Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:49 pm on 24th May 2011.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee 4:49 pm, 24th May 2011

I note that the other subject in this small section is that of Christians in Iran. I was just reminiscing with my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz about how when we were born in Aden in Yemen we were Christians in an Arab country and how well we were treated by the people of South Yemen, as it then was.

It breaks my heart to come before the House yet again to talk about the crisis that is occurring in Yemen. I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt, on the Front Bench, because I want to pay tribute to him, to the Foreign Secretary and to the Government for the amount of face-time and focus that they have given to the situation in Yemen. I am very grateful for that, because the globe is very big and Yemen is a very small country. Ministers and the Government have spent an enormous amount of time in ensuring that this House, the rest of the country and, indeed, the world are focused on these issues.

As I speak, the crisis in Yemen is deepening. We have been told for a number of days that the President is about to sign an agreement, which has been brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council led by the Saudi Arabians, on his making a dignified exit so that a new Government consisting of members of the opposition, some of whom are not involved in politics—a kind of Government of national unity—can take power. Each time I meet Ministers in the Palace of Westminster they brief me on what is happening and tell me what they know, which is that the President is about to sign. We had thought that was the case just 24 hours ago, but then we heard that our ambassador John Wilks had been penned into the United Arab Emirates embassy in Sana’a as he and other dignitaries had been preparing to go to the presidential palace to witness the signature of the President, which did not happen. Now the crisis is getting deeper and deeper. We already have a political crisis that could well lead to civil war in Yemen, which we had before and which ended with the reunification of southern Yemen and northern Yemen to create the state that currently exists. We also have a humanitarian crisis: 40% of Yemenis live on less than £1.25 a day, there is 50% illiteracy and 7 million people do not have enough food to live and survive in Yemen every day. That is why this political crisis has become a military crisis and it is also a humanitarian crisis.

When the Prime Minister appeared before the Liaison Committee early last week, I asked him to do one thing: to see whether there is any way in which our country, which has an honourable record in such matters, could send an envoy to try to bring the sides together. What I have heard from my contacts in Yemen—I have visited Yemen almost every year since my family left in 1965 and certainly every year that I have been a Member of the House—is that Britain’s role is absolutely crucial. Whether it is through Britain working on its own, the UK working within the EU, or the United States of America working with EU partners and our country—whichever mechanism we have—we need to try to fill this vacuum, because if we do not there will be civil war in Yemen.

We are told that the death of Osama bin Laden has led to the appointment of a new person to run al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and we know that he, Anwar al-Awlaki, is in Yemen. There is a danger that unless we deal with this situation now, al-Qaeda will have an even greater hold on that country and will be part of the process by which it is driven into civil war.

Every time I have talked about Yemen, I have talked about a crisis and said that it is worsening. Every time that things get even worse, I think that they have reached a stage at which they will not get worse, but they do. My one plea to the Minister, therefore, is that he continues his efforts, for which I am very grateful, but looks carefully, as the Prime Minister promised to do when he answered my questions at the Liaison Committee last week, into appointing an envoy who can try to bring the sides together so that we can have peace in that very beautiful but very sad country.