The Future for Yemen



Colonel Bob Stewart DSO MP


The south-eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula was once crucial to the functioning of the British Empire.   A small settlement at Aden was occupied by Royal Marines in 1839 and became a bunkering port for passing ships.


After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, it became a vital staging post for ships going to and from India and the Far East. When coal turned to oil as the main fuel for ships, the importance of Aden was reinforced, particularly as it was so close to the Middle Eastern oilfields. Unsurprisingly, BP built a large facility there.


As time passed, Aden and its hinterland became a formal part of the British Empire called the Aden Protectorate, but government of the interior in particular needed the consent and involvement of local tribes, which was no easy matter.  The colony of Aden consisted of 23 sultanates and emirates and several independent tribes with defence and foreign affairs run by the British Government in London.


By the 1950s, some tribes were in open rebellion against British authority, which led to a protracted insurrection.


Then in 1967, the United Kingdom had had enough: Aden was given independence as South Yemen and British forces withdrew. The Aden Protectorate was renamed the People’s Republic of South Yemen.  The Yemen Arab Republic was to its north.   In 1990, North and South joined to become Yemen.


My particular interest in Yemen comes from the fact that as a child I lived in Aden between 1954 and 1957. My father was a company commander with the 1st Battalion the Aden Protectorate Levies charged with keeping order up-country as we called it. The attached photograph I think shows my father with his soldiers up-country in 1955.


However, since 1990, Yemen has gone from bad to worse. It is now such a dangerous place that it would be utterly foolhardy for foreigners to go there without protection. Yemen is now the poorest country in the Middle East and an incredibly fragile state. On the 2009 International Corruption Perception Index Yemen was placed 164th out of the 192 states investigated. 


I do not propose to dwell long over Yemen’s recent history before 2011, because it is incredibly complicated, difficult and perhaps less prescient than what has happened since. Suffice it to say that in November 2011, after some 30 years in charge of what was essentially a one-man dictatorship, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to hand over to his deputy, Vice President Mansur Hadi.  It happened in the hope that civil war could be averted and that did not work.


At the time there was some international feeling that Yemen might be able to sort itself out but that hope has come to nought. Too many of those with power in Yemen have plundered what oil revenues it had left, sent untaxed income abroad and deliberately resisted reforms that might have restricted their ability to loot their country.


We can argue about this, but the World Food Programme estimates that some 46% of the 10 million people living in Yemen do not have enough to eat.


Today Yemen has essentially become a cockpit in which, apparently, the two main branches of Islam are fighting tooth and nail. The Government of Yemen, under Sunni President Hadi, is now backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and the Gulf states, which are also all quite strong allies of both the United States and the United Kingdom. The rebels, mainly from the Northern Shi’a Houthi grouping and ex-Premier Ali Abdullah Saleh loyalists, seems to be backed by Iran. It was the rebel Houthis group that forced the Government to flee from Sana’a to Aden in 2014. 


To complicate the situation further, so-called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, perhaps the most dangerous of all al-Qaeda factions, now has a firm foothold in Yemen.


Just to make the situation even more complicated, the so-called Islamic State, which many people prefer to call Da’esh because it is such a rude word in Arabic, has now appeared on the scene, jostling to be more influential in the country.


AQAP and Da’esh have both been pretty active, carrying out a series of indiscriminate attacks against both the Government and the Houthis - what a situation! But AQAP and Da’esh are hardly comfortable bedfellows with either the Yemen Government or the Houthi or indeed the and Saleh opposition.  That is interesting and I will return to it later.


Some of Saudi-led Coalition air strikes have obviously gone badly wrong and have clearly killed innocent people.  Perhaps the worst of these occurred three weeks ago with the deaths of at least 140 people at a funeral in Sana’a.  Earlier this year I visited the Riyadh Air Operations Centre which controls all operations and I was impressed by both the attitude of air operations controllers and Coalition pilots with regard to weapons release.  From what I saw they were doing their very best to avoid civilian casualties when they struck from the air.  Indeed, I believe that often they return from operations with full bomb loads exactly because they were not convinced that their designated target was clear of innocent people.  I believe the appalling mistake of three weeks ago was just that – a terrible mistake.  The best way to avoid a repetition of course is for the war to end.  Maybe this tragedy can act as a catalyst for renewed negotiations.   


Of course the International Community should press for alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law to be investigated.  The Saudi-led Coalition, consisting of law abiding sovereign states, must be restrained by the laws of war in all its operations.  To maintain international credibility, it is vital that all alleged humanitarian law breaches are investigated, first by the Coalition itself but internationally if such action does not take place – which it must. 


On 14 April 2015 Security Council Resolution 2216 demanded that the Houthis withdrew from all seized areas, relinquished all seized arms and established an arms embargo on the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. 


But to what effect?  What impact has that decision had?  The answer is not much if anything.


Yet Security Council Resolution 2216 was passed unanimously. Four permanent members of the Security Council sanctioned it.  Russia did not, abstaining but by so doing allowing it to go through unopposed.


United Nations action, or more correctly inaction, has had little effect on what is happening on the ground. Ceasefires to help get aid through have come and gone and the latest one, based on the Kuwait ‘peace’ talks, has also floundered.  In July only 43% of monthly food needs and 23% of fuel needs for the people of Yemen were met. 


