Yemen — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:55 pm on 29th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat 2:55 pm, 29th March 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the current security situation in Yemen; and what steps they are taking to protect British residents and officials.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

My Lords, the security situation in Yemen is tense. There is political deadlock, there are violent protests and there is an already high risk of terrorist attack. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said on 24 March, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised all British nationals to leave Yemen immediately on 12 March. Since then, the situation has continued to deteriorate. We have detailed contingency plans but British nationals should leave Yemen now by the commercial airlines still flying.

Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is there not also a real danger of Yemen descending into chaos, with the vacuum being filled by the al-Qaeda terrorism in that country combining with counterparts in Somalia across the Gulf of Aden, so putting the 40 per cent of the West's oil that passes through there at great risk? Do the Government have any plans to help to address the underlying problems in Yemen, which come from poverty and hunger? Forty per cent of people there live on less than $2 a day. Have we any plans to assist with the provision of food aid, as something like $225 million of food aid is needed this year alone to stave off starvation?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

My noble friend is quite right to point to a number of very worrying dangers, including piracy and terrorism. We are in fact one of the largest donors to that very impoverished country and we are obviously concerned about how the political process should proceed. We hope that transition will be in a peaceful way and without too much bloodshed, but it is really for the people of Yemen and their present president to decide how that transition should go. As for outside support, rather than outside intervention, we think that the neighbouring countries are probably the best people to rally round and provide it. That may be working through the organisation Friends of Yemen, of which we are one.

Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour

How many people does the Foreign Office have in mind and how many, in particular, are employed at the embassy in Yemen?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

On the noble Lord's second point, at the moment we have 10 still there. The noble Lord is quite right to raise the subject because it is an extremely dangerous designation. There have been two life-threatening attacks on the British ambassador in the past year. I assure the noble Lord and the House that we have the most careful and detailed contingency plans for getting those people out safely, but it is a very dangerous situation. I do not have to hand the precise overall number of British nationals. It is not very many but I will provide him with the precise details if we can ascertain them, which is not easy.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

Does my noble friend agree that with the defection of Major-General Ali Mohsen and other senior military commanders, the sooner that President Saleh steps aside and allows a transition to democratic government, the less blood will be shed? Does he also think that the United Nations might perform a useful role as the broker of such a transitional arrangement, bringing the military and the opposition movements into a common Government to aim at that transition to democracy?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

My noble friend is right that that defection is significant. Those are influential people and that might help the move towards a peaceful resolution and a final decision by President Saleh on how and in what manner he goes in an orderly way. Concerning the UN, it has not recently played a significant role in Yemen. In most people's view, the responsibility really lies with President Saleh openly to engage with all parties in a sustained and credible fashion. As I said earlier, we think the best kind of outside support should come from the countries immediately around, which are obviously as concerned as us about developments there.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

Does the Minister agree that it is difficult to avoid seeing any change in the administration as a potential threat to western interests? What is his assessment of the role of al-Qaeda among the many other causes-secessionist, tribal and so on-of the unrest? If there were to be an implosion, what is his assessment of the danger of the unrest moving across the frontiers to other countries?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

Of course, as the noble Lord knows, these dangers are there all the time; there is no doubt about that. The al-Qaeda threat is there but is not the only threat. Al-Qaeda is most active in the north. Many of its members are being pushed over the frontier from Saudi Arabia. They are a problem and no doubt they are thinking of ways of exploiting any trouble or disturbance they can find. That is why it is essential that the president and the people of Yemen move away from the threats of violence and towards an orderly pattern of transition which they can decide for themselves.

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Liberal Democrat

I thank my noble friend for the care with which the British Government, other European Governments and America have handled these difficult situations with Arab countries. Bearing in mind that the evidence is now massively overwhelming that Arab populations want freedom, democracy and human rights, as in other countries-we have been told for decades that they did not want this and did not mind oppressive regimes-will my noble friend consider the British Government having some serious conversations with the Saudi Arabian Government to get rid of that oppressive regime and introduce some democracy there, including allowing women to drive cars?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

These are all very serious social problems but I think my noble friend would agree that if there is to be change, the aim must be to achieve the most peaceful and bloodshed-free transition. That is what we want. Obviously, we are in talks with all our opposite numbers in the Arab world and in the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, as my noble friend suggests. These matters have to be dealt with and we raise them, but if we can make progress in a peaceful, orderly way, that must be the best way forward.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I am sure we all agree with the Minister that the most successful outcome is one that involves a peaceful and orderly transition. However, in the Government's view, is that most likely to be attained through President Saleh stepping aside very soon or through his engaging in the sort of dialogue with dissidents elsewhere in Yemen that the Minister described a moment ago? The noble Lord talked about the support of neighbours. What support does he have in mind that Yemen's neighbours might give? Might it be troops on the one hand or direct aid on the other?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

President Saleh has already said that he will step down-we all know that-but it is a question of the timing and, no doubt, the question of to whom power should then transfer. These are obviously very sensitive and delicate questions inside Yemen. Sensible people, supporters and friends of the country and its people want to see the president step down as quickly as possible but in an orderly way. As to outside support, aside from the substantial aid which countries such as our own give to Yemen, the Friends of Yemen group has said that it is very ready to support training and to offer social support, all kinds of social programmes and a variety of other support. It has made clear that that is what it wants to see. However, I am afraid that it is from within Yemen-this is often the case in other Arab countries-that the movement has to come for an orderly transition of power, which is about to take place.

Photo of The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds Bishop

My Lords, in that context, what is the Minister's assessment of the danger of the protest movement in Yemen being taken over by people who are now opposed to President Saleh but whose record in conflict, particularly with the northern Houthis, is no more democratic than his is?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

The danger is quite high. There is a danger of all kinds of elements, including the al-Qaeda franchise, other jihadists and the rebel groups that have been present for many years-there is nothing new in some of the matters that we are discussing-taking over and replacing the present unsatisfactory pattern with something equally unsatisfactory. We have to be realistic about this. All the progress throughout the Arab world will not automatically lead to a new dawn of liberal democracy, much as we hope it will.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, have the Government assessed whether al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula within Yemen and al-Qaeda more widely have been caught out by this huge change across what I think Glubb Pasha called the "hinge of the world" from Tunisia through to Oman? It seems to me that they might have been and that, if we are quick on our feet, there is a real opportunity to use this to our advantage. I should be interested to hear the Minister's thoughts on that.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

When the situation is so fluid, it is very difficult to make these assessments, and I suspect that they vary vastly from country to country. We are talking here about the Yemen. Al-Qaeda is not the only threat to Yemen's present stability; all kinds of different tribal gatherings and pressures are undermining the situation. It could be that al-Qaeda has not been at the forefront of many of these uprisings, protests and rebellions. On the other hand, we must have no illusions but that, where it sees trouble, it will seize every opportunity to intensify it and make it worse. As to our opportunity in this area, we have to move in a very agile and clever way, making sure that we combine the support of the western world and the whole comity of responsible nations in trying to encourage a sensible transition to democracy and a move away from all forms of extremism.