On Feb. 16, 2015, then British Ambassador to Yemen Jane Marriott wrote an article titled “Yemen: the ball is in the Houthis’ court,” asserting that the future of the country and its stability were dependent on the Houthis. This came after British diplomatic staff withdrew from Yemen five days earlier, with Marriott citing the deteriorating security situation and conditioning their return on the launch of “political dialogue between all the main groups” and the presence of a “functioning and legitimate government.”
The Houthis, however, had different ideas, instead marching their militias toward Aden and Hadramawt to consolidate power and pursue President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled house arrest in Sanaa in February 2015 and subsequently retracted his forced resignation. The pullout of almost all foreign missions, except that of Russia, until the death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2017 underscored the international disapproval of the Houthis’ coup d’état and isolated them in the early years of the war, reaffirming the importance of having a legitimate government in Sanaa.
After the new Saudi leadership launched its military intervention on March 26, 2015, forming a coalition at the request of President Hadi, then British Prime Minister David Cameron endorsed the operation to reinstate “President Hadi and his legitimate government” and called for “non-military pressure” to bring the Houthis to the table. On April 14, 2015, the U.K. and members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted Resolution 2216, rejecting the Houthi-Saleh armed rebellion, endorsing the military intervention, and repeating demands listed in Resolution 2201. The U.K. has clearly maintained, both before and after the coup d’état, that the only way to resolve Yemen’s drawn-out conflict is through a peaceful settlement. Although London has been consistent on this point, its strong support for the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG), most notably during Edmund Fitton-Brown’s tenure as ambassador, seems to have waned in recent years, especially as the realities of the conflict have evolved, and it has demonstrated greater openness to dealing with armed groups.
Determinants of British policy in Yemen
The U.K.’s foreign policy toward Yemen is driven and shaped by a number of issues. First is London’s broader strategy and interests in the Arabian Peninsula, most notably its strong ties with Yemen’s immediate neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and unhindered access to energy supplies; second is its colonial legacy in the country’s south (1837-1967); and third is Yemen’s geostrategic location and proximity to the Bab el-Mandeb strait. Bab el-Mandeb is a global maritime chokepoint through which an estimated 6.2 million barrels of oil per day passed in 2018, and it accounted for around 9 percent of total sea-borne petroleum shipments in 2017.
Diplomatically, the U.K.’s activism at the UNSC as the penholder of the Yemen file is also a result of a broader division of labor between the U.S., U.K., and France. Through this role, Britain has drafted multiple resolutions on Yemen, including Resolution 2451 in December 2018, to adopt the Stockholm Agreement, which the U.S. didn’t initially endorse upon its first circulation in November; and Resolution 2452, which established the U.N. Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement, in early 2019.
In addition, the U.K., much like the U.S., has counterterrorism and counter-violent-extremism interests in Yemen as well, whether against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), ISIS, or other affiliates. This is mainly with an eye to reducing risk at home, and the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency is barely a target of interest in this regard. According to the U.K.’s foreign travel advice on Yemen, “Western and Houthi interests in Yemen remain a feature in AQAP propaganda, and are viewed by AQAP as legitimate targets for attacks,” as if both groups share similar ideational foundations. Yet emerging evidence suggests a degree of cooperation between AQAP/ISIS and the Houthis, the breadth and depth of which remain clouded, despite the perceived ideological enmity between extremist Sunni and Shiite groups. For instance, the Houthis reportedly released dozens of AQAP and ISIS prisoners in Sanaa in 2018 and 2019, as well as exchanged over 32 prisoners in two phases in 2019. Mujahed al-Sallaly, a journalist from Qaifa in Bayda governorate, recently told Alasimah Online that “the coordination between ISIS and the Houthis is now visible. They exchanged roles to defeat the [ROYG-aligned] Qaifa tribal resistance. ISIS fought the resistance and cut supply lines, allowing the Houthis to penetrate the tribes from the other side.” These developments add a further layer of complexity and underscore that counterterrorism threats are often more complicated than a simplistic travel notice might suggest.
British strategic support for the Arab coalition
Since the conflict intensified in March 2015, the U.K. — alongside the U.S. — has provided technical, logistical, and intelligence support to the Arab coalition. Neither country is a member of the coalition, but both offer indispensable support. The U.K., Cameron said in 2016, has provided training and advice to the coalition to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL), but denied involvement in attacks, despite the presence of British officials at the coalition’s command and control center for airstrikes. For instance, British military and security personnel may have played a central role in the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, a coalition-led committee that reviews claims of IHL violations and is in charge of monitoring and documenting airstrikes.
The U.K. has been a major donor to humanitarian efforts in Yemen, but has also benefited from arms sales to its long-standing strategic partner, Saudi Arabia. While the U.K.’s humanitarian commitment since the current conflict began totaled £970 million as of June 2020, including the £160 million pledged at a June donor conference hosted by Saudi Arabia, the U.K.’s leading defense company, BAE Systems, is thought to have provided arms and services worth at least £15 billion to the kingdom since 2015. And unlike Denmark, Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands, which announced the suspension or reduction of arms sales to Riyadh in 2018, the U.K. government has stood firm, despite a court ruling that declared the approval of export licenses to Saudi Arabia “unlawful,” mainly due to collateral damage and reported IHL violations. Between 2010 and 2017, Britain was the second-largest exporter of arms to the kingdom, accounting for nearly 25 percent of its imports. In July U.K. International Trade Secretary Liz Truss announced that new licenses will once again be issued to export arms to Riyadh, arguing, “There is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL.”
