My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made a short while ago in the other place by my honourable friend Mr Ellwood. The Statement is as follows.
“As the House will be aware, violence in Sana’a has escalated, with heavy clashes breaking out yesterday between the Houthis and Yemeni security forces. The situation is evolving rapidly, a fragile ceasefire was negotiated by implementation and has been, at best, partial. The Presidential Office and President Hadi’s home are now under Houthi control.
I am deeply concerned about the situation in Yemen. I urge all parties to step back from conflict in Sana’a, Marib and other parts of the country and ensure that a ceasefire holds.
Those who use violence, the threat of violence and abductions to dictate Yemen’s future are undermining the security of all Yemen’s citizens and eroding the political progress made since 2011.
The UK is playing an active role in encouraging all parties to work peacefully together to implement and enforce a ceasefire and return to dialogue within the framework of the GCC Initiative, National Dialogue Outcomes and the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, reached between President Hadi and the Houthi leadership last September.
The PNPA is a framework for peaceful political transition and I call on all parties to work through the cross-party National Authority, effectively a National Assembly, to implement the agreement, including a new constitution.
I spoke to HMA Sana’a yesterday. The British Embassy in Sana’a remains open and all our staff are safe. We are obviously keeping the situation under close and active review. Since March 2011, we have advised against all travel to Yemen”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, the implications of renewed violence in Yemen are far reaching, given that al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula has established the country as its base and is using Yemen as a launch pad in its efforts to destabilise Saudi Arabia. Can the Government set out what long-term support is being offered to the Yemeni authorities to help to counter the threat of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, and how that support is likely to be affected by these recent events?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to point to the fact that al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula has its home in Yemen. We have been working with the Yemeni Government to ensure that we can have a peaceful political transition. We are involved in capacity building now and will continue to do so in future, which involves a new constitution and planned elections. We are also deeply involved with colleagues in DfID in providing humanitarian aid. The humanitarian situation is dire and millions of Yemenis continue to live without food, shelter or water. We have provided more than £173 million from 2011-14 and committed a further £78 million for 2014-15. Chaos breeds a place for terrorists. Our work is to prevent chaos.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the most critical point about this current instability in Yemen is that we need to work to prevent it becoming sectarian, and it has all the hallmarks of being yet another conflict backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran? What conversations have the Government had with the United Nations Special Envoy, Mr Jamal Benomar, regarding an immediate ceasefire, in so far as that can be achieved, so that we can go back to the peace process?
My noble friend is right to draw attention to the fact that it is important that this does not become a sectarian matter. In the past it has been a three-way battle between the three groups of AQAP, the Hadis and the Houthis. It is important that that does not develop into a sectarian matter. We are working closely with the UN on all these matters, and I know that it has been meeting for a discussion of this today. I assure my noble friend that everything is being done by our embassy through the G10 and the Friends of Yemen to ensure that we get back on track with the peace process.
Our key concern must surely be for the safety of the few British nationals who remain in Yemen and, of course, with our own diplomatic staff—and also, of course, for the danger of a boost to al-Qaeda there and in the wider region. Given that the interests of Saudi Arabia are very involved and that it has been intervening at the border in the past, does the Minister see any danger of a wider and possibly military intervention by Saudi Arabia?
As the noble Lord will be readily aware, we are working through the Friends of Yemen with a wide variety of actors to try to get back on track with the peace process. Of course, he is right to point to the security problems in the area. We know that Saudi Arabia is a main actor in trying to protect its own borders. He can be assured that our embassy staff work constantly in negotiations with other countries to ensure that cross-border activity is prevented.
The noble Lord has given me the opportunity, for which I am grateful, to pay great tribute to our ambassador in Sana’a, Jane Marriott, and all those who work with her, along with those who travel out of necessity from the FCO to do work there. We advise others not to travel, but some have to in order to keep us safe.
