Yemen

Part of Petitions – in the House of Commons at 7:18 pm on 3rd February 2010.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 7:18 pm, 3rd February 2010

First, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise this issue in the House. Yemen used to be perceived as being in the backwaters of the middle east, but recent events have put it under the international spotlight.

Before I proceed, let me declare my interest in Yemen, which is registered in the Register of Members' Financial Interests. I am also the chairman of the all-party group on Yemen and have a personal interest to declare. I was born in Aden, Yemen, in 1956. My parents had gone there for economic reasons from Mumbai, India, and settled in the then British-occupied south Yemen. I spent the first nine years of my life there, before leaving with my family to escape the mounting conflict. I still feel strongly attached to that beautiful country and I have vivid memories of my early childhood there. I was educated at St. Joseph's convent school, and, as a young child, I used to sit and watch the ships as they prepared to go up the Suez canal.

The last few weeks have seen some very dramatic events concerning Yemen. International attention has been rapid, and these events continue to unfold on a daily basis.

I want to thank the Yemeni ambassador to London, His Excellency Mohamed Taha Mustafa, for the role that he and his predecessors have played in ensuring that, despite its size and previous isolation, Yemen is a country that commands the interest of this House and this Government.

I also want to thank the members of the all-party group-the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), and Lord Lea and Lord Kilclooney-for attending a meeting that I organised only a week ago with Dr. Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, the Foreign Minister of Yemen, prior to the very successful Yemen conference.

I welcomed the Yemen conference, which took place on 27 January. Our present Prime Minister is the first person in his position to have decided to focus, laser like, on the problems in Yemen and on the country's importance for regional and global security. I also want to thank the Foreign Office and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for ensuring, before the conference, that we built up relationships with the country. As a result, the conference was very much an end-product of dialogue and assistance that had been going on for some time.

As I speak in the House tonight, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend Mr. Lewis, is actually in Sana'a. He went there following the conference in order to continue with the relationship that I have described. It is for that reason that the response to this debate will be made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development. I think that the Foreign Office looked hard and far for a Minister to answer the debate, but they are spread all over Britain, if not the world. However, I am glad to see my hon. Friend here, as he has had many discussions with me about Yemen, and has done a great deal of work in his Department in respect of international development in the country.

Only today, and despite his very busy schedule, I and members of the all-party group had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We discussed many important issues in connection with Yemen, and I am very grateful for the time that he made available to us.

On Monday, the Foreign Secretary spoke about the need for deeds, not words. He was right. What we need are practical steps to be taken now, and pledges of aid to Yemen must be delivered immediately. As the Minister knows, we are still waiting for the pledges made at the 2006 Lancaster house conference to be realised. A total of £3 billion was promised by those who came to London to pledge support for Yemen, but only 7 per cent. of that has been paid over so far.

Yemen is a country of legends, and its history is fascinating. It was rumoured to be the route taken by the three wise men. If that was not the case, it certainly heralded the start of the frankincense trail. The Queen of Sheba had her palace in Yemen.

As the House knows, Ali Abdullah Saleh was elected President of Yemen at reunification in 1990. I pay tribute to him for all that he has done for his country.

Yemen is situated at a key position on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. It is strategically placed above the horn of Africa, and lies across the most utilised international shipping route. Its security, and the maintenance of stability there, are of vital interest-not only to Yemen but to all countries, both in the region and internationally.

Political unrest has caused much trouble for the Yemeni Government since reunification in 1990. It led to the emergence of a separatist movement in the south and the rebellion of a minority sect of Muslims in the north that is now referred to as the Houthi rebellion. The Yemeni Government are addressing the unrest on both sides, while ensuring that unity remains.

What has concerned us is the recent strengthening of terrorist cells in Yemen. This has meant that the Yemeni Government must additionally face an even more dangerous threat on another front. Terrorists bring the internal risk of disfranchised Yemenis being enticed into terrorist activities to undermine the Government. Effectively, that would rapidly lead to Yemen becoming a failed state- fragmented, drawn into a humanitarian crisis, and encouraging conflict beyond its borders.

I know that some have described Yemen as a failed state, and I keep reminding Ministers that it is not a failed state. It has the capacity to become a failed state if we fail to support it. As the Minister will know, its commitment to democracy is much better than that of many other countries in the region. However, it is important that in pushing the case for reform, we do so with the Government of Yemen, who are committed to reform. They are aware of the need to reform, and they are aware that unless there are reforms, there will be internal schisms. Tackling corruption and improving co-operation with the Opposition was the first item on the agenda, to be achieved through a commitment to daily dialogue with the Opposition and by the establishment of a national anti-corruption authority.

As well as political reforms, development and counter-radicalisation in Yemen should be our Government's main focus. Yemen has dwindling oil reserves. It has never had oil reserves like those of Saudi Arabia, for example, and the reserves that it had are dwindling. It has little water and has been deprived of international aid for decades, even after it was severely affected by the repercussions of the first Gulf war.

America recently pledged £62 million to Yemen, which is up from zero, its previous support. Focusing aid on developing education institutions, infrastructure, employment and export diversification is vital. Counter-radicalisation is intrinsically connected to development and securing long-term jobs. Some 35 per cent. of Yemenis live below the poverty line, 65 per cent. are under 25, and 18 per cent. under 18. Therefore a large, idle and desperate population is being increasingly wooed by al-Qaeda and become increasingly vulnerable to its activities.

