British MP warns Houthi attacks responsible for threat to Yemen aid

Conservative MP Flick Drummond fears the effects that escalations in the Red Sea could have on humanitarian assistance

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Humanitarian aid destined for Yemen could be affected by Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping, Flick Drummond, Conservative MP for Meon Valley, told The National.

Much of the threat to aid is caused by the Houthis, as their attacks on containers could block the delivery.

“If they're attacking ships, how are we going to get aid into them in the first place?” Ms Drummond asked, as co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Yemen.

“We’re giving huge amounts of humanitarian aid to Yemen. We’re feeding 100,000 people.

"There’s obviously far more than 100,000 people in Yemen. But even if we couldn’t deliver that, that would make a major impact."

The World Health Organisation says that 17 million people in Yemen are food-insecure, and aid agencies have warned that the crisis in the Red Sea could exacerbate this.

Rumours that the UK was working to proscribe the Houthis as a terrorist organisation with sanctions placed on them have raised concerns about the effects on humanitarian aid, as about 70 per cent of Yemen's population live in Houthi-controlled areas.

Ms Drummond said she would be “keeping an eye” on the effects any sanctions could have on humanitarian aid flowing into Yemen, which has been mired in a nine-year civil war.

“Charities that work out there know that if you proscribe an organisation as a terrorist organisation, it becomes very difficult to transfer money to aid workers out there or to transfer food,” she said, having voiced her concern in Parliament this week.

US and UK carry out new air strikes in Yemen

US and UK carry out new air strikes in Yemen

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday declined to comment on whether proscription was going ahead, but pointed to the US’s “special designation” of the group, which is understood to have less impact on aid.

“What I understand is the Americans have a different system of proscribing and that allows humanitarian aid to continue,” Ms Drummond said.

But there are no provisions for this under the UKs Terrorism Act 2000.

“Under our Terrorism Act, that doesn't happen. So I understand that they're looking at ways around it so that it doesn't impact on the people of Yemen,” she said.

Ms Drummond also warned of the effects on Yemen’s war-torn economy and its fragile peace process.

“I’m concerned about private enterprise which, is growing again with a peace process. Hopefully, moving forward, people want to invest in the country,” she said.

The UN’s special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, is drafting a road map to a permanent ceasefire, which is based on Saudi-led negotiations with the Houthis over the past year.

The UK remains committed in its role in supporting the UN for that peace process.

“We really need to get Yemen back on its feet again and we’re very happy to help in any way that we can,” Ms Drummond said.

“As with any tribal country, it’s really difficult to align everybody’s interests together.

"That’s one of the reasons why the civil war started in the first place. The Houthis felt that they weren’t taking part in the prosperity of the country.

“We don’t want to go back to those days. We want to make sure that everybody engages in the future of Yemen, and get it back on the road to prosperity.”

The UK can play a stronger role in the peace process, should the Yemenis request it.

“I made it very clear several times that we are there to help and enable if they want us, but we should never interfere where we are not wanted,” she said.

Some have suggested that ending Israel’s war in Gaza is key to getting the Houthis to stop their attacks.

Ms Drummond, who has been actively supporting the Palestinian issue, rejected this.

“I understand the argument but I don’t think it’s a correct one,” she said.

“I feel deeply concerned about what’s going on in Gaza. But attacking international shipping is not the way forward.

“It’s not in Yemen’s interest. It’s not helping Gazans.”

John Spellar, a Labour MP and chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Southern Yemen, agreed that Yemen’s “fragile” truce was threatened by Houthi activity in the Red Sea.

Any UK response would need to address the group's aggressive behaviour in Yemen, and its ability to disrupt international shipping routes, he said.

“The first is the Houthis' ongoing terrorist activities on land in Yemen. The second is their bridgehead over the Red Sea,” Mr Spellar told The National.

The group has continued to skirmish with Saudi forces and those of the UN-backed Yemen government along its borders, despite the peace process.

An international coalition was needed to combat the Houthi threat to international shipping along the Gulf of Aden, Mr Spellar said.

“It has to be part of an international discussion and international effort.”

Access to the Suez Canal was not only critical for Western Europe, but also for China and South Korea, among others, Mr Spellar said.

“China stands to suffer significantly if this goes on for too long. It will cast a question mark over their relationship as suppliers,” he said.

Countries with greater access to the Atlantic may be favoured instead.

Drawing on the example of piracy in Somaliland, which faces Yemen on the other side of the Red Sea, Mr Spellar proposed a task force similar to the EU-led Operation Atalanta, which was established in the late 2000s to fight piracy.

Like Somaliland, Yemen holds a “critical geographical position in the Red Sea”, which was often forgotten or overlooked.

Iran’s “unhelpful” backing of the Houthis through the supply of weapons must end, Mr Spellar said.

Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron has been speaking to his Iranian minister Hossein Amirabdollahian to put pressure on Tehran to end the Houthi attacks.

“Part of that is to see what can be done to stop the Iranian regime from stoking this up,” Mr Spellar said.

In a parliamentary debate on Wednesday, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said Monday’s joint US-UK strikes degraded the Houthi’s “ability to hold our seas to ransom”, while not inflicting damage on the local population.

“We’re not aware that there were any civilian casualties and the operation was designed in that context,” Mr Shapps said.

Labour's shadow defence secretary John Healey supported the government and wanted answers on more naval assistance to maintain the UK's role in the freedom of navigation operations.

“We back the two UK-US joint air strikes carried out this month," Mr Healey said.

"We accept these were targeted, necessary and devised to minimise risk to civilian life and we’ll judge any future UK military action on its merits."

Updated: January 24, 2024, 8:04 PM