YEMEN: Boris bleats, Libdems lead

Headline news last week was Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s speech in Rome where he criticised Saudi Arabia for ‘puppeteering and playing proxy wars’, by implication against Iran, and promoting sectarian extremism for political ends across the Middle East. He was immediately slapped down by PM May, who had seemingly instructed him to get even closer to the Saudis for trade purposes in the wake of Brexit.

Emphasising he had the war in Yemen in mind, as well as Syria, Boris then made a further speech in Bahrain on 10th December about the Saudi bombing of civilians in Yemen, and criticising his own government … which allegedly has special forces in Yemen assisting the Saudis, has trainers in Riyadh, and is a major weapons supplier to the Saudi regime.

Boris was expressing widely held views about the Saudis’ war in Yemen … and about their role in creating Islamic State.

A few days earlier in Warsaw, Poland, the Lib Dem delegation was busy in the annual Congress of ALDE. ALDE is the pan-European party of liberals and democrats with seven parties in government currently across the EU. On the agenda in Warsaw was a motion from the UK Lib Dem delegation, on Yemen, which was passed with an overwhelming majority and greeted with loud applause.

In the motion and the debate were a number of further widely held truths.

First, that the line peddled in the compliant pro-Brexit UK press that the Yemen war is a sectarian civil war between Saudi-backed exiled Sunni Muslim President Hadi and his government, and an Iranian-backed Houthi Shia insurgency led by former President Saleh, threatening Saudi borders, is largely a fiction.

Only 3 years ago the Saudi Arabian military were supporting the Houthi militias against Islamist group al-Islah on the Saudi-Yemen border. President Saleh, a Houthi,  was supported by the USA and UK for 34 years and even extracted large sums for his military after persuading US Congress that, risibly, the Shia Houthjis were part of Sunni Al Qaeda. What’s more, the Houthi links with Iran are wildly exaggerated and Saleh was not known for his closeness to the Iranian regime. Indeed, the Houthis are not part of traditional Shia Islam, being Zaidi Muslims, with tenets distinct from the Shia mainstream.

At ALDE congress in Poland last week, delegates discussed the real reason why the Saudis attacked Yemen. For example, after the US-Iran rapprochement over nuclear weapons, the Saudis wanted not only to see President Assad in Syria deposed, they also wanted any future influence of Iran in Yemen blocked off. In other words, the Saudi attack on Yemen and its blockade should be seen as ‘pre-emptive’ rather than self-defence, and the civil war aspects more to do with crushingly extreme poverty and old North-Yemen/South-Yemen rivalries.

Second, the real tragedy of this war is its effect on the very poor population. More than 10,000 people had been killed since Jan 2015 (UN data) with air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition accounting for more than 60% of fatalities. There are 3m displaced persons, and 200,000 seeking refuge abroad. Even before 2015 54% of the people lived on less than $2/day and 45% of children were malnourished.

The prima facie war crimes are widely reported. Amnesty International found evidence of US and UK cluster munitions used by the Saudi coalition. The ICRC said that indiscriminate bombing is resulting in a disturbing extent of civilian casualties

The ALDE policy, adopted as a result of the UK Lib Dem delegation, now supports specific steps towards peace. These are steps which can be taken via the European Parliament.

While Boris bleats about the policy of his on Foreign Ministry and Government, the UK Lib Dems speak with authority internationally on the nature of the war and  steps to peace.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • John Barrett 12th Dec '16 - 2:00pm

    “Only 3 years ago the Saudi Arabian military were supporting the Houthi militias against Islamist group al-Islah on the Saudi-Yemen border. President Saleh, a Houthi,  was supported by the USA and UK for 34 years”

    This would be during the Lib-Dem coalition years. I cannot remember Nick and his team ever being over critical of Saudi Arabia while we were in Government and supposedly could have had some real influence on Foreign Policy.

    Claiming that the Lib-Dem delegation to the ALDE congress is leading the way is very optimistic and assumes that anyone outside that congress noticed what we said.