Could my noble friend illuminate for us, as she usually does, who is on which side in this conflict? I understand that the Houthis are Shiite peoples, which presumably means that they are against ISIS and are backed by Iran. Is that correct? I make one other point. Does not the horrific threat to Japanese citizens by ISIS bring home to us the point that this whole area is not just a western issue, and that we should take constant steps to involve in efforts to keep the peace and sort out the turmoil in these areas the responsible nations—the rising, rich nations of Asia—which are just as much threatened as we are? Are we in close contact with Beijing and Tokyo and the other, rising nations, in solving this problem collectively and globally rather than just as a western issue?
My noble friend is absolutely right. This is a matter for all who want peace throughout the world. Destabilisation in Yemen threatens security in other countries. My noble friend refers to the fact that the Houthis are Shia and my noble friend Lady Falkner was right to point out that it is important that this does not become sectarian. Regardless of religion, AQAP and the Houthis and the Hadis have been combatants against each other. It is important that we work together internationally to prevent further escalation and chaos in Yemen.
My Lords, 48 years ago this month I was first involved in operations in Aden against an outfit called FLOSY, and Yemen has had pretty dodgy situations ever since. I fear that, unfortunately, it is already a sectarian struggle in Yemen; that is part of the problem. However, my question relates to the safety of British people. We were at one stage setting up a coastguard organisation. The links between Yemen and Somalia are huge, with a constant flow of traffic. Are we still running and setting up that coastguard organisation and, if so, how many people do we have in-country doing that?
My Lords, I will refer to the core issue, which is the safety of British citizens. There are very few British citizens registered with us in Yemen and we have good contact with them. Clearly, if they have not registered, we do not know they are there, and that is a rather different matter. I emphasise again that since early 2011 we have advised against all travel to Yemen. Security of the area is a matter of agreement between the main actors there. My focus has to be, as the noble Lord stressed in his question, the safety of British citizens in Yemen. We are monitoring that on an hour-by-hour—if not minute-by-minute—basis. If they cannot contact the British embassy, they may contact any EU embassy and receive the same service.
There are problems in the history of this. The bin Laden family, as is well known, had Saudi connections and lived in Yemen. The Wahhabi doctrines pumped out of Riyadh are what inspired the bin Laden campaign. Will the Minister comment on our relations with the Saudi Arabian regime, which are very active, as we understand it? Can it be ascertained whether the Saudis are still facing two ways on the question of the theological doctrines that they are trying to export to the rest of the Arabian peninsula?
My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that there are discussions in London tomorrow at which the Saudi Arabian Government will be represented. Those discussions will focus on joint action against the spread of terrorism. I think that it would be wrong of me at this stage to posit what the Saudi Arabian position might be and how it might develop. Tomorrow is a vital meeting. We hope that it will set us on a track that will mean we can then more broadly work with the rest of the countries in the United Nations to ensure that more stability returns to such a strife-riven region.
My Lords, I am sure the whole House will feel relief at what the Minister has been able to say about the safety of our staff in the embassy. However, in the past, the British embassy and the British ambassador—a different, former ambassador—have been directly targeted. Will the Minister assure us that all non-essential staff have already been able to leave Sana’a? She mentioned the role of the GCC in its efforts to move towards a ceasefire. Can she give us any information about whether the Arab League has made any statements about the current position?
No, I am not in a position to answer the latter question but I will certainly take it up at the earliest opportunity when I leave the Chamber. I will also update the noble Baroness about the Arab League, and I thank her for that point.
With regard to the security of British citizens, all efforts are being made to secure the safety of those who have needed to remain within the embassy at Sana’a. When the ambassador wrote an article last year about her experiences there, she made it very clear to all of us that, in her words:
“The Al Qaeda cell in Yemen is a real threat to the UK’s security. They are the reason you can only take limited liquids on board a plane and why you have to remove your shoes … at security”.
These are brave people doing tough work. If anybody can aid the Yemenis in getting back on to the right track, they will.