Yemen Crisis Deepens: is it time for decisive action?

The UN is warning of yet another potential humanitarian crisis in the Middle East as the citizens of Yemen become the innocent victims in the Saudi-led air campaign attempting to halt the advance of Shiite Houthi rebels, who now control large swathes of the strife-riven country. Complicating matters is the division within the Yemeni Army. Whilst some troops support the ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, others are in favour of the Houthi insurgency, whilst further factions still are fighting for the return of former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down during the Arab Spring in 2011.

The current state of Yemen Source: Wikipedia
The current state of Yemen
Source: Wikipedia

Added to this is the Iranian support for their fellow Shiites, whilst the US and other Gulf states have taken the side of Saudi Arabia and Hadi. The US, whilst not directly involved in the military intervention, is providing logistical and diplomatic support to its participants. Taking advantage of the conflict and confusion is Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), at this time the most formidable branch of the terrorist organisation.

But where is the UK in all of this? Its embassy in the capital Sana’a was withdrawn in February and, unsurprisingly, travel to the country is expressly discouraged. But should the UK being playing a greater role given its history in the region?

The southern port city of Aden is currently the battleground between Houthi/Saleh Shia forces and the Sunnis loyal to Hadi. Between 1839 and 1963, Aden was a British possession, first as part of the Raj and then as a Crown colony. Surrounding it was the Aden Protectorate, effectively the southern and eastern parts of Yemen now controlled by either Hadi loyalists or AQAP.

Aden Protectorate Source: Robinson Library
Aden Protectorate
Source: Robinson Library

In 1963, the crown colony and the protectorate merged to form the the Federation of South Arabia, part of the Commonwealth. On independence in 1967, the Federation became the People’s Republic of South Yemen, subsequently the communist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Meanwhile, the northern part of the country, centred on Sana’a, experienced an altogether different history. Formerly an Ottoman enclave, it gained independence as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen after the First World War. Its religion was strictly Shia Islam and it was ruled with an iron fist by the monarchs Imam Yahya Hamid ed-Din (1918-1948) and Ahmad bin Yahya (1948-1962). On the latter’s demise, the state became known as the Yemen Arab Republic.

North Yemen, as it was commonly called, fell under the dictatorship of Saleh in 1978 and in 1990 he helped orchestrate a merger with the south to form modern Yemen. An attempted secession by southern militants in 1994 resulted in the Yemen Civil War, which the North quickly won, despite Saudi support for the secessionists.

As with many of its former colonies, Britain has remained detached from subsequent events in this country that it helped forge.

At the moment, there does not seem any logical reason why the British Government would get militarily involved in Yemen, particularly during election season. Whereas the US has made the mistake of tentatively supporting the Saudi-led campaign – despite the participation of detestable governments such as Sudan and the dreadful humanitarian crisis the bombing seems to be creating – the UK has steered clear.

However, the justification for intervention in Libya was predicated on the protection of civilians. Were there a viable way to safeguard innocent citizens from the overspill of conflict, an unprecedented opportunity may now be available to prevent the worst excesses of the Iranian-backed Houthis, destroy AQAP and tip the balance of power on the Arabian Peninsula towards pro-Western states.

Fighters on all sides remain defiant despite the air strikes Source: BBC
Fighters on all sides remain defiant despite the air strikes
Source: BBC

The UK has a long history in Yemen that few in the country are aware of. The country now become a critical staging point for the proxy-battle of the Middle East between the Saudi/Sunni and Iranian/Shia axes. Sooner or later, the West will have to get more directly involved if this conflict is not to spread globally. If not in Yemen, it will be somewhere else.

Now might be the time to show some fortitude and strike for a peace that, quite frankly, few people can envisage.


Days of an International Agreement on the East China Sea Long Gone: Tanaka’s 1974 Plan

Shinzo Abe has ‘closed the door for dialogue [between Japan and China] with his own hands’. That is according to Cheng Yonghua, China’s Ambassador to Japan. Cheng claims that Abe’s decision to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine has led to a further deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations, which were already at an impasse given the intensifying rivalry between the two Asian giants regarding ownership of islands in the East China Sea.

Japan owns the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu to the Chinese), a position always disputed by Beijing – and Taiwan for what it’s worth. The only way any potential agreement over the East China Sea dispute will emerge is through high-level diplomacy between the Japanese and Chinese leadership. Such a scenario currently looks dead in the water.

The Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands are now among the world's most recognisable
The Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands are now among the world’s most recognisable

It would, of course, be in the interests of China and Japan to find a workable solution to both the possession of the islands and the exploitation of their surrounding resources. Within rich fishing grounds, and thought to be the location of potentially significant oil and gas reserves, the joint exploitation of energy resources in the East China Sea has long been mooted even if it has never come close to materialising.

In 1974 Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka invited France and the UK to help ‘in development of oil in the China Sea’. Tanaka was seeking an international agreement for oil exploration and extraction around the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands which would also include China and Taiwan.

‘Some way would have to be found to persuade China’, a British diplomatic cable noted. ‘We would expect the USA to try to persuade Taiwan to cooperate’. Whilst there was undoubtedly some concern over China’s participation in any agreement, the fact that Japan was willing to internationalise the dispute is far removed from the present situation. The ‘Oil Shock’ of 1973 was probably influential in Tanaka’s decision – acknowledging the need to find alternative sources of oil in case of another Arab embargo – yet he could still have tried to act unilaterally.

For their part, the British were sceptical about the proposed agreement. Whilst conceding that it was a desirable path of development, Foreign Office correspondence on the matter notes ‘the unresolved territorial disputes in the area’, which still resound to this day. What they determined as more likely to scupper any deal, however, was the status of Taiwan:

Our view is that there is little or no chance of the People’s Republic of China agreeing to participate in any scheme in which Taiwan was included as an equal and independent partner.

The British were right not to be too overoptimistic. The deal fell through. Interestingly, the Japanese did sign an agreement for joint energy development with South Korea (another traditional rival) in another part of the East China Sea, despite China’s fury. An overarching international agreement – which would likely have had a lasting impact – remained elusive.

The Japan-South Korea Agreement which riled China
The Japan-South Korea Agreement which riled China

Nowadays, the British are far removed from the East China Sea dispute. Taiwan, despite maintaining a territorial claim, is similarly isolated. It is down to China and Japan. Constant jostling between opposing coastguards, declarations of air identification zones and diplomatic silence render progress impossible. The true extent of the oil and gas reserves around the islands remains unknown and underdeveloped.

Energy reserves in the disputed zone remain underexploited - attempts at joint development have foundered
Energy reserves in the disputed zone remain underexploited – attempts at joint development have foundered

Historical enmity refuses to die down despite the efforts of several noteworthy citizens. For instance, Shi Jinkai, a Chinese man from Harbin who helps repatriate Japanese people abandoned in China as orphans at the end of the Second World War.

Or there is Reiko Miyake, a Japanese woman who has established a photographic gallery to help break down the stereotypical views of the Chinese held by many of her countrymen.

Just for once it would be nice to see the politicians take a similar lead and set aside their petty jealousies to enable interdependent development that would benefit the region as a whole.

Source: National Archives (Ref: FCO 21/1302)