Keith Vaz MP: The sands of time are running out for Yemen
Yemen was once the forgotten crisis, but now it feels like the never-ending crisis, says Keith Vaz MP.
The conflict in Yemen has divided a country, divided the Middle East and divided opinion in the House of Commons.
This is not just figurative language. Northern Yemen is controlled by the Saudi-led Coalition, Aden by the United Arab Emirates, Sanaa by the Houthis and vast swathes by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It breaks my heart that the country which gave me some of the happiest years of my life is now so fractured.
As one of the three Members of the British Parliament born in Yemen, I and the world have watched this crisis grow from a tribal dispute into a human catastrophe. The stark and desperate reality faced by the Yemeni people contrasts with my warm memories of this beautiful country, where my family received hospitality, respect and dignity.
There must be only one aim in crafting current policy on Yemen, and that is to secure an immediate and permanent ceasefire. It is for this reason that Yemen needs honest brokers in the region, and there is no greater candidate than Oman, which I visited last week.
While in Oman, I spoke with President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the embattled leader of the legitimate government of Yemen, to seek answers on how we can bring Yemen back from the brink. When I spoke with him, my first question could only be, ‘How are we going to get peace in Yemen?’
Reassuringly, President Hadi was focused on the delivery of humanitarian aid, and the efforts needed to rebuild the country, with 80% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance and 3 million suffering from severe acute malnutrition, 370,000 of whom are children. I am desperately fearful that the significant divisions between the two sides will make the negotiations incredibly tense and difficult, if not intractable.
The tragedy we witness today is all the more distressing when one looks back to 2011. Yemen emerged from the Arab Spring so much better than other Arab countries. A civil war was prevented, elections were held, and the UK and international community played a critical role, with our then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, travelling to Sanaa to hail the peaceful transfer of power.
Just like with Syria or Libya, we may now ask with the benefit of hindsight, did we take our eye off the ball in Yemen?
Since the escalation of the conflict almost 2 years ago, the UK has been given a pivotal role, but some have argued that instead of taking the lead, we have been playing catch up.
The UK’s influence in the region was well demonstrated when Theresa May addressed the Gulf Coalition Council in December, but it is surprising and disappointing that after 7 months in office she has still not spoken with President Hadi. At a time when the UK is seeking a fresh, independent role on the world stage, we must display our ability to tackle global problems, especially one with which we have been so closely associated.
Our Ambassador to the United Nations, Matthew Rycroft, has been at the forefront of setting out a strategy, however there is no point in Britain ‘holding the pens’ if we are not using them. Surely now is the time to put pen to paper and table a new Security Council resolution to update and replace Resolution 2216.
Roadmaps and Obstacles
Many are now part of the complicated ‘Game of Thrones’ that is the crisis in Yemen, including the Hadi government, Houthis, former-President Saleh, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Iran, UK, USA, and even Daesh and AQAP.
However, my discussions in the region gave reason for hope. The Foreign Minister of Oman, Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, believes the diplomatic roadmap proposed by UN Special Envoy Ismail Ahmed Sheikh is still firmly on the table.
I was told that the two sides are serious about forging a ceasefire, and the real hurdle is are allowing all parties to ‘save face’. The old certainties are fluctuating in Yemen, and we need to be ready to nudge these parties towards a compromise and remove the final political obstacles.
The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, candidly spoke out on the risk of proxy wars in the region, and this must not be a factor in prolonging Yemen’s suffering. At a recent Parliamentary meeting with the British Ambassador to Iran, Nick Hopton, Iran’s influence in the conflict was raised multiple times.
The ‘Wish List’ for Yemen
What then, should Parliamentarians be pushing for in the coming months to move forward a solution?
- Immediately open the Ports and Airports: crucial for aid and medical supplies to reach the people.
- Involve Oman: the Omanis are playing a critical role in promoting dialogue between the belligerents, and have rightly been invited into the ‘Quad’ of nations resolving the crisis.
- Start the Political Roadmap now: Despite some outstanding issues, the necessary political steps are clear. This will require compromise. President Hadi is in a position to allow this to happen.
- Pass a new United Nations Security Council Resolution: Pressure all parties to sit at the negotiating table.
For too long Yemen was the forgotten crisis. Now Yemen feels like the never-ending crisis.
President Hadi accepted my invitation, on behalf of the Yemen All Party Parliamentary Group, to address British Parliamentarians and elucidate the Yemeni Government’s position. We will be able to hear first-hand what is happening in the country.
My memories of Aden, the diamond of the Arabian Sea, are seared into my heart. It still boasts a hospital named after our own Queen, and was once a centre of British influence and of global trade.
The death and destruction that have become the hallmarks of a war entering its second year benefits no one. Yemen has come face to face with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: AQAP, Daesh, starvation and death, where people cannot even attend the funerals of their loved ones for fear of being killed at their time of maximum grief.
Failing to push for peace now is not an option. The sands of time are running out for the people of Yemen.
Keith Vaz is the Labour Member of Parliament for Leicester East and is the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Yemen