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(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the situation in Yemen, including the closure of the British embassy and the position of British citizens in Yemen.
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My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will address all the security issues arising from the Christmas incident immediately after this. I will now address the broader picture. As my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz knows, the Government have been increasingly concerned about the situation in Yemen and about the number and scale of the challenges faced by the Yemeni Government and people. We believe that the increasing insecurity and instability in Yemen pose a threat to the Gulf region, to the wider middle east and to the UK.
Over the past 18 months, the situation has been a growing concern in the region and to Her Majesty's Government. Our cross-Whitehall discussions and close working with international partners led, in September 2009, to the development of a renewed UK country strategy for Yemen. This strategy is currently being implemented by Government Departments across Whitehall, including the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence. It covers four areas. The first is support for democratic political structures; the second addresses the causes of the conflict-so-called counter-radicalisation; the third relates to building the Yemeni capacity to tackle security and terrorism issues; and the fourth is directed at helping the Yemeni Government to deliver the functions of the state, onshore and offshore.
To strengthen further the international community's support for the Government of Yemen in meeting those challenges, the Prime Minister announced on
As a symbol of the Government's long-term commitment to Yemen, DFID signed a 10-year development partnership arrangement with the Government of Yemen in August 2007. The UK development spend is fully aligned to our Yemen strategy and to the priorities of the Yemeni Government's national reform agenda. We will spend about £25 million in fiscal year 2009-10; £35 million to £40 million in fiscal year 2010-11; and, dependent on progress on reform of state structures in Yemen, up to £50 million in 2011-12.
The Government of Yemen are embattled on four different but related fronts: first, the tribal rebellion in the north; secondly, separatism and separatist movements in the south; economic decline across the country, which is particularly important in the context of a near doubling of the population of Yemen that is foreseen in the relatively near future; and also the growing threat from Islamist terrorism in the form of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which finds safe haven in Yemen. Urgent economic and political reforms are the only long-term solution to Yemen's problems, but continued instability distracts from the Government's short-term efforts to address these priorities.
As a result of ongoing security concerns, the British embassy closed earlier this week on a precautionary basis for two days. The embassy is now open and staff are back at work. Currently, however, the public services sections of the embassy-the visa and consular sections-are closed. This is under regular review and I discussed the issue with our ambassador in a video conference yesterday morning.
I should point out that it is not unusual for embassies to close during times of heightened tension. During 2009, the British embassy in Sana'a closed on more than a dozen occasions. We have different procedures from other nations for assessing the safety and security of our staff. It would not be right to comment on the specifics of this closure, but I assure the House that it is kept under regular review to ensure that services are maintained. The embassy in Sana'a maintains regular contact with the British community through our wardens network and by regular factual messages to the British nationals who have registered with the embassy.
Finally, the overall threat level in Yemen has not changed. As we make clear in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice, the threat from terrorism in Yemen is high and remains of concern. We continue to recommend against all non-essential travel to the country.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing the question. I refer the House to the Register of Members' Financial Interests and to my personal interest, as I was born in Yemen and lived there for nine years of my life.
In welcoming the London conference, will the Foreign Secretary state precisely what additional support has been given to Yemen as a result of this recent initiative? Will he also confirm that all the money pledged to Yemen in London in November 2006 has been paid over? Can we stop referring to Yemen as a failed state? It has the capacity to fail if Britain, America and the nearby Arab states do not support it. Can we also make sure that the Foreign Secretary visits the country as soon as possible?
There are three parts to my right hon. Friend's question. First, the London meeting will not be a pledging conference, and I do not think that that is what is needed. However, as my right hon. Friend intimated in the second part of his question, some £5 billion was pledged at the London conference in 2006. A small proportion of it has been disbursed, in part because of concerns about how the money would be spent, but there are other issues. I understand that about 40 per cent. of it has been signed and 81 per cent. allocated to different programmes, although only a very small percentage has actually been spent.
In terms of my right hon. Friend's attempt to send me to Yemen, I cannot quite promise him that just at the moment, but the Minister of State, my hon. Friend Mr. Lewis, will be on a recce to Yemen next month. That will allow us to take forward the conclusions of the London meeting in an appropriate way.
On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the calling of a conference on Yemen in London on
I want to ask three brief sets of questions. First, in view of the closure of our embassy, is the Foreign Secretary confident that the right level of consular support can be given to British citizens and officials in Yemen in the event of further closures of the embassy, and that plans are in place to offer them protection?
Secondly, following the announcement of additional US-UK support for a special counter-terrorist police unit and for the Yemeni coastguard operation, may we express the hope that those arrangements will be conducted better than Downing street has conducted US-UK co-operation on related matters in the last 24 hours? Specifically, will the support be purely financial, or will it involve actual assistance on the ground in the form of training? What is the time scale for its delivery, and when is the new unit expected to be up and running? Is this an exclusively US-UK initiative, or does it involve other countries and partners, such as Gulf nations, that may be prepared to work with us?
