Yemen Peace Process

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 23rd May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 1:15 pm, 23rd May 2019

The debate on Yemen seems to focus very much on arms sales, and it is an important debate that raises many ethical problems, some of which are rather complex. However, like Mike Gapes, I think that denying sales to Saudi may not achieve a great deal because it will simply buy the bombs from elsewhere. I would rather have our people in there targeting cells to minimise casualties.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis. She makes a very important point about ensuring that targeting in built-up areas is given an intense priority because of the potential for civilian casualties. As I am sure she knows, when we were running the ISIS campaign, if there were any civilian casualties, even in ISIS territory, we simply could not drop a bomb. For Saudi, it may be that those restrictions on battle damage assessment—BDA, as it is known in the military world—are somewhat looser or perhaps they justify it by going after particular individuals. There is an issue over BDA and the levels of BDA allowed by Saudi as opposed to other people.

I do not intend to talk for long, but I want to raise a few issues about the internal dynamics in Yemen and to ask questions of the Minister, in part because I am curious about the subject and covered it a bit in a previous employment. For me, the most concerning issue is the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman in the south and east of Yemen. All three countries are important allies of ours. I fear that those proxy dynamics are being played out through tribal forces in Hadhramaut and Mahra. A worsening conflict between those major states will increase civilian casualties in formerly more peaceful parts of the country, such as Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Mahra. It will also worsen the dynamic between our allies—the Saudis, the UAE and especially the Omanis—and Iran. Stephen Twigg was absolutely right when he said that we should not just see this through the prism of a proxy war. Unfortunately, that is an important part of great power politics. Clearly, that proxy battle, as we are seeing with the Houthi, and the dynamic between the Houthi and the Saudis in other parts of the country—around Sana’a and in the major ports—is driving the civilian casualties. Solving the civilian crisis and solving the great power politics around Yemen are very much one and the same thing.

I am concerned about the Iranian dynamic and abut the Saudi desire to put a pipeline through parts of Yemen when there is no central Government to negotiate on behalf of the tribes in Hadhramaut and Mahra provinces. I would like to hear what the Minister thinks we can do to use our limited influence—we should remind ourselves that our influence is limited—in certain parts of the country for stabilisation. I ask that for a specific reason: about five years ago, we had a plan—not for all of Yemen, but the MOD and other bits of Government put together a plan for the south and east of Yemen. I vaguely know about it because I was very vaguely involved in it. It was a good plan, which looked at linking up a bit of military support with peace-building measures, a bit of development, a bit of media work, education work and with a clean-up along the coastline, because the place was a bit messy. All these things were designed to stabilise south and east Yemen to prevent the Iranian smuggling routes of drugs and weapons into Yemen that were fuelling the conflict, especially from Mukalla. I cannot quite remember when, but about 15 or 18 months ago, the UAE special forces cleared out Mukalla—the Saudis came in as well—with the local tribes. I understand from my contacts with the local tribes, especially in the Mahra tribal federations, that they have, to a certain extent, welcomed outside forces, because they have helped to clean out al-Qaeda. Yemenis fear UAE attempts to cut off Aden from the rest of the country. The tribes fear that the Saudis are simply going to put a pipeline through eastern Yemen and not ask too many questions. The Omanis, who may not be our most powerful ally in that part of the world, but are one of our best allies, fear that they are being dragged into a proxy conflict with Saudi tribal federation groups and the UAE.

I am very keen to hear from the Minister how our influence is being played out, either locally or in our diplomatic relationships here and elsewhere, to ensure that our allies do not come to blows, and that they and we can be part of a solution that seeks to stabilise. Specifically in Hadhramaut and Mahra, that would look like engaging a broader tribal federation or tribal council—I think in Afghanistan it is called a Loya Jirga, but I cannot remember what the Yemeni version is called. There should be a wider tribal federation plan than the one that exists at the moment, whereby some tribes accept Omani support and some accept Saudi support. I know that I am asking some detailed questions, but very often the devil is in the detail with these things. If the Government could say what they are doing as an honest broker between our allies, I would really appreciate it.

Will the Minister also say whether there is a new joined-up strategy to replace the at least partial joined-up strategy that was attempted a few years ago, which for various internal governmental and agency reasons sadly never saw the light of day. I regret that because it was a decent plan. Are the Government concerned about the posture of the UAE in Aden? Are they concerned about the posture of Saudi in other parts of the country and about whether it wants a more permanent presence in Yemen? If it does, what would that mean for the delicate internal dynamics in that country?