It is a pleasure to follow John Howell. He raised important points about the Houthis, which I will come to in a moment. I am also grateful to Keith Vaz for securing this debate. Even though we in this country are obsessed with Brexit, and with who might be Prime Minister in three days’ time, other important issues deserve our attention. The ongoing failed state that is Yemen is a major threat not just to its neighbouring countries but to the whole world, and it could be the powder keg that sparks a wider conflagration.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because a year ago I went to Saudi Arabia and visited Najran. I saw buildings, a school, and a power plant that had suffered extensive damage from missiles fired into Saudi Arabia from Yemen by the Houthis. For those in Saudi Arabia, this conflict is seen as a threat to their state.
Let me add a little history to this debate. First, this conflict is not just between the internationally recognised and living in exile President Hadi and the Houthis, because Yemen has other conflicts within it. Since 2009, there has been an insurgency by the Southern Movement—its Arabic name is al-Hirak—and an area in the south of Yemen is controlled by tribal groups and militias, and has a transitional council that is supported, ironically, by the United Arab Emirates. Everybody talks about Saudi Arabia, but the UAE is also a key player within the internationally supported and recognised coalition that is led by Saudi Arabia. The UAE also has strong views about resisting all forms of influence in the Arab world from Iran and what it perceives to be its proxies.
Secondly, elements in the south of Yemen are linked to al-Qaeda, and there are real dangers to that happening in any failed state. We have seen in Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya that if there is no state with power, the vacuum is filled by non-state actors, including extremists who are prepared to act totally ruthlessly, and who have no principles or regard for international law or what their international partners think. That is what we could have in Yemen—indeed, we already have it, but it could be much worse.
Mr Mitchell spoke about having a new approach to whether we should continue to recognise President Hadi, given that he does not have any real locus within Yemen. That is a big issue and a fundamental question, because if there are to be talks, and if any real progress following the Stockholm agreement is to be made, the voices from the south of Yemen must also be heard. Such talks would not involve just the backers of President Hadi and of the Houthis, but other voices from within Yemen.
Yemen is a complicated country with a complicated history. There were once two Yemens, and with the end of the cold war they became one. Now we seem to have more than two, as there are several disparate groupings. Since last year there has been some hope—the efforts of Martin Griffiths have been referred to so I will not repeat them. There was an agreement to remove forces from Hodeidah and to have a neutral policing operation in the city, but we have not had that. The unilateral claim of withdrawal by the Houthis has been disputed by some people. We have also seen that even if the problem of the port of Hodeidah is somehow solved, that does not necessarily mean that the starving people in Yemen will be any better off.
The World Food Programme, which supplies food aid to 12 million people in Yemen, stated on Monday that it is thinking of suspending its operations in certain areas that are controlled by the Houthis. Of those 12 million people, 9 million are in Houthi-controlled areas, and the World Food Programme referred to a series of problems, including intimidation, corruption, extortion, insecurity and fighting, that are presenting great difficulties in getting that aid through. The Houthis are effectively taxing and extorting. Food and other aid is not getting through to the poor people, because these organisations are using their power to prevent it. That absolute scandal deserves wider publicity.