24 September 2020
James Cleverly responds to a debate on the situation in Yemen

James Cleverly responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the situation in Yemen. He outlines the UK Government's support for the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and the United Nations in their efforts to secure a ceasefire.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing the debate and pay tribute to his work as chair of the APPG for Yemen. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), who preceded him as Chair; I know that she is passionate about this issue because of a long-standing personal connection with Yemen.

I am grateful for the contributions of Members across the House. This is an important debate, and there have been many thoughtful speeches. I recognise the passion with which those contributions have been made, even if I do not always agree with all elements of them. I will attempt to cover as many of the points raised as possible, but Members will recognise that this is a significantly complicated environment.

The looming famine in Yemen, which a number of Members have raised, worries us in the UK greatly. The simple truth is that Yemen is closer to famine than at any point since the conflict began. The UN projects that, by the end of 2020, 1.2 million more people in the south of Yemen alone will be classified as severely food-insecure. The Government recognise that, which is why we have appointed senior official Nick Dyer to be our envoy for famine relief. I raised this issue when I met David Beasley of the World Food Programme earlier this month. The primary cause of this issue is the conflict and the additional pressure imposed by covid-19.

The situation in Yemen highlights why the co-ordination of our diplomatic and our development and aid work is so important. If we were able to bring peace to Yemen, we would be able to start the repair work on its economy, its ability to buy food, its health infrastructure and its ability to fight coronavirus. That is why it is so important that our aid effort goes hand in hand with our diplomatic effort.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) rightly highlighted the real concern about the situation in and around Ma’rib. The Houthi offensive on that city could see people who are already suffering enormously and are already internally displaced suffer even more greatly. I will come on to talk about arms sales, but a number of Members have asked why we engage with Saudi Arabia on this issue. I ask Members from across the House to consider the imminent offensive by the Houthis towards Ma’rib. If the coalition were to disengage from this conflict, who would stop that? Who would protect the people of Ma’rib? That is why we work closely with Saudi Arabia.

We recognise the concerns about our arms sales policy. We have reviewed it in the light of the Court of Appeal decision, and all sales are measured against the revised set of criteria. We are working to support Martin Griffiths in pursuing a nationwide ceasefire, and we welcomed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s unilateral ceasefire earlier this summer. What did we see in return for its ceasefire? We saw attacks by the Houthis, backed by Iran, into Saudi Arabia and within Yemen. Oh that it were so simple that we could just disengage from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the conflict in Yemen would cease. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Safer oil tanker, which is of huge concern to us. It is estimated that a spill from the Safer oil tanker would be four times larger than the spill caused by the Exxon Valdez, and the environmental impact in the Red sea would be incalculable. He asked what we had done about the situation. We have called for a stand-alone session of the United Nations Security Council, and I regularly raise Safer in my engagement with parties in the region. I discussed it with the Yemeni Foreign Minister on 24 August, the Saudi ambassador on 5 August and the Saudi deputy Foreign Minister on 20 June. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised it at the high-level ministerial meeting on Yemen that he co-hosted on 17 September, and I have commissioned work to look into what the UK could do to secure it. The situation is terrible, and we are working hard to prevent the environmental catastrophe that would flow from it.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke about the role of women in the peace process, and she was absolutely right to do so. I am the Minister responsible for the women, peace and security agenda in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and we seek to make sure that all voices, particularly the voices of those who are most directly impacted by conflict—unfortunately, the simple truth is that that is women—play an increasing and important role. That was brought up during my virtual visit to Yemen.

A number of Members have asked about our engagement, and we engage regularly with parties. Several Members raised concern about the significant shortfall of £1.9 billion in aid. I am proud that the United Kingdom has maintained its position as one of the leading aid donors to Yemen. We have matched our earlier commitment levels, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently announced additional expenditure that brings us up to £200 million. Not only that, but in our international relationships we have used the fact that we have stepped up to the plate on aid spending to encourage other countries to do so. I genuinely believe that that has played a part in Kuwait’s recent announcement of an extra $20 million contribution, and in Saudi Arabia’s agreement to disburse more of the money that it has already pledged.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to raise the protection of religious freedom as a serious concern. We welcome the release of six detained Baha’is last month, but there is far more work to do. We will continue to work on these issues, including the release of Luke Symons.

This situation, unfortunately, is going to remain one of the most difficult on the agenda of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. We will not sit back and allow the people of Yemen to suffer without our doing everything we are able to do to help them. That is why we are seeking to get a ceasefire and supporting Martin Griffiths and the United Nations in their efforts to secure that ceasefire, and that is why we are maintaining our expenditure in aid and lobbying other countries to do so.