragile situation much worse.

Yemen and its prosperity matter to us all, because any worsening of the instability, terrorist activity and poverty will have a detrimental effect on security within Yemen, in the region and globally. Therefore, the Government’s strategy is to support Yemeni action to create a more secure, stable and economically sustainable Yemen. A number of different policy themes interact in that regard. Yes, we are helping the Yemeni Government to provide basic services for their people, such as health care and education. We have been supporting work to develop economic opportunities in that country to create jobs and generate income, most obviously through the Department for International Development’s programmes. We have supported work to build the capacity of the Yemeni Government to tackle the threat from terrorism and, within a strict framework, we have provided training to select parts of the Yemeni security forces.

Our strategy acknowledges that developing the capacity of a state cannot be just a short-term goal. It can take months or years and requires a long-term and serious commitment by both partners and donors. In addition to the assistance we provide in that area, the United Kingdom, through DFID, supports the very poorest in Yemen through the social fund for development. We are one of the biggest bilateral aid donors to Yemen and our development partnership arrangement sets out our development commitment through to 2017. Between 2008 and 2011 alone, DFID will have provided £105 million to support development in Yemen.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the Friends of Yemen group. I am happy to pay tribute to the previous Government’s initiative in establishing that group and of course the current Government have sought to follow that through. Like the right hon. Gentleman, we were disappointed when, at the request of the Yemeni Government, the planned meeting in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia was postponed. We very much hope that it can be rescheduled as soon as possible, but the timetable for that would very much depend on what happens politically in Yemen.

The Minister has set out the position very clearly as far as aid is concerned, but the emphasis now is on the critical nature of what is happening at the moment. Given that there is the Friends of Yemen group and that there is a structure, does he not feel that an emergency meeting with the emphasis less on development aid and more on protecting and helping the country to stay stable would be helpful? The critical point now is not how much aid we can give Yemen in future but how we can save people now.

I take seriously the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but as I said earlier, the meeting was postponed at the request of the Yemenis themselves. It is clearly important that they engage in such a meeting with friends and neighbours. We have not forgotten about Yemen because the friends group is not meeting: we are talking to the Saudis and other neighbours in the Gulf Co-operation Council about the best way forward to try to bring about reconciliation and political transformation in Yemen and about the way in which the regional and international community can help Yemen with development and enhancing its political stability once that period of political transition is over. That work is continuing whether or not there is a formal meeting of the Friends of Yemen group.

The Minister knows how important these matters are, and the problem is that the situation is different to that in Libya, where the successor Government will be the Libyan people in one form or another. The successor Government to President Saleh, unless we intervene now, will be al-Qaeda, and once it is in there will be no shifting it. I would like the emphasis that has been put on Libya to be put on Yemen, and I would like that to happen as soon as possible. These bilateral discussions are great, and they will always continue as part of Foreign and Commonwealth Office life, but there is urgency now.

I certainly take seriously the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the threat from al-Qaeda, especially as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other al-Qaeda affiliates have operated in Yemen for some time. AQAP in particular has significant operational capacity there. The Yemeni Government, under President Saleh, are of course publicly committed to combating AQAP, and we regard it as important that those involved in any new arrangements for government in Yemen after President Saleh has left office should be equally committed to the fight against international terrorism; we will do our utmost to work with the Government of Yemen to ensure that that happens.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned aviation security. I can tell him that the technical officials in the Department for Transport who are responsible for the project are working hard to implement it as quickly as possible, but we are not talking about equipment that we can just take to Yemen, and plug in and play; there are basic operating procedures, and staff training and management issues, that have to be tackled by the Yemeni authorities, not the United Kingdom. We can move only as fast as they will allow on clearance of equipment, undertaking training and putting in place the operating procedures. However, we have not forgotten the issue.

The United Kingdom regards the political crisis and the long-standing economic—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).