Thank you to the many of you have contacted me about the situation in Yemen, along with the UK’s involvement in this crisis.
The situation in Yemen, along with its geopolitical implications, is as complex as it is tragic. The reality of the conflict is that it is a proxy war being fought between Sunni Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (who lead a coalition of Arab states) against Shia Iran. This is just one of the spheres of conflict which Iran is employing to extend its influence in the Middle East, with its vast military support for the Alawite Assad Regime in Syria and the Shia Hezbollah movement serving as two other examples.
Iran is an aggressive and hugely irresponsible state actor that purposefully uses terrorism and asymmetric warfare to advance its strategic ambitions. From attacks and seizures of tankers in the Persian Gulf, to the support of terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, to the detention of Western citizens and an horrific human rights record within its own borders, the Iranian regime has proven itself to be a destabilising force in the region. It has threatened to wipe the State of Israel, a member of the United Nations, “off the map.” Regimes who act in this manner must be contained.
The Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, that is engaged in the Yemen conflict was initiated in 2015 to counter the takeover of Yemen by Houthi forces. The Houthis are trained, equipped and financed by Iran. In the view of the UK Government (a view shared by many of our partners in Europe), this support serves to destabilise the Arabian Peninsula and to threaten Iran’s principal enemy, Saudi Arabia.
In most, if not all, of the correspondence that I have received Saudi Arabia has been labelled as the aggressor with little mention of the opposing Houthi forces. I believe that we must view conflicts with degree of balance. It is only by recognising the motives of both sides that a resolution can be found if, indeed, a resolution is at all possible. The Houthi movement has committed the most appalling human rights violations in Yemen. They have willingly used banned prohibited antipersonnel landmines (planting a reported 1,000,000 throughout the country) and they have indiscriminately bombarded Yemeni cities such as Taizz and Hodeida. They have engaged in widespread hostage taking and, according to Human Rights Watch, have beaten, raped and tortured detained migrants from the Horn of Africa. Additionally, and crucially, they have launched attacks on Saudi population centres using Iranian supplied precision guided munitions; have attacked Saudi oil infrastructure and they launched ground attacks on Saudi cities such as Najran near the Yemeni border. Members of Yemen’s Baha’i and small Jewish minorities have suffered horrific persecution.
While I do not seek to defend the military strategy or conduct of the Saudi led coalition, I do believe that it is important to highlight the fact that their actions are based on the perception that the Houthi takeover of Yemen, aided by Iran, represents a major regional military threat. The strength of this perception is reflected in the fact that the coalition consists of twelve Arab nations. It is also worth mentioning the (over 800) drone and missile strikes against Saudi Arabia in the last year alone. I mention none of this to excuse the military strategy of the Saudi coalition – merely to highlight the (rather complex and multi-layered) context within which this conflict is taking place.
I do not support a reduction of the UK’s foreign aid budget of 0.7% of GDP and, in light of this, I share the concerns expressed by many of my colleagues about the reduction in aid to Yemen, especially at a time when it so needed. It is important to note, however, that the headline reduction in aid does not paint an entirely accurate picture as the situation is more complex than a simple reduction to one source of aid.
Yemen is particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 and is set to be one of the largest recipients of vaccines through COVAX – the international scheme to provide vaccines to poorer nations. We should be enormously proud that the United Kingdom is the world’s third largest donor to COVAX with a commitment of £735 million. This dwarfs even the EU’s commitment of £489 million. This demonstrates that while the pandemic may have necessitated a reduction in the UK’s direct foreign aid budget, poorer nations will still benefit enormously from UK aid – albeit through different channels. It should also be noted that Yemen will be receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, a vaccine only made possible through UK investment.
To add to the complexity, it is also crucial to note that numerous UK charities are operating across Yemen in support of the Yemeni people. To name but a few, these charities include Oxfam, Islamic Aid and Save the Children. Through Gift Aid and substantial government funding, these charities are another avenue of aid. This support has not been cut and indeed, in the face of a collapse in donations as a result of the pandemic, the Government has made almost £1 billion available to charities to ensure that they can continue their vital work.
It is also important to note that the UK’s 2021 commitment to Yemen is “at least £120 million.” £120 million is not the final figure, it is the minimum amount, and in most years the final amount donated has been far higher than the initial baseline commitment. I will be monitoring the situation closely, and I will be fighting to ensure that we meet our moral obligations to the Yemeni people while being mindful of the differing ways in which aid is also being provided.