Adjournment debate – Yemen

Posted on June 14th, 2011 in Parliamentary News

Official Hansard transcript of the debate below:

Keith Vaz: First, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise this issue in the House. Yemen used to be perceived as being in the backwaters of the middle east, but recent events have put it under the international spotlight.

Before I proceed, let me declare my interest in Yemen, which is registered in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am also the chairman of the all-party group on Yemen and have a personal interest to declare. I was born in Aden, Yemen, in 1956. My parents had gone there for economic reasons from Mumbai, India, and settled in the then British-occupied south Yemen. I spent the first nine years of my life there, before leaving with my family to escape the mounting conflict. I still feel strongly attached to that beautiful country and I have vivid memories of my early childhood there. I was educated at St. Joseph’s convent school, and, as a young child, I used to sit and watch the ships as they prepared to go up the Suez canal.

The last few weeks have seen some very dramatic events concerning Yemen. International attention has been rapid, and these events continue to unfold on a daily basis.

I want to thank the Yemeni ambassador to London, His Excellency Mohamed Taha Mustafa, for the role that he and his predecessors have played in ensuring that, despite its size and previous isolation, Yemen is a country that commands the interest of this House and this Government.

I also want to thank the members of the all-party group-the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), and Lord Lea and Lord Kilclooney-for attending a meeting that I organised only a week ago with Dr. Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, the Foreign Minister of Yemen, prior to the very successful Yemen conference.

I welcomed the Yemen conference, which took place on 27 January. Our present Prime Minister is the first person in his position to have decided to focus, laser like, on the problems in Yemen and on the country’s importance for regional and global security. I also want to thank the Foreign Office and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for ensuring, before the conference, that we built up relationships with the country. As a result, the conference was very much an end-product of dialogue and assistance that had been going on for some time.

As I speak in the House tonight, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), is actually in Sana’a. He went there following the conference in order to continue with the relationship that I have described. It is for that reason that the response to this debate will be made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development. I think that the Foreign Office looked hard and far for a Minister to answer the debate, but they are spread all over Britain, if not the world. However, I am glad to see my hon. Friend here, as he has had many discussions with me about Yemen, and has done a great deal of work in his Department in respect of international development in the country.

Only today, and despite his very busy schedule, I and members of the all-party group had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We discussed many important issues in connection with Yemen, and I am very grateful for the time that he made available to us.

On Monday, the Foreign Secretary spoke about the need for deeds, not words. He was right. What we need are practical steps to be taken now, and pledges of aid to Yemen must be delivered immediately. As the Minister knows, we are still waiting for the pledges made at the 2006 Lancaster house conference to be realised. A total of £3 billion was promised by those who came to London to pledge support for Yemen, but only 7 per cent. of that has been paid over so far.

Yemen is a country of legends, and its history is fascinating. It was rumoured to be the route taken by the three wise men. If that was not the case, it certainly heralded the start of the frankincense trail. The Queen of Sheba had her palace in Yemen.

As the House knows, Ali Abdullah Saleh was elected President of Yemen at reunification in 1990. I pay tribute to him for all that he has done for his country.

Yemen is situated at a key position on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. It is strategically placed above the horn of Africa, and lies across the most utilised international shipping route. Its security, and the maintenance of stability there, are of vital interest-not only to Yemen but to all countries, both in the region and internationally.

Political unrest has caused much trouble for the Yemeni Government since reunification in 1990. It led to the emergence of a separatist movement in the south and the rebellion of a minority sect of Muslims in the north that is now referred to as the Houthi rebellion. The Yemeni Government are addressing the unrest on both sides, while ensuring that unity remains.

What has concerned us is the recent strengthening of terrorist cells in Yemen. This has meant that the Yemeni Government must additionally face an even more dangerous threat on another front. Terrorists bring the internal risk of disfranchised Yemenis being enticed into terrorist activities to undermine the Government. Effectively, that would rapidly lead to Yemen becoming a failed state- fragmented, drawn into a humanitarian crisis, and encouraging conflict beyond its borders.

I know that some have described Yemen as a failed state, and I keep reminding Ministers that it is not a failed state. It has the capacity to become a failed state if we fail to support it. As the Minister will know, its commitment to democracy is much better than that of many other countries in the region. However, it is important that in pushing the case for reform, we do so with the Government of Yemen, who are committed to reform. They are aware of the need to reform, and they are aware that unless there are reforms, there will be internal schisms. Tackling corruption and improving co-operation with the Opposition was the first item on the agenda, to be achieved through a commitment to daily dialogue with the Opposition and by the establishment of a national anti-corruption authority.