Thirdly, it should be recognised that Yemen cannot be viewed solely through the prism of an al-Qaeda problem. The Foreign Secretary rightly referred to a mixture of issues. Yemen's internal conflicts are fuelled by political grievances, poverty, corruption and competition over depleted natural resources, issues that require political leadership from the Yemeni Government as well as assistance from the international community. Can the Foreign Secretary assure us that all those issues will be addressed at the conference in January, and will continue to be treated as a priority by his colleagues in DFID? Will he do his utmost to ensure that there is a focus on the Yemeni Government's responsibility to work towards a political settlement in the country, and that we look to the longer term as well as to the immediate problems?
I am confident that the right procedures are being followed in terms of consular support for British nationals. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there is a relatively small number of them, although the Yemeni diaspora in Britain is of long standing. There is a proud set of Yemeni communities, including, in South Shields, the oldest in Britain. There is obviously some need for consular support, but the ambassador has assured me that that is being dealt with in an appropriate way. The network of wardens that operates in many countries is there to alert us to any problems, but has not yet been notified of any.
The work that is taking place with the Yemeni authorities is more than paying out. The money includes finance for training, which has been an important part of the co-operation that is taking place. We will be discussing with a range of those attending the London meeting whether there is a way in which they could support the UK-US effort, and we will seek appropriate ways in which to use the skills and expertise that other countries can provide.
I was glad to hear what the right hon. Gentleman said about the breadth of the British programme in Yemen and the need to maintain it. The short term, the medium term and the long term are related. Most of the grievances that exist in Yemen are local rather than being related to the global jihad, and although al-Qaeda can try to find roots there, the vast bulk of the issues motivating Yemenis are what we would call bread-and-butter issues that a Government should be seeking to address. Certainly it is the prime responsibility of the Government of Yemen to do so.
Of course the actions of the Foreign Office in Yemen in closing the embassy and working with our allies in Yemen and the United States enjoy support across the House, but will the Foreign Secretary reassure us that, in supporting action against al-Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere in the region, we are ensuring that local people are not inadvertently alienated by our actions and those of our allies? In giving military support and aid to the Yemenis, and in developing the cross-departmental strategy to which the Foreign Secretary referred, are we impressing on the Yemeni Government the importance of avoiding civilian deaths and of building a sustainable coalition against al-Qaeda across the whole country?
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good and important point, which is highly relevant, and let me say two things on that. First, there has been a very wide welcome across the Gulf, as well as within Yemen, for the fact that the London meeting will not be focused simply on counter-terrorism, because that might play into the sort of dangers to which he rightly refers. The incubus that is Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula must not become a rallying point for the people of Yemen, because they become the unwitting or unwilling victims of attempts to tackle the AQAP presence there.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman is also absolutely right to insist that the economic, social and political issues at the heart of Yemen's development need to be addressed. I think that I am right to say that Yemen's oil wealth is likely to run out in 2015, and the dangers of water scarcity are very real. Those issues evidently are not amenable to a counter-terrorist solution, and require a much more deep-seated and effective role for government, supported by the international community. That is why the fourth priority that we mentioned-the functioning of the state-is so important to addressing those issues.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned radicalisation; will he undertake also to have close talks with the Saudi Government? They have some programmes that may seem unorthodox to some western eyes, but that nevertheless seem to be working in the Saudi and Arab context. I think that we should learn from that.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As it happens, the Saudi programme that was featured on this morning's edition of the "Today" programme is one that I visited last year in Saudi Arabia. It is a counter-radicalisation programme, rather than a radicalisation programme-that is an important point to make-and is extremely innovative. I met a failed suicide bomber-
Hence failed, but it is not a laughing matter, as he killed a lot of people in a market by blowing up a bomb in a truck that he was driving. He said that he did not know what its contents were and that he had been inveigled into driving the truck. He and a number of other people were going through that programme, which involved taking a comprehensive look at their lives, including in relation to religious instruction. A large number of innovative products are also available in terms of people's return to normal life after the programme. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to this matter, and I congratulate the Saudi Government on how they are going about dealing with it. It is certainly something that we work closely with them on.
May I also declare an interest as an officer of the all-party group that visited Yemen a couple of years ago? I found some very impressive Anglophile Ministers there, who think that Britain has a key role to play in that country and who want us to play a key role. I also found that the electoral gains made there by radical Islamists were in the areas of greatest poverty. We clearly need to do more to eradicate the terrorists, but can we also do much more to eradicate and rehabilitate their breeding grounds?
I am sorry to sound like a stuck record, but the hon. Gentleman also makes an important point. I hope that the House can be united in making the point that those who allege in today's newspapers that we are wasting our money by spending development funding on anti-poverty measures in Yemen are wrong. The figures that I have read out are substantial by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact that they enjoy cross-party support is positive. He is right that if Yemen is to be prevented from becoming a more dangerous breeding ground for terrorism, it needs to develop the sort of life chances for people that he and I may take for granted.
