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Saudi Crown Prince 'can end Yemen conflict'

March 20, 2018

The West must use its diplomatic leverage to ensure the Saudis bring the Yemen conflict to an end, Keith Vaz, British MP and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Yemen, told DW.

Mohammed bin Salman
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/Pool/P. Golovkin

DW: Violence continues unabated in Yemen, with a car bomb in Aden last week killing at least six people. As a permanent solution to the Yemeni conflict seems unlikely anytime soon, what needs to be done to at least put an end to violent attacks?

Keith Vaz: The attack in Aden last Tuesday was carried out by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This group has been active in Yemen for decades and was responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Attacks such as this are very difficult to stop and will remain so until a permanent solution to Yemen's conflict is found.

Read more: War in Yemen: 'The world isn't paying enough attention'

A recent report suggested that AQAP averaged one suicide attack every other day. Terrorist organizations are able to exploit gaps in governance to grow, germinate and carry out attacks. Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya are a few examples of other countries where this has been the case. But AQAP has actually lost ground in Yemen due to increasing US drone strikes and the UAE raids in the country's south. But the group has shown the ability to weather these losses before, while retaining an ability to strike. Radical jihadist groups will continue to thrive in Yemen so long as the country is ravaged by war.

British MP Keith Vaz
Keith Vaz: 'Iran wants to draw the Saudis into a Vietnam-style quagmire at the smallest possible expense'Image: AFP/Getty Images/A. Dennis

Why has the international community, including Britain, not done much to stop Saudi "aggression" in Yemen? On the contrary, the UK recently hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and signed a fighter jets deal with Riyadh.

As stated in the United Nations Panel of Experts report, it is "likely" that certain Saudi Arabian sorties were war crimes. This is unacceptable. I wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May ahead of the crown prince's visit, asking her to raise this issue with him.

The war in Yemen is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's war. He started the campaign as defense minister and now his legitimacy is inextricably bound to its conclusion. But we must try to understand the position that the Saudis find themselves in on their southern border. Missiles made in Iran are regularly launched into Saudi territory. The most brazen attempt was on November 4 last year at King Salman Airport. This does not excuse indiscriminate bombing of civilians, but it does explain Saudi involvement in Yemen.

I think it was right for the UK government to host the crown prince as he is the individual who can end this conflict today. The UK must use its diplomatic leverage to ensure that the Saudis bring this conflict to an end. It would be difficult to do this if we closed off our dialogue with the kingdom.

Read more: Saudi Arabia minister tells Germany it will find weapons elsewhere

Ties between Washington and Riyadh have strengthened under Donald Trump's presidency. Should we then expect the US and its allies would continue to directly or indirectly back the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthis and ignore violence and human rights violations?

It is very difficult to predict the position of the Trump administration on many of its policies. With regards to Yemen, my best guess would be that the US military will continue its anti-terror operations using drones. The recent Sanders-Lee-Murphy Resolution has brought Yemen and US support for Saudi Arabia to the Senate floor.

Overall, I would not expect a weakening of US-Saudi ties even if the US stops supporting Saudi military operations in Yemen. Given the position of the Trump administration on Iran, I think closer collaboration between the two countries on all foreign policy issues is quite likely. My hope is that Trump encourages Riyadh to realize that this conflict is in nobody's best interests and that a peace deal would suit all parties.

Why has Yemen not received as much global attention as the conflict in Syria?

That is a very good question. The facts spell out that Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Over 22 million people need urgent humanitarian aid; eight million are on the brink of famine and well over the UN-estimated 10,000 people have died. Cholera and diphtheria are rife. I would imagine a major reason that Yemen receives less attention is that, as of yet it, directly involves fewer international players. However, knowledge of Yemen's plight is rising. We must all push for more to be done on Yemen to help end the suffering of the Yemeni people.

Read more: Yemen faces 'catastrophic' conditions, says UN

How are the negotiations between the internationally-recognized Yemeni government and Houthi rebels in Sanaa shaping up? Should we expect a breakthrough anytime soon? What do your consultations with Yemen stakeholders signal?

My understanding of the current situation in Yemen is similar to that articulated in Peter Salisbury's article, "Yemen and the Business of War." In Yemen currently, too many people are benefitting financially from a continuation of the conflict. The Houthis are embedded and will expect a post-conflict role in Yemen far greater than anything articulated in [UN Security Council resolution 2216] and the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). President Hadi is living in a palace in Riyadh and is an increasingly isolated figure. In the south, clashes between government forces and the Southern Transitional Council threaten to create lasting fissures in Yemen that cannot be repaired.

The task that faces Martin Griffiths, the new UN Special Envoy to Yemen, is unenviable. However, his arrival in the country could provide some impetus for peace talks.

Read more: Top UN mediator for Yemen steps down

How would you analyze the role of Iran in the conflict? Is Tehran cooperating with the international community to resolve the issue?

There is no question that Iran is involved heavily in Yemen. The UN Panel of Experts report confirmed that weapons fired at Saudi Arabia had come from Iran. The aims of Iran in Yemen are clear – to draw the Saudis into a Vietnam-style quagmire at the smallest possible expense. So far it is working.

Keith Vaz is the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Yemen. He was first elected as member of British parliament in 1987 and was subsequently re-elected seven times. He was the first person of Asian origin to sit in the House of Commons since 1922. Keith was Britain's minister for Europe under Prime Minister Tony Blair. He served as chairman of the influential Home Affairs Select Committee between 2007 and 2016.

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