As well as political reforms, development and counter-radicalisation in Yemen should be our Government’s main focus. Yemen has dwindling oil reserves. It has never had oil reserves like those of Saudi Arabia, for example, and the reserves that it had are dwindling. It has little water and has been deprived of international aid for decades, even after it was severely affected by the repercussions of the first Gulf war.

America recently pledged £62 million to Yemen, which is up from zero, its previous support. Focusing aid on developing education institutions, infrastructure, employment and export diversification is vital. Counter-radicalisation is intrinsically connected to development and securing long-term jobs. Some 35 per cent. of Yemenis live below the poverty line, 65 per cent. are under 25, and 18 per cent. under 18. Therefore a large, idle and desperate population is being increasingly wooed by al-Qaeda and become increasingly vulnerable to its activities.

Counter-radicalisation seizes terrorism at the root. The current growth of terrorist networks must be dealt with through immediate action by establishing an effective system of counter-terrorism. This should avoid imposing a military presence or giving such an impression to the Yemenis, especially in light of their previous hostility to American involvement in the region. Providing weapons, equipment and intelligence assistance is the most effective way in which Yemen can combat terrorists within its borders.

For example, Yemen needs help to develop an effective system of verification. Owing to a lack of helicopters, Yemeni security forces must rely on reports of nearby tribal leaders to confirm those dead or wounded after attacks on terrorist hideouts in the mountains. It is important that if al-Qaeda leaders are killed or prevented from engaging in action, that is independently verified.

Therefore the creation and development of an efficient system of intelligence and information exchange within the Yemeni security services is extremely important. The US has 550 suspects on the “most wanted” list, but little is known of their whereabouts and the role in al-Qaeda of each of these suspects. Although this is a difficult starting point, building a system of counter-terrorism for the Yemeni security services will help enormously. That is why it is vital that we have dialogue. Without dialogue, we have real problems.

We must also keep an eye on the areas beyond Yemen’s borders which affect its internal instability through terrorist infiltration. The development of a lawless zone stretching from northern Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea and the Gulf of Aden to Saudi Arabia, is a real fear. We know that extremist groups are already involved in activities in the horn of Africa. We know of the piracy that occurs between Somalia and Yemen. It is extremely important that we provide effective resources for the Yemeni Government to deal with that.

Some of the security issues can be addressed immediately. Sadly, Yemenia Airways, the national airline of Yemen, has had its flights between London and Yemen cancelled since 20 January. I raised the matter with the Prime Minister today. I understand perfectly the concerns of the Department for Transport. It wants to make sure that when people board flights on Yemenia or from other countries, they are properly searched and scanned before they arrive in the United Kingdom. We heard on Tuesday that at Manchester airport and Heathrow, body scanners are to be rolled out. When we go to through those airports, Members of the House and everyone else will have to go through a full body scanner. If that is the case for this country, surely we can give Yemen one body scanner, so that it can be used at Sana’a airport. The Foreign Secretary talked about a comprehensive approach, but it is important that we look at practical help. We should not wait for reports to be considered by Cabinet Committees; we should act immediately to help those in Yemen who are our friends.

We also need to look at what is happening within our borders. The President and the Government of Yemen have complained on numerous occasions about the existence on British soil of radio stations that go out of their way to make anti-Yemeni and anti-Government statements calling for the overthrow of the democratically elected Government in Yemen. We must do as much as we can to ensure that our territory-our land-is not used for those purposes.

Another concern is the British hostages who are held in Yemen. Discussions are ongoing, and I thank the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Bury, South, who flew to Yemen yesterday, for inviting me and other members of the all-party group on Yemen to join him on that mission. That was a wonderful gesture in view of the group’s work. Unfortunately, owing to other duties, I could not go with him, but he does not need me to accompany him, because he will do a very good job himself.

