Yemen Peace Process

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:52 pm on 23rd May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Independent, Ilford South 12:52 pm, 23rd May 2019

In short, it is because the conflict has become a proxy. The Houthis are perceived by a large number of countries in the Arab world to be either proxies or puppets of the Iranian regime. I do not think that that is absolutely an accurate description, but it is clear that the Iranians are arming the Houthis. I have seen the remains of missiles with Iranian markings on, which were on display in Najran, and the Saudis have a lot of such material. Nevertheless, the reality is that this is an internal conflict that outside countries are exploiting.

The problem we have is that in the past few days the United States has decided to send a carrier group into the region. The US has always had aircraft carriers in the region. In 2000, flying with the Defence Committee, I landed on the deck of the USS John C Stennis, named after the Chairman of the US Senate Defence select committee. Bruce George, the then Chairman of our Defence Committee, was hoping that the Ministry of Defence would do the same, but that never transpired. We landed, with the wire, on the deck. This aircraft carrier was in the Gulf of Hormuz. We could see all the aircraft movements in Iran up to the horizon from the bridge of the vessel. The US is reinforcing its military capability with carriers in the region because of its tensions with Iran. I do not want to be diverted on to issues relating to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iranian nuclear programme and so on, but there is the potential for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to get America into a regional conflict with Iran.

There are good reasons to be critical of Iran: internally, it has the highest number of executions of any country in the whole world apart from China—much more than Saudi Arabia, actually—its bad behaviour in Syria; its support for Hezbollah; its consistent attempts over decades to undermine any prospect of a middle east peace process; and what it is doing in Yemen. At the same time, the Arab League has just sent an invitation from the Saudi Government to an emergency Arab summit on 30 May in Mecca. The terms of the invitation refer to “recent aggression”, which refers to the attacks on the two Saudi oil tankers off the UAE coast. No one has claimed responsibility. Blame has not yet been attributed, but the assumption is that that was done by either Houthis, people from Iraq or, potentially, those from Iran as part of the proxy regional conflict.

A year ago, as our plane was flying back from Najran and was about to land in Riyadh, there was an alert. We could see, from a distance of probably just a few miles away, an incoming missile fired into Riyadh airport. When attacks start on oil tankers and pipelines, and missiles are fired into airports as planes are landing, that gets into the mind-set of the Saudis. If we are to get peace and to get the Saudis out of this conflict that the then Defence Minister, now the Crown Prince, got them into in 2015—I am sure they never thought that four years later they would be sucked into it in such a manner, and I am sure they would like a way out—the problem, as has been said, is that the Houthis also have to want a way out. However, they are doing very well out of taxing the aid that comes in, controlling the ports and all the rest of it. They are not a big group. As a percentage of Yemen’s total population they are a very small group, but they have maximum power and leverage at this time.

I do not have a message of easy solutions. I know it is fashionable for some people to say, “Well, if we stop supplying arms to Saudi Arabia, there would be no conflict in Yemen.” No one who has spoken in this debate has said that, but I have seen leaflets going out from groups such as the Stop the War Coalition that seem to imply that that is the reality. The reality is that we must use our position in the United Nations, as we have been. We must back up Martin Griffiths and his efforts. We must try, even though it is difficult, to talk to the Iranians and say, “This pattern of bad behaviour is not helpful to you if you want us to stop the pressure for more sanctions.” We also need to find ways to get support internally in Yemen for a dialogue between all groups. I flag up the fact that it is not just about the Houthis and Hadi’s Government. There are other factors in Yemen and they all have to be brought together.