Counter-radicalisation seizes terrorism at the root. The current growth of terrorist networks must be dealt with through immediate action by establishing an effective system of counter-terrorism. This should avoid imposing a military presence or giving such an impression to the Yemenis, especially in light of their previous hostility to American involvement in the region. Providing weapons, equipment and intelligence assistance is the most effective way in which Yemen can combat terrorists within its borders.

For example, Yemen needs help to develop an effective system of verification. Owing to a lack of helicopters, Yemeni security forces must rely on reports of nearby tribal leaders to confirm those dead or wounded after attacks on terrorist hideouts in the mountains. It is important that if al-Qaeda leaders are killed or prevented from engaging in action, that is independently verified.

Therefore the creation and development of an efficient system of intelligence and information exchange within the Yemeni security services is extremely important. The US has 550 suspects on the "most wanted" list, but little is known of their whereabouts and the role in al-Qaeda of each of these suspects. Although this is a difficult starting point, building a system of counter-terrorism for the Yemeni security services will help enormously. That is why it is vital that we have dialogue. Without dialogue, we have real problems.

We must also keep an eye on the areas beyond Yemen's borders which affect its internal instability through terrorist infiltration. The development of a lawless zone stretching from northern Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea and the Gulf of Aden to Saudi Arabia, is a real fear. We know that extremist groups are already involved in activities in the horn of Africa. We know of the piracy that occurs between Somalia and Yemen. It is extremely important that we provide effective resources for the Yemeni Government to deal with that.

Some of the security issues can be addressed immediately. Sadly, Yemenia Airways, the national airline of Yemen, has had its flights between London and Yemen cancelled since 20 January. I raised the matter with the Prime Minister today. I understand perfectly the concerns of the Department for Transport. It wants to make sure that when people board flights on Yemenia or from other countries, they are properly searched and scanned before they arrive in the United Kingdom. We heard on Tuesday that at Manchester airport and Heathrow, body scanners are to be rolled out. When we go to through those airports, Members of the House and everyone else will have to go through a full body scanner. If that is the case for this country, surely we can give Yemen one body scanner, so that it can be used at Sana'a airport. The Foreign Secretary talked about a comprehensive approach, but it is important that we look at practical help. We should not wait for reports to be considered by Cabinet Committees; we should act immediately to help those in Yemen who are our friends.

We also need to look at what is happening within our borders. The President and the Government of Yemen have complained on numerous occasions about the existence on British soil of radio stations that go out of their way to make anti-Yemeni and anti-Government statements calling for the overthrow of the democratically elected Government in Yemen. We must do as much as we can to ensure that our territory-our land-is not used for those purposes.

Another concern is the British hostages who are held in Yemen. Discussions are ongoing, and I thank the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Bury, South, who flew to Yemen yesterday, for inviting me and other members of the all-party group on Yemen to join him on that mission. That was a wonderful gesture in view of the group's work. Unfortunately, owing to other duties, I could not go with him, but he does not need me to accompany him, because he will do a very good job himself.

We want to ensure that there are practical steps, however, so here is my shopping list, which I have passed on to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, so that he knows what I am shopping for in today's debate. There should be funding for development and the security services. Let us not wait any longer; let us deliver it now. We are doing our bit, but what about the other countries that pledged £3 billion four years ago? There should also be technical assistance, through the provision of weapons and training, so that we can engage the Yemeni forces and they can stop their country falling into the hands of those who wish to destroy it. There should be more effective intelligence. We have the best intelligence services in the world, so why do we not work with them to provide that help? We should continue to do what the Minister is doing so effectively: providing development aid. What he is doing will benefit people not so much in the short term, although there are immediate benefits, but in the long term. Let us try to get Yemen admitted to the Gulf Co-operation Council. Let us see whether it can be admitted to the Commonwealth, which it is entitled to join, because Aden was a British colony.

In addition, I put to the Prime Minister an idea, which I hope that he will take up, to create a task force for Yemen, because he himself knows the importance of the matter. The task force should include some parliamentarians, British business men, officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth office and others-anybody who will try to help us keep Yemen stable. It would go hand in hand with the measures that Britain has already undertaken. I do not call for the appointment of an envoy, because that would take too long and what would they do? We have some wonderful Foreign Office Ministers who can do that job, but let us support them by creating a task force for Yemen. Let us not leave the situation as it is; let us do something positive.

The Government of Yemen are more than willing to co-operate to combat the ills that face their country, and to deal with counter-terrorism. Economic growth, elite compliance and state stability will be welcomed, too, so long as they arrive with a good level of non-interference in Yemen's socio-cultural issues and institutional reform. To quote Dr. al-Kurbi, one of the longest-serving Foreign Ministers in the Gulf, who qualified as a doctor in our country-at Edinburgh university-and therefore knows and has great respect of our country:

"Yemen has many problems, great challenges and more expectations".

We should assist in tackling those challenges, resolving those problems and ensuring that people's expectations are not in vain. Now that the media frenzy is over, now that the television camera crews have packed their bags and left the Yemen conference and now that the international spotlight has grown a little dimmer, I urge the Minister, despite the huge amount of issues facing Foreign Office and Department for International Development Ministers, to keep our focus on Yemen. We should help them to help themselves. That would be a truly great legacy for this Government as far as foreign policy is concerned-not dealing with this after the event but preventing Yemen from falling into the same kind of disrepair and disillusionment as Afghanistan or Iraq. Because of the respect that Yemenis have for our country, this whole goal-the future of this country-is also in our hands.

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