We want to ensure that there are practical steps, however, so here is my shopping list, which I have passed on to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, so that he knows what I am shopping for in today’s debate. There should be funding for development and the security services. Let us not wait any longer; let us deliver it now. We are doing our bit, but what about the other countries that pledged £3 billion four years ago? There should also be technical assistance, through the provision of weapons and training, so that we can engage the Yemeni forces and they can stop their country falling into the hands of those who wish to destroy it. There should be more effective intelligence. We have the best intelligence services in the world, so why do we not work with them to provide that help? We should continue to do what the Minister is doing so effectively: providing development aid. What he is doing will benefit people not so much in the short term, although there are immediate benefits, but in the long term. Let us try to get Yemen admitted to the Gulf Co-operation Council. Let us see whether it can be admitted to the Commonwealth, which it is entitled to join, because Aden was a British colony.

In addition, I put to the Prime Minister an idea, which I hope that he will take up, to create a task force for Yemen, because he himself knows the importance of the matter. The task force should include some parliamentarians, British business men, officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth office and others-anybody who will try to help us keep Yemen stable. It would go hand in hand with the measures that Britain has already undertaken. I do not call for the appointment of an envoy, because that would take too long and what would they do? We have some wonderful Foreign Office Ministers who can do that job, but let us support them by creating a task force for Yemen. Let us not leave the situation as it is; let us do something positive.

The Government of Yemen are more than willing to co-operate to combat the ills that face their country, and to deal with counter-terrorism. Economic growth, elite compliance and state stability will be welcomed, too, so long as they arrive with a good level of non-interference in Yemen’s socio-cultural issues and institutional reform. To quote Dr. al-Kurbi, one of the longest-serving Foreign Ministers in the Gulf, who qualified as a doctor in our country-at Edinburgh university-and therefore knows and has great respect of our country:

    “Yemen has many problems, great challenges and more expectations”.

We should assist in tackling those challenges, resolving those problems and ensuring that people’s expectations are not in vain. Now that the media frenzy is over, now that the television camera crews have packed their bags and left the Yemen conference and now that the international spotlight has grown a little dimmer, I urge the Minister, despite the huge amount of issues facing Foreign Office and Department for International Development Ministers, to keep our focus on Yemen. We should help them to help themselves. That would be a truly great legacy for this Government as far as foreign policy is concerned-not dealing with this after the event but preventing Yemen from falling into the same kind of disrepair and disillusionment as Afghanistan or Iraq. Because of the respect that Yemenis have for our country, this whole goal-the future of this country-is also in our hands.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate and on giving the House an opportunity to have this discussion, and I thank him for his kind words. I know that he has a genuine and long-standing interest in the future of Yemen and its people. That is an interest that the Government share, reaffirmed following my visit to the country last year.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out, Yemen is a country that is beset by challenges. Fresh water resources are rapidly running out, its population is set to double within the next 20 years, and unemployment already stands at 35 per cent. At the same time, governance is weak, and there is ongoing conflict and political tension. In short, we are talking about a country that has been poor, is poor, and without action will be poor for the foreseeable future. Its development and humanitarian needs are as significant as they are clear to everyone.

That is why the Department for International Development has long recognised Yemen to be a country desperately in need of international aid and support. We have stepped up our commitment considerably over the past five years; indeed, in 2007 we signed a 10-year development partnership agreement with the country, which was a signal of our intent. As the Foreign Secretary noted in his statement to the House on 5 of January, a renewed UK country strategy for Yemen was developed in September 2009. That set out our priorities and, crucially, made it clear that we are ready to offer our long-term support. The document and the rationale behind it met with agreement from right across this House.

Since then, of course, Yemen has acquired a much higher profile internationally, with December’s attempted bombing making headlines around the world. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the potential role of al-Qaeda and the related terrorist activity in Yemen, which are matters of grave concern to the UK Government. However, let me be clear. Our view, and that of many Foreign Ministers who gathered in London last week, is that such activity is a symptom, albeit a corrosive one, of wider problems within Yemen. To treat that symptom, we need to treat the cause, and that is poverty: poverty of resource, poverty of means, and poverty of opportunity.

That is why in recent weeks we have moved quickly to see what we could do to encourage the international community in its support for Yemen. The Foreign Ministers’ meeting in London last week, convened by the Prime Minister and attended by Yemeni Prime Minister Mujawar, had three main objectives: first, to forge an international consensus about the nature of the challenges that face Yemen; secondly, to build an impetus behind the economic and governance reform agenda; and thirdly, to improve the way that we co-ordinate international aid that goes to Yemen.

