Keith Vaz MP: UK visit of the Saudi Crown Prince must bring an end to the carnage in Yemen
The Chair of All Party Parliamentary Party on Yemen Keith Vaz MP writes that the visit by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia offers a historic opportunity to end the three year long conflict in Yemen.
After weeks of speculation, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman will arrive in the United Kingdom today. For the second time in five months, he will meet with the Prime Minister Theresa May and for the first time with senior members of the Royal Family. From the minute the Prince lands his plane the red carpet will be rolled out, after all, Saudi Arabia is Britain’s key ally in the Arabian World and the Prince is a leading figure in the entire Middle East region.
Enormous efforts have taken place to raise support for the visit. Last week the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson took to ‘The Times’ comment page to highlight the Princes reforming credentials. Social media adverts with the hashtag ‘Welcome Saudi Crown Prince’ have suddenly appeared, and a half-page paid advertisement in the Evening Standard on Monday reminded us that "He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia." Despite this, what is certain is that along with the pageantry that accompanies official engagements, the Saudi Prince’s visit will be met by protests about UK arms sales, human rights abuses and above all the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.
Praise for the reforming tendencies of the Crown Prince is not off the mark. Mohammed Bin Salman (or MBS as he is known) may offer the best (if not last) hope for meaningful modernisation of the Kingdom. However, it is widely acknowledged he has been the instigator of the tragic war in Yemen which is the 21st century’s worst humanitarian crisis. This conflict is a stain on the reputation of Saudi Arabia and only he has the ability to end this catastrophe. His visit to London often described as the political kitchen of the Middle East, gives him and the British Government a unique opportunity.
In 2015 at the age of just 29 MBS was promoted to the position of Minister of Defence and became the unofficial gatekeeper to the throne of Saudi Arabia. His ascendency came just months after the seizing of Sana’a by Houthi fighters and weeks after the resignation and House arrest of Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. An ambitious Saudi Prince paired with unprecedented military spending seemed primed to bolster his credentials and defeat a mismatched mountain dwelling enemy from the Northern Highlands of one of the world’s poorest countries. Such a feat would not only stabilise Saudi Arabia’s southern border, but it would also strike a blow to the Iran, backers of Shia groups across the Middle East region with whom the Saudi’s are locked in an interminable proxy war.
However, as we have found with our own military ventures in the 21st century, overwhelming military superiority can be difficult to translate into a strategic victory. This year the Operation Decisive Storm will enter its 4th year and it has proved to be anything but decisive. Yemen’s war is deadlocked, starving, maiming and murdering thousands of Yemenis, many of them children.
The Crown Prince is still in ultimate control over the direction of this war as was highlighted again last week with the sacking of the heads of Saudi Arabia’s military. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Army Commander, Air Defence Chief, and Royal Saudi Air Force boss have all been replaced.
What is clear is that failures in Yemen are wearing on the Saudi Government and that there is a perception that a change of direction is desired. MBS is perhaps aware that continuing failure in Yemen would leave an indelible black mark on his credibility and derail hopes for domestic reform that he may have. Yemen has broken into warring statelets, the Houthis assisted by Iran are emboldened and firing rockets into the Kingdom and increasing international angst against the conduct of the Saudi’s military operations is growing.
This visit comes at a time with Yemen at a crossroads and the UK has the chance to push the agenda for peace. Our Prime Minister is preoccupied with Brexit but this week she has a more important task that could burnish her credentials as a world leader.
Following the Brexit vote, the role that the UK will play in the world has been frequently debated. We cannot become an insular nation that dodges working on the world’s biggest issues. We hold the pens on Yemen in the United Nations, we must not be afraid to use them. Theresa May can recast her image from Brexit Prime Minister to peacemaker if she shows leadership and works with the Crown Prince to end Yemen’s war.
The Prime Minister must call on the Prince to open Yemen’s borders to commercial and humanitarian aid, allowing food and fuel to flow into the country. Life for ordinary Yemenis is a living hell. The Saudi’s are quick to advertise the extra $10 billion in aid that they have pledged to Yemen but international aid and commercial amenities are a necessity for Yemen’s suffering population. Insufficient fuel is flowing through Yemen’s Red Sea Ports and this continues to manifest in inflation across the country. The amount of fuel currently entering Yemen is estimated to be at 40% of requirements and shortages have led to sustained price hikes across basic commodities. Yemen is on the brink of famine and inflation in the country is pushing 7 million people who are chronically short of food towards the edge. The Coalition’s easing of sanctions has led to food imports slightly exceeding requirements since the turn of the year, but this is offset by the detrimental impact of insufficient fuel imports. Any return to pre-Christmas conditions would be tantamount to a war crime and it must be made clear to the Prince that it would be recognised as such.
Restarting and reviving the stalled diplomatic process in Yemen is essential. In the 1990’s we had the Dayton Accords, widely regarded as one of the most complete peace processes that we have ever seen. We need to see an equivalent in Yemen, bringing together all of the parties and Theresa May should press for a date to be confirmed for these talks. Yemen’s War as the exceptional and charismatic Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and others have said is unwinnable, yet bizarrely all sides remain committed to a military solution. Any peaceful solution to the conflict must have the support of the Crown Prince. We all sympathise with the position that the Saudi Arabian’s find themselves in with the threat of a Hezbollah style Iranian proxy on their southern border. But the Houthis will have to be a part of any successful political solution, they are too deeply entrenched not to be. Encouraging the Saudi Prince to get behind the work of the new UN envoy Martin Griffiths could offer the Saudi’s the key to emerging from this quagmire.
Arms sales will dominate media coverage when the Prince comes to the UK. It is unlikely that continuing or discontinuing arms sales to Saudi Arabia would impact their conduct in the war, as there would be a number of other willing providers. However, it is important for the Prime Minister to let the Prince know that the Saudi bombing sorties described by the UN panel of experts as ‘likely war crimes" are unacceptable and must stop. Indiscriminate bombing of civilians is morally abhorrent. The Prime Minister must make it clear that while she strongly supports Saudi security concerns this kind of action will only produce a generation of Yemenis who will never forgive their neighbours despite the Billions of pounds of reconstruction money that has been pledged.
The civil war has ground down to a military stalemate while Yemen’s citizens continue to be slaughtered. 48 hours ago over 50 people were estimated to be killed in fighting outside of Saana yet the eyes of the World were focused on Hollywood and which film would win Best Picture at the Oscars. People were talking about the ‘Shape of Water’ rather than the Shape of Peace in Yemen.
Yemen no longer operates as a unitary state but as a set of different warring statelets. Government forces are advancing on Saana but the Houthi’s are so well entrenched that attempts to take the capital would cost hundreds if not thousands of lives. Across the country, human rights violations are committed by all sides. After three years of fruitless fighting we must end the carnage in Yemen. This week Theresa May and Mohammed Bin Salman must seize the opportunity of their meeting in London to schedule a date for peace talks that will include all parties in the conflict with the aim of creating a deal that will be both comprehensive and lasting. This is a historic moment. They should both seize it. Not another Yemeni child should die in vain.
Keith Vaz is Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on Yemen & Labour MP for Leicester East