Steeled for worse: Sheffield's British-Yemenis conflicted over crisis in the Red Sea

The UK's oldest Arab community draws on historical ties to call for more British support for Yemen as its conflict goes global

Dr Abdul Galil Shaif in Sheffield. Dominic Lipinski for The National
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Abdul Galil Shaif Kasim was in an awkward position when he rallied for a ceasefire in Gaza last month in Sheffield. Behind him, a woman held a picture of Abdul-Malik Al Houthi, the leader of the Yemeni militia that has been attacking shipping containers on the Red Sea.

Dr Shaif, a British Yemeni, has long opposed the Houthis and their involvement in Yemen's civil war. Fearing he would appear in photographs with the “older English woman” holding up the picture, he moved away from her. “I didn’t want somebody to think I was part of that,” Dr Shaif told The National.

The disruption to shipping routes in the Red Sea, the Houthis claim, is an attempt to pressure the international community to end Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. US and UK-led air strikes on Houthi bases have done little to curb the Iran-backed militia’s campaign.

For British-Yemenis, who are the UK's oldest Arab community, the crisis leaves them in a difficult place. Though they support the Palestinian cause, they are also opposed to the Houthi militia – which took control of the capital Sanaa and parts of north Yemen in 2014.

“I’ve got a lot of [British] friends on the left and they’re saying to me: 'Abdul, the Houthis are right. People [in Gaza] are losing their lives. They need to turn these ships around. Why are you opposed to that?'” Dr Shaif said.

“I say I’m not opposed to that particular issue. I’m opposed to the Houthis. I think every South Yemeni is probably grappling with the same thing."

Many fear that Yemen's fragile humanitarian situation could further deteriorate due to the Houthi campaign and retaliatory strikes by the US and UK.

From steelworkers to BAME advocates

Sheffield's British-Yemeni community dates back to the 1950s when migrants from the British protectorate of Aden came to work in the city’s steel and smelting factories. Their community is estimated at 10,000 people in a city of more than 550,000.

Yemeni migrants came to UK port cities such as Liverpool as early as the 19th century, while the port of Aden was under British control from 1839 to 1967. Another wave of Yemeni migrations came in the 1990s, fleeing civil war.

Today, Yemenis in Sheffield are active in politics and community work, keeping their heritage alive among the younger generations, while also supporting more recent migrants and refugees from other Middle Eastern and African countries.

A Yemeni trade workers union, established in the 1970s, has over decades been transformed into an active social hub in the heart of Sheffield.

Now known as Aspiring Communities Together, the centre is currently led by Dr Shaif and has its headquarters in a former school. It offers English and Arabic lessons, a women’s gym in the basement, a nursery and a low-cost cafe for people affected by the cost-of-living crisis.

“The services that we are providing are no longer [only] for Yemenis,” he said. "We are serving many in the BAME community."

The original hub was a house in the inner city district of Burngreave, which Yemeni steelworkers bought collectively in 1970. “The Yemenis didn't feel like the unions were serving them. They all felt it was so important to buy that place in Burngreave,” he said.

At the time, each worker contributed £40 ($51) each – about 10 weeks of wages – towards buying the house, which still belongs to the community.

“They met to politically organise so they could have a revolution in Yemen, have a place where they can learn English, and for their kids to learn Arabic,” Dr Shaif said.

Despite being abroad for generations, the Yemeni community is still involved in the country’s politics, says Abtisam Mohamed, a Labour Party Sheffield city councillor. “There's still an interest in making sure the country develops and is doing better,” she told The National, from her office in the city centre.

Ms Mohamed is Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Sheffield and could become the UK's first MP of Yemeni descent. She was born in Yemen and came to the UK in 1982 with her mother and older sister, to join her father, a steelworker in Sheffield. Her grandfather had also worked in the city's steel industry.

As a councillor, she often finds herself urging Yemenis to be as concerned about local issues affecting their daily lives in the UK. “I often have discussions with people here to try to get them involved in [UK] politics. There’s a lot more engagement in the politics of Yemen, especially from men, who don’t seem as engaged with the politics here as well,” she said.

The community has historically voted Labour, she added, recalling how her own father’s support for the party came from his involvement in trade unions. “Labour always used to address [the community’s] needs. It has always been seen as the party of fairness, social justice and equality. They’ve always felt that this is the party where we have a home,” she said.

But that relationship has been jarred by Labour’s position on the Israel-Gaza war. The party’s leader, Keir Starmer, has toed the government line, including support for UK arms sales to Israel. A shift in tone, in which Labour called for a humanitarian ceasefire in February, is doing little to repair the damage.

Though Sheffield's council passed a motion calling for a ceasefire in November, and has previously recognised a Palestinian state, there was a lot of trust to rebuild. “There is still a lot more work that needs to be done, there's still a lot of mistrust, which is understandable, and there is still work that we need to do to ensure that we send the message that we're not taking people's vote for granted,” said Ms Mohamed, in her capacity as a councillor.

For the first time, she senses a hesitancy around the Yemeni community's support for Labour. “The younger people – the third and fourth generations here – are for the first time saying our parents, our grandparents have always voted Labour, but we're not just going to give you our vote,” she said.

“The Houthis are not politically supported in Sheffield, but some people have expressed to me that they support their actions [in the Red Sea]. People who are more involved politically worry about the attacks on Yemen."

Faiza Shaibi, a women's advocate who also teaches at the busy Arabic school in the evenings, described how the Arab women of Sheffield had been meeting regularly to organise fund-raisers for Gaza and Yemen. “We organise a dinner, every woman brings a dish, they bring second-hand clothes for sale, there is henna and hair styling,” she said, adding that the last event raised £10,000 for Gaza.