In his statement to the House earlier this week, the Foreign Secretary outlined what had been agreed at that meeting. I can reiterate today that everybody present agreed that the main responsibility for tackling Yemen’s problems lies with Yemen itself. However, the international community is ready to stand by Yemen and to offer its support, both in addressing the challenges presented by al-Qaeda, including through enforcing all relevant United Nations sanctions, and in helping the Government to tackle the political, social, governance and economic challenges that they face.

The agenda is both short term and long term. Short-term support will be provided through a new Friends of Yemen Group, which will act as a kind of critical friend, ready to challenge, question and advise the Yemeni Government. This will be particularly important as Yemen faces up to some tough decisions on how and where it should focus its energies. The first meeting of that group will take place in the Gulf in late March, and it will discuss how Yemen can best deliver much-needed economic and governance reforms and tackle the challenges and instability that it faces.

During the London meeting, the Yemeni Government and the International Monetary Fund reaffirmed their agreement to talks to establish an IMF programme for Yemen. That is extremely encouraging and should help Yemen identify ways to tackle some of the most immediate economic problems, including the burden placed on its budget by national fuel subsidies and the civil service wage bill. If that process is successful, it should encourage other donors to align their funding accordingly, potentially making funding streams more effective.

Keith Vaz: I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said so far, but I still cannot understand how, after the conference that we hosted at Lancaster house in November 2006-a wonderful decision by the Government, and we have always hosted such conferences-£3 billion was pledged but only 7 per cent. has been paid. What has happened to the other 93 per cent.? Who is not paying?

Mr. Foster: I hope to come to that point, and indeed I turn now to the very subject of aid. The secretary-general of the Gulf Co-operation Council has called a meeting of donors to discuss the barriers to disbursing aid in Yemen. Securing progress by the Government of Yemen on key economic and government reforms is critical to that, as is the capacity of the Government to absorb funds. The GCC meeting is specifically intended to identify barriers to the disbursement of Gulf donor funds.

As my right hon. Friend acknowledged, disbursement has been limited ever since the 2006 London consultative group meeting, at which some $5 billion of support was pledged. That money, together with funding from other donors, will help Yemen diversify its economy. That is particularly crucial given that its oil reserves, which represent some 90 per cent. of the country’s export revenue, are expected to run out within the next 10 years.

In the short term, the Yemeni Government need support in delivering basic services and providing jobs for their people, and we can help on that. However, they themselves need to take the critical decisions that will reverse Yemen’s trajectory by delivering services, stabilising the economy, tackling terrorist activity and resolving conflict. They need the political will to do that. I know that the challenge is immense, but it must be co-ordinated if we are to stand a chance of success.

Long-term support for Yemen is also needed to help it develop new markets, invest in its future and create job opportunities. However, economic growth will also depend in part on Yemen’s ability to resolve conflict and strengthen its governance, including by tackling corruption. Conflict can disrupt internal trade and discourage investment. Indeed, the evidence that we have suggests that it can reduce a country’s growth by more than 2 per cent.

We do not want Yemen to fail. Its problems are complex and will be addressed only through concerted and sustained effort on the part of the international community and, most importantly, on the part of Yemen itself.

Keith Vaz: Obviously my hon. Friend was not at the meeting with the Prime Minister, because I know he has his own engagements. Will he consider the idea of a taskforce on Yemen, which would deal not only with Government-to-Government contact but with people-to-people contact? There are many Yemenis in this country. As he knows, I am not a Yemeni-I am of Indian origin, although I was born in Yemen. However, there are many Yemenis in places such as Cardiff, the Foreign Secretary’s constituency of South Shields and elsewhere. It will be helpful if we can provide something more than just Government-to-Government contact, especially as far as trade and industry are concerned.

Mr. Foster: I accept totally what my right hon. Friend says about the contacts that exist in the UK and our good will towards Yemen. I will consider his suggestion and also offer him opportunities to raise it with others in the very near future.

Yemen has many friends beyond the UK, including the United States, the European Union and the GCC. Together with those partners, we stand ready to help Yemen and its people. Activity in recent weeks is testament to that. We need now to maintain that momentum so that reform can be achieved, aid unlocked and a future secured.

I repeat my thanks to my right hon. Friend for raising this important topic. We have plans in place to provide Members with a more detailed briefing on our work in Yemen, and I will ensure that he is notified of the time and date of that meeting.

Question put and agreed to.

7.44 pm

House adjourned.