There remains no access or at least no complete access to large parts of Yemen.  I am pleased that the UK is the fourth biggest provider of aid to Yemen (£85 million this year) but to what effect?  Aid must get through to the mouths and bodies of those that need it most.


It is estimated that nearly 7,000 people have been killed in Yemen, more than half of them civilians, whilst an additional 3 million have been displaced with many more people requiring humanitarian aid.  


I recall that this is about the same number of Muslim people murdered in Srebrenica in July 1995.  The international furore that caused resulted in the international community getting off its backside and doing something.  I highlight that fact! 


Maybe 140 mistakenly killed three weeks ago at a funeral and recognition that there are now something like 7,000 dead Yemenis in total (similar to those murdered at Srebrenica in 1995) can spur renewed vigour from the international community which most certainly includes Saudi Arabia and Iran at the top table.    It is time for action not words in Yemen.


I speak from a British perspective and with that in mind I have to remind everyone that the Gulf Co-operation Council states and indeed Saudi Arabia are close allies of the United Kingdom.  Regardless of its mistakes the Saudi-led Coalition is operating under the authority of the unanimously adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2216 in response to what was, after all, an illegal usurpation of power in Yemen.  We would do well to remember that.  It is far too easy sometimes for us in the West to castigate our allies who are doing their best to implement international law. 


Obviously everyone here realizes that the only way ahead in Yemen is to find a political solution. That solution must involve the United Nations despite its seeming impotence.   


How might we proceed in Yemen?   


I suggest a plan for Yemen which probably requires the following 7 steps to be taken:

1. There must be meetings between the main protagonists.  Obviously these are the Government of President Hadi and the opposition of the Houthi factions and those of President Hadi’s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh. Getting them back round a table is the first step.  The Security Council must keep pressing for that.  Personally I have led many obviously much less important ceasefire negotiation sessions when I was the UN Commander in Bosnia.  My main lesson from them was simply to keep going, day after day, despite all reverses.  I suppose the groundwork must, quite rightly, be led by the Mauritanian diplomat and politician, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.  He seems to be acceptable to all sides – and hopefully trusted as an honest broker - that is crucial.  If he is not or indeed he is not skilled enough, then I am afraid he must go; as things will not work without an adept Chairman respected by all sides.

2.  Those doing the negotiating for President Hadi, the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s followers must have their safety guaranteed both to and from as well as at the negotiation location. There have been some doubts about the safety and security of Houthi negotiators in recent failed negotiation sessions and there cannot be in future.  Maybe that location could be in a traditional place for such activities – say Geneva?

3.  The immediate objective must be a ceasefire – not just to allow humanitarian aid to get through but also to allow proper detailed negotiations to take place with the urgent incentive that such a ceasefire might last until peace negotiations are agreed.  Getting a ceasefire is thus crucial to all that follows.

4.  AQAP and Da’esh have their own objectives. But as I have previously mentioned they are hardly popular with the Hadi Administration or indeed the Houthis or Ali Abdullah Saleh loyalists who are at least Yemini!   A joint agreement that AQAP and Da’esh is a common enemy and must be dealt with as such may not be too difficult to obtain.  This is where the role and respect for Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed is so vital. 

5.  There must be realistic expectations by all sides that any ceasefire agreed will not be perfect.  Again, using my own Balkan experience, ceasefires are never perfect.  They are likely to be just as flawed in Yemen not least because of poor communications and the obvious lack of strong, binding command structures from the top to the bottom of military commands – especially in opposition ranks.  Breeches of any ceasefires must indeed be plugged and rectified.  But they should be expected too and not throw the main negotiations off track.  Nothing is ever perfect.

6.  The withdrawal of armed groups from the capital Sana’a and other towns must be a clear objective too.  This role is where a United Nations Peacekeeping Force could be used – provided it was properly constituted, with effective orders, decent commanders and well-trained troops who have to come from countries accepted by all sides.  I think back to the way British soldiers were used to separate the warring factions in Rhodesia, what is now Zimbabwe in 1979-80 as a possible example of how this might work.  But obviously with British historical links to Yemen our troops would probably be inappropriate.  I presume soldiers from Islamic states might be best in this role but others acceptable to all sides might indeed be considered.

7.  Everything should lead to a political agreement which would allow for the resumption of a peaceful, inclusive political transition to government which represents all the people of Yemen.  Only last weekend I heard spokesmen for President Hadi and the Houthis say very clearly that they both recognised that their factions certainly did not represent everyone in Yemen. Recognition of that fact is another matter which may be easily agreed.  As I mentioned earlier the Aden Protectorate once had 23 sultanates and emirates as well as several independent tribes within it.  Maybe a form federal structure with all sides represented might be a suggestion.  If a return to a two state solution – North and South – stops the killing, perhaps so be it. 

To date Yemen has been an utter failure of international politics. We should do all that we can to try to correct that fast.  Seven thousand dead since 2011?  Surely a World that can land a spacecraft on a comet can work out a way to save Yemen from the hell in which it currently finds itself?