At an enormous cost in loss of British human lives, we joined America in its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Before we commit even more human lives to another nightmare, should not we consider the possibility of having an independent British foreign policy?
We should certainly have a foreign policy that is decided independently by the Government and people of this country, but we should not have an isolated foreign policy that attempts to work on its own. I am proud that we are very close partners of the United States, European Union countries and a large number of countries in the Gulf, which are very concerned about the situation. The attention that we have been paying to Yemen in the past 18 months is in significant part a product of the growing concern, from 2008, of countries in the Gulf that wanted British help regarding their concerns about the situation in Yemen. We are not unwelcome helpers in Yemen, and we certainly are not trying to recolonise it. That is an important point to emphasise.
Although I welcome this short discussion about Yemen, we are only having it because of al-Qaeda. Would it not be instructive if the Government were to produce a document about the international strategy against al-Qaeda, or hold a conference in London at which international partners could be invited to talk about that? That would be better than waiting for statements about other countries in which al-Qaeda is operating that may not be in the news at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, although I think that he would be one of the first to recognise that it is wrong to talk simply about al-Qaeda and not to distinguish between its senior leadership based in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or in the Maghreb. There are distinctive issues related to al-Qaeda's senior leadership on the one hand and its so-called franchises on the other. They are certainly worthy of study and debate, and the more the better, as far as I am concerned. However, Tim Loughton made the good point that there was a meeting with parliamentarians on the situation in Yemen before the Christmas incident. The fact that there is a thriving all-party parliamentary group, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, speaks for the close links that exist between Britain and Yemen, and long may they continue.
Given that a significant proportion of terror offenders turn out to have been radicalised towards extremism here in Britain rather than in Yemen or elsewhere, should not the Prime Minister also consider calling a summit on the radicalisation towards extremism and terror that takes place here?
That is exactly what the Prevent strategy has been founded on over a number of years. A large number of meetings-I do not know whether they qualify as "summits"-have been held within Government and around the country to address precisely this issue.
I agree with the Foreign Secretary about the importance of aid in removing what I call the "scourge" of the spots where terrorism can spring up, but my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary described the Government of Yemen as fragile. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House just how widely supported the Government of Yemen are among all the people, bearing in mind the tribal conflicts in the north and the separatist movement in the south?
Far be it from me to be a lawyer for Mr. Hague, but in his defence-or at least in explanation of his position-I think that he said that Yemen was fragile, and not its Government. Sir Nicholas Winterton will know that President Saleh is in his second term of office, and that the constitution prohibits him from running for a third term. Parliamentary elections in Yemen are due in 2011, and they will clearly be a massive challenge. One issue that will need to be addressed is precisely those democratic elections and people's ability to express their opinions in them. However, the number of Yemenis who are committed to violence-whether through the Houthi movement in the north or the secessionist movement in the south, and still less through links to al-Qaeda-are a very small minority.
All over the world-in Afghanistan and Pakistan and next door in Somalia, for example-our armed forces and aid budgets are stretched. Why has Britain, or perhaps the Prime Minister, chosen to take a lead in Yemen, when our resources are so stretched? Might it not be time to let the US or our other allies take a lead with regard to Yemen? Is it perhaps not a country too far?
So much for an independent foreign policy. First of all, this country has a long-standing history with Yemen, and I think that that gives us an important role there. Secondly, we are in a group of pre-eminent donors that includes the United States, the Germans, the Dutch and the Saudis, and indeed I spoke to the German Foreign Minister today. In terms of the stretch, we have been careful to make sure that, in our funding in Yemen, we spend only what we know that we are able to spend properly there. The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a range of other problems. In my view, the situation in Somalia is best addressed through the security work of AMISOM-the African Union mission in Somalia-but, on a political level, through the UN Security Council. The meeting that has been called and the other forms of co-ordination that are being established befit the situation in the Yemen rather better. History in Somalia is rather different.
The increase in international aid funding that Her Majesty's Government have promised pales into insignificance against what the oil-rich Arab countries on the peninsula could and should provide. Should not Her Majesty's Government make it clear to the countries on the Arabian peninsula that their priority should be dealing with potential problems from the Yemen, rather than spending millions of pounds on half-mile-high skyscrapers?
I am not sure whether it is the Government who are spending the money on the skyscrapers to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but he makes an important point. Some of the largest pledges at the 2006 conference were from Gulf countries, not western countries. It is important that those pledges are fulfilled. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East raised the question of which of those pledges had been paid, and that is a pertinent point.
The point of mentioning our aid programmes is not some vainglorious attempt to say that we have the biggest programme but to explain that there is a British commitment and it is proportionate to the sort of responsibility that we should bear. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is an issue that needs to be raised by countries of the region. I am pleased to say that in the past 18 months they have been doing so, and they have put us on alert about their needs.