A proactive, controversial role
Politically, the U.K. has long played an important and controversial role in Yemen, having supported intra-Yemeni peace talks in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprising, as well as after the armed rebellion and subsequent military intervention. British officials also went so far as to pressure the Saudis to engage in direct and indirect talks with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, as did the Americans. Aside from a temporary, unannounced de-escalation in late 2019, the success of such efforts remains to be seen.
In February 2018 U.K. Ambassador to Yemen Simon Shercliff — only a year after his appointment — was replaced by Michael Aron. This coincided with the appointment of the third special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, thus directly or indirectly expanding the country’s role, influence, and engagement in Yemen. The U.K. threw its weight behind the U.N. to prevent the military takeover of Hodeida and pave the way for cease-fire talks in Sweden, after Griffiths was unable to gather the parties in Geneva that September, mainly due to the Houthis’ failure to attend. The following November, then U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt shuttled between Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Tehran, applying pressure on the coalition, arch-rival Iran, and the various Yemeni parties. This eventually culminated in the signing of the Stockholm Agreement, which remains unimplemented. The U.S.’s role in this was also important. Crisis Group noted in July 2019 that, “The final push came with the arrival of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to the talks, last-minute phone calls from [then U.S. Defense Secretary James] Mattis to senior Saudi and Emirati officials, and resulting pressure from Riyadh on the Hadi government to accept a compromise on Hodeida.” From a military standpoint, the halt to fighting around Hodeida protected the status quo at the time, undermining UNSC resolutions 2201 and 2216 and saving the Houthis from a military setback that would have altered the rules of the conflict and the trajectory of peace.
Hunt visited the interim capital, Aden, in March 2019, the first British foreign secretary to travel to Yemen since 1996, “in a display of the U.K.’s support to the Government of Yemen and for U.N. efforts to secure peace,” according to an official statement. While the visit was said to be in support of the Stockholm Agreement and the ROYG, the city was outside the deal’s scope and the trip was rather reminiscent of Britain’s colonial legacy, at a time when London was focusing on a “Global Britain” and the Tories were working to unify the party to navigate the Brexit impasse. On Aug. 8, 2019, the newly appointed foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, tweeted that he was, “Gravely concerned by the escalation of violence between southern & Yemeni Government forces in Aden,” as if two official armies were fighting and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council was the sole representative of the southern cause, raising questions over Britain’s long-held position on Yemen’s territorial integrity and unity.
Hunt was also the first high-level British official to meet the Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdul Salam, in Rimbo, Sweden, at a time when he also met his Yemeni counterpart, Khaled al-Yamani, showcasing greater openness to the Houthis and exhibiting a partial change in the British stance toward the ROYG and the notion of its legitimacy. Hunt also met Abdul Salam in Muscat, after visiting Aden in March, accompanied by al-Yamani, in an apparent attempt to show that the legitimate government and the rebels were now equal parties, contrary to earlier official rhetoric. Since then, British interactions with the Houthis have become more visible, including by officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The U.K. has also been a member of the so-called “Yemen Quad,” alongside Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the U.S., a group aimed at facilitating diplomatic, economic, political, and security coordination in Yemen. The U.K. chaired the Quad’s meetings in Warsaw and London in February and April 2019. Britain also launched a Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund in support of durable peace processes in Yemen at a national level. The U.K.’s Stabilization Unit conducted a stabilization workshop with the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen in 2019, discussing the U.K.’s Fusion Doctrine and lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. It also sent its ambassador, Aron, and a team of technical experts to support the Stockholm consultations and utilized digital diplomacy to amplify its outreach and objectives. But following the Stockholm Agreement, the Quad’s standing has faded, in part due to the UAE’s declining commitment and changing priorities after announcing its military drawdown in July 2019.
10 Downing Street has been unhesitant about backing Griffiths, reiterating its unconditional support, both unilaterally and multilaterally, despite recurring expressions of mistrust by the ROYG and the Houthis. Nearly five months after the ROYG officially protested the envoy’s “transgressions” and suspended meetings with him, in September 2019 the U.K. declared, in a joint communique with the permanent UNSC members, Germany, Kuwait, and Sweden, its robust support for Griffiths and called on Yemeni parties to cooperate with him. Furthermore, between 2018 and 2019, it also provided approximately £5 million in funding for the envoy’s office.
Finally, the U.K. has continued pursuing public diplomacy by maintaining its Chevening Scholarship program for Yemenis, unlike the U.S., which suspended their participation in its Fulbright program. This area, in particular, is crucial to building local human capital to aid the recovery process and navigate the challenges of post-war Yemen, and should be scaled up in conflict-affected and fragile countries.
Overall, it’s clear that British policy toward Yemen has largely gone unchanged since the outbreak of the conflict. Its wartime engagement suggests that Yemen remains peripheral to the U.K. and is often viewed through the lens of its strategic partners’ interests, despite its geographical importance and potential. The U.K.’s dwindling support for the ROYG might be a reflection of evolving realities and British pragmatism, crucial to navigating its interests in post-war Yemen. More than five years after Marriott left, the U.K.’s two conditions for returning to Sanaa remain unrealized, and as London looks to chart a new course after Brexit and in a post-pandemic world, its foreign policy in Yemen seems unlikely to change in the near term.
A non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, Ibrahim Jalal is an independent Yemen and Gulf analyst and a co-founder of the Security Distillery Think Tank. The views expressed in this article are his own.
(Photo by NABIL HASAN/AFP via Getty Images)