Wednesday, 26 October 2016

LT Column - The conflict in the Yemen

The current conflict in the Yemen is complex, to say the least.

No one would disagree that the current humanitarian crisis that besets the country is extremely dire. As the United Nations has warned, we are seeing a real risk of famine in some areas. More than 14 million people are without reliable access to food and nearly 3 million people have been displaced.

The question, however, is how to bring about a solution.


The recent spate of violence stems from age-old historic feuds: between tribes, religious sects and political factions. Many actually pre-date the unification of Yemen in May 1990. It would be easy to send UK troops but the mood of the nation is that these conflicts are resolved by regional nations, preferably through peace talks.

This makes it all the more necessary for the UK to ensure any action towards the conflict is rigorously thought through. Hasty intervention, however self-gratifying, will only serve to make an intolerable situation even worse.

Many of those calling for intervention base their demands on reports of possible breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen. For them, Saudi’s incursions – despite being UN-sanctioned – constitute war crimes. And for this reason, they would like the UK to immediately stop licensing arm sales to Saudi Arabia. The SNP are tabling an amendment in Parliament this week to this end.

Whilst any contravention of humanitarian law must be treated with the utmost gravity, the government must bear in mind the complexity of the conflict before rushing to a decision.

Firstly, it goes without saying that the actions of all parties currently involved in the conflict should be scrutinised. The Houthi-Saleh military, for example, has also been reported to have committed atrocities in the region. Solely blaming the Saudi-led coalition for the country’s political turmoil would display an ignorance about all the actors involved in the conflict and it is not been made clear just how such an action would lead to peace.

Secondly, the UK must see the conflict in the light of our foreign policy as a whole and with reference to other geopolitical problems in the Middle East. At a recent meeting in Parliament to discuss the conflict, a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia warned of any rash denunciation of our ally. Whilst its human rights record is poor and its military escalation is excessive, the country does play a key part of maintaining (relative) stability in the Middle East. We must see the broader context again with the perspective of long term peace. It is not clear how taking sides represents a meaningful peace process.

Thirdly, the government must remember the hundreds of high-skilled jobs which depend on our exports to Saudi Arabia. This is no clearer in Hyndburn, where Many East Lancashire companies rely on the export of Typhoons. To brashly call for a cessation of arms exports, as the SNP has done, would be naïve and a betrayal of workers across the constituency.

We need a speedy solution to this conflict. But not one that will make the humanitarian crisis worse, increase instability in the Middle East, and harm our own domestic workers with no clear purpose for doing so.