The Arabic school's head teacher Moseed Al Hakam, who meets us on a busy Friday evening during lessons, said the classes were as much about learning the language as about heritage. "When the children get together at the school and socialise, it preserves their identity," he said. They teach children from several Arab countries, as well as pupils of Pakistani or Somali origin.

A community divided

The division today between Yemen’s north and southern regions falls along the lines of the British protectorate of Aden.

The British withdrawal in 1967 paved the way for the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south, whose capital was Aden. The north, which had been under Ottoman rule, became the Yemen Arab Republic, influenced by the Arab nationalism of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, with Sanaa as its capital.

The two regions were unified following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but civil war in the 1990s, and the Houthi takeover of Sanaa two decades later, has kept this division alive.

It is a debate that trickles into the British-Yemeni community, with Sheffield an outpost for Yemen's fastest-growing political movement, the Southern Transitional Council, which seeks independence for the country's south. Gen Aidarous Al Zubaidi, its leader, visits Yemeni communities in Sheffield and Birmingham regularly to great fanfare.

The STC’s UK representative, Mohammed Al Sahimi, has long been an advocate for the southern cause, lobbying MPs, meeting Foreign Office representatives and speaking to the community in Sheffield and elsewhere.

But today, his chief concern is the humanitarian crisis in Yemen – which has been compounded by incidents in the Red Sea. Food and aid shipments bound for Aden are being diverted, and civilians could get caught in the fighting between the Houthis and the US-led coalition.

“Nobody's talking about the big elephant in the room, which is the catastrophic humanitarian crisis that's taking place in Yemen at this moment of time,” he told The National.

Mr Al Sahimi is a well-known figure around Spital Hill, a lively street with East African and Middle Eastern shops and restaurants. Wherever he goes, he is greeted by Yemeni shop owners and people meeting for coffee. “This used to be a no-go area. Now a lot of migrants live here from different communities, Arab and African. It’s become very lively. It's much better,” he said.

He arrived in the UK as a refugee from the conflict that followed shortly after unification. He was quickly absorbed into the community, taking part in locally run initiatives including teaching English to older Yemeni residents.

The southern movement grew out of frustration over Yemen’s unification in 1990 – in which the Soviet-backed People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south united with the Arab Republic of Yemen.

Southern Yemenis felt marginalised as politicians from the north dominated government. “[The movement] started as a result of the failure of the unification itself,” Mr Al Sahimi said. “It was a clash of different cultures. The north is more tribal and conservative. We in the south are more liberal and socialist. The two regimes do not get on.”

Advocates of the southern cause often lobby their MPs about the threat of the Houthis, and more recently, about a peace process that could bring an end to Yemen's civil war.

“They have been concerned for a long time about the nefarious activities of the Houthis, as well as the uninformed support for them in the UK,” said John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley, near Birmingham, who has many Yemeni constituents.

“There’s a view of elements from the far-left in the UK that Houthis are freedom fighters. They don’t recognise the aggressive and terrorist nature of the Houthis, and the very unhelpful sponsorship and supply of munitions from the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and Tehran."

But despite their large following in the UK, southern voices have yet to have the impact they desire on UK foreign policy. “I'm not sure their voice is fully heard, which it needs to be, not least because of South Yemen’s critical geographical positioning in the Red Sea,” Mr Spellar said.

This could be changing, however. An All Party Parliamentary Group on South Yemen, chaired by the MP, was established in 2021. “There is a shift in thinking towards the southern cause, not just by the government, but by other partners,” Mr Al Sahimi said.

'Give more UK aid to Yemen'

The UK's historical relationship to Yemen is often raised by British diplomats and politicians hoping to see more engagement there.

In recent years, the country has been looked at through the “prism” of the P5 – China, France, Russia, the UK and US, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, one former British diplomat said.

“It’s one of the few places in the world where everybody [in the P5] can work. It isn’t an issue that divides the big powers. That can ease the transition to a better future for Yemen,” the former diplomat told The National. "The UK feels a sense of responsibility because of the British involvement."

The UK is one of the largest aid donors to the country, with more than £1 billion donated since 2015. However, aid fell from a peak of £260 million in 2019 to £77 million in 2022. At the UN pledging conference last February, the UK was the fourth-largest donor to the country, pledging £88 million for 2023/24.

Phil Holihead, Britain’s first defence attache to Yemen, has called for the UK to focus on aid and a long-term peace plan in Yemen.

Air strikes on the Houthis will be ineffective in stopping the militia, Mr Holihead told The National. “To stop the Houthis threatening global trade, we should give more aid to Gaza and Yemen and start bringing back stability and start getting the economy back in Yemen.

“The way to strengthen negotiations and to help people is through aid. We have to take the stick away from everybody and start digging up some carrots."

Negotiations with the Houthis were inevitable, he added. “At the end when the UK and US have run out of bombs the Houthis will still be there, we will negotiate because there is nothing else we can do unless we are prepared to start a Middle East war,” he said.

Shahid Malik, a former UK international aid minister, said Britain should have worked harder towards development and peace-building in Yemen rather than opting for aggression against Houthi bases.

“Violence [in the Red Sea] is a clear signal our diplomacy has failed,” he said.

Mr Malik, who signed the UKs first $1 billion aid deal with Yemen in 2007 when he was a Labour MP, recalled his first visit to the country then.

“It was without doubt the most challenged and poorest country in the Middle East. There was high water scarcity, effectively it was in civil war and had social issues and drug issues."

Those challenges have contributed to Yemen’s instability. “The areas where the Houthis are traditionally from are incredibly underdeveloped, they have genuine grievances,” he said. “The international community and the West could have done more. People do not just get radicalised, there are underlying causes of poverty and a sense of injustice and unfairness."

Updated: March 08, 2024, 6:00 PM