  • Paul Reynolds 12th Dec '16 - 2:57pm

    ‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow’

  • Bernard Aris 12th Dec '16 - 4:16pm

    @ Paul Reynolds

    And to use a biblical example: the tiny mustard seed grows even wider…

    @John Barrett

    A former Dutch ambassador to Yemen, a D66 party colleague of long standing, said to me that the demographic and religious map of Yemen is even more fragmented and polarized, and intervening on any side there is even more poisonous, dangerous than in Syria.

    Because the Al Sauds, allied with the fanatical Wahhabi sect, see themselves as the leaders of “true”, orthodox Sunni islam, they are allergic to any modern Islamist movement trying to steal that crown. So they didn’t like it one bit when the Muslim Brotherhood gained power in Egypt (already an irritant , half-African nation in many Arab eyes); and Riyadh turned on the Yemeni al Islah confederation (see English Wikipedia) when they, founded and for years supported by the Saudi’s, turned to the Brotherhood instead.
    Because the Brotherhood is also the source of Al Qaida’s present leadership (and Hamas in Palestine, another US bogeyman), it was kind of logical the US supported the Saudis against al Islah; but the British, with their longer Arab contacts and experience, and knowledge, should have been more wary.

    But speaking from long coalition experience, being a junior partner doing badly in polls and local elections, you cann’t always change standing Foreign Office and prime ministers’ policy. The LibDems had more important domestic battles (social legislation, etcetera) to fight to rein in the Tories.

    And D66, which has been very critical of the close government and royal Dutch contacts with the Al Sauds personally and Riyadh, certainly took notice of Johnsons speech and this Alde motion by the LibDems. That makes two ALDE Member parties; maybe we get others (Radikale Venstre with a European commissioner) on board.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Dec '16 - 11:09pm

    Paul , you should write regularly on these issues here, very important to get your experience and knowledge,

    As with Bernard , we need different positive perspectives, but , just like the other article by Bernard we must accept differences amongst our international parties whether ALDE only or beyond the region in Liberal International, must not make us forget the many instances of common cause.

  • John Barrett 14th Dec '16 - 9:43am

    Unless we decide to tackle the scale of our arms industry and the volume of arms exports and re-exports, to many regions, including the Middle East, we will remain part of the problem – not part of the solution.

    Spokesmen from all parties, including our own, appear to accept that an acceptable price to pay for “jobs at home” are “deaths abroad”. We cannot justify our role in the arms trade by saying that if we don’t supply them, somebody else will.

    It is time for the Liberal Democrats to stand out from the other UK parties and support strong measures against the arms industry and our own Government’s role, which is now resulting in turmoil in places such as Yemen.

  • Simon Banks 14th Dec '16 - 9:02pm

    The headline is petty. What Boris Johnson said is right (whatever his motives). We should support him against Theresa May.

  • John Barrett is absolutely right. I’m sure there was a fascinating chat in Poland……. but outcomes ????? Did Putin or Assad notice ? Perhaps Paul will let us know some day.

    Simon’s right about the tabloid bleating headline bit too.

  • Paul Reynolds 16th Dec '16 - 8:41am

    It is a fair question to ask.. ‘what did UK Libdems really achieve at ALDE Congress over Yemen and Saudi Arabia ?’ First, the UK Libdems clarified its own position on the subject … steps to sanctiion the Saudis over the Yemen war and to halt hostilities…the only party in the UK parliament with a detailed approach critical of the Saudis. Second, there is now policy against Saudi atrocities in Yemen adopted by one of the ‘big three’ groups in the European Parliament, which includes an arms emmargo against Saudi Arabia. It is right to.praise Boris for saying in public what almost all diplomats say in private, but when he arrived in Riyadh it was business (and sycophancy) as usual …. as a Britian, desperate for business after the folly of Brexit, kow-tows for more arms sales. One way to increase the impact of such work by UK Libdems and ALDE is to vote for Lib Dems in elections !

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