Twenty-second Annual General Meeting, Wednesday 3 June 2015
The Situation in Yemen
In my 2014 Annual Report I wrote as part of a cautiously optimistic survey of Yemen’s prospects: “The emergence of al-Huthi from Sa’ada is trans- forming the politics of the region north of Sana‘a in a way which may have profound consequences for Yemen.” That has proved something of an understatement. The Huthis, clearly in alliance with elite elements of the armed forces still loyal to ex-President Saleh, had taken Amran by July and Sana‘a by September. It appeared that an accommodation had been reached when all parties signed the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA) in that month. However, the Huthis strengthened their grip of the capital and continued to advance into other areas including Hodeida and piled on the pressure in Sana‘a on President Hadi who resigned on 22 January 2015 and was put under house arrest. The Huthis on 6 February set up a new Revolutionary Council to run Yemen. President Hadi managed to escape to Aden on 21 February, withdrawing his resigna- tion and seeking to establish the seat of government in Aden. The Huthi militias supported by parts of the army began to move rapidly and in force towards Aden. On 23 March, President Hadi’s government called on the international community for military support. He left the country and on 26 March a Saudi-led coalition, with some support from the UK, launched the offensive first known as Operation Decisive Storm later modified to Restoring Hope. The UNSC Resolution of 14 April neither endorsed nor criticised this action and blamed the Huthis and Saleh for provoking the action through their failure to implement earlier resolutions.
The combatants agreed to a five day cease fire to allow humanitarian support from 12 May but fighting resumed when it was over. By 31 May, the coalition may have destroyed much of the army’s military equipment but had not loosened Huthi/Saleh control of Sana‘a, Hodeida and others parts of north and central Yemen. On the other hand, the Huthis and Saleh were unable to maintain the pace of their advances elsewhere. Fighting was particularly fierce in and around Aden, Ta’izz and some southern provinces as well as the strategically important Marib with its oil and gas and Yemen’s main power generation station. Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), part of which declared loyalty to the ISIL leader, fought in central Yemen alongside tribes with which they had links against the Huthis, posing as defenders of Sunni Islam. AQAP bands have been in Mukalla and other parts of the Hadhramaut coast but tribal alliances are preventing further expansion and seem determined at the same time to keep the Huthis out of their province.
Many thousands of Yemenis have been killed, injured or forced to flee their homes. There has been much damage to infrastructure. Shortages of diesel and gas are causing major problems, not least for the agencies trying to provide relief. Medical services can barely cope. Most schools have been closed. The government has ceased to function. Even before the fighting started the economy was in very bad shape. We have shown in our briefings the scale of the humanitarian problem and several members of the BYS have been active in bringing the problems to the attention of our govern- ment and a wider UK audience. There is now again a need for a further ceasefire – at a minimum – to allow for the delivery of support and provide an opportunity for negotiations.
The first attempt to start negotiations involving all parties in Geneva on 28 May had to be postponed. It was clearly ill-prepared and the sad fact is that none of the combatants were ready for negotiations and thought they had more to gain through force, despite the consequences for Yemen’s people. The international community will need to bring as much pressure to bear as possible to get the Geneva discussions going based on the GCC deal of 2011 the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference and may have to take into account the Riyadh Declaration issued after a conference organised by President Hadi in late May and possibly the PNPA, which the Huthis see as being important. Neither side can win this war: all will have to learn to work together through negotiations or see their country destroyed. The new UN Special Envoy (Ismael Ould Sheikh Ahmed) is trying to get talks started and there are now promising signs that negotia- tions – possibly only about negotiations – may start soon in Geneva. There may also be another humanitarian pause to the fighting.
In these circumstances, it is very difficult for the BYS committee to decide how it can best help its members and fulfil our constitution’s aim of educating the British public about Yemen. We have set aside our normal program and organised instead briefings on the situation. We are trying to provide a forum for our British Yemeni and Yemeni members to discuss their concerns. We have held two briefings so far and a third is planned for 18 June. I applaud the efforts of our committee member Taher Ali Qassim for using dialogue as a means of conciliating the differences which affect the Yemeni community here. We do what we can behind the scenes mostly – but publicly when necessary – to draw the attention of governments to the concerns and help the relief agencies to publicise the scale of need in Yemen and urge the international community to push the warring parties into negotiations. We all wish we could do more to help the many Yemenis seeking somewhere safe to live outside Yemen as long as the fighting continues.
We agreed following the publication of our book Why Yemen Matters to arrange an annual lecture with the London Middle East Institute. The second of these was given in February by Sir Alan Duncan, the British government’s Special Envoy to Yemen, and previously the Minister of State in DfID where he was noted for his strong interest in Yemen. That event was again sponsored by the MBI al Jaber Foundation. I want to thank Shaikh Muhammad bin Isa al Jaber for his personal support and that of his foundation for our activities.
I am delighted to report that Saqi, the publisher of Why Yemen Matters, is negotiating a deal that will see the book translated into Arabic within the next two years. That book was intended for a Yemeni as well as interna- tional audience and its availability in Arabic will thus be an important achievement.
We organised the following events:
• Aaron Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst: on his book Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law: Aden and the End of Empire.
• Dr Elisabeth Kendall, Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies, Oxford University: Youth Activism in Eastern Yemen, Mahra in Transition.
• Dr Mohammad Seddon: on his book The Last of the Lascars: Yemeni Muslims in Britain
• Maria-Louise Clausen, winner of the BYS academic grant 2014: ‘Can Federalism save the state in Yemen’
• Two open briefings on 9 and 30 April on the current situation
• In addition the BYS with the London Middle East Institute at SOAS or- ganised a lecture on Yemen by Helen Lackner at SOAS in December 2014.
We conducted a survey of members to help guide the committee in arranging future activities. The results will be published in the journal but I noted the following:
Most of our members are aged 50 or over, live in or close to London and have belonged to the society for at least five years – despite a considerable increase in members in the last three years. Members would like to see us arranging more lectures and events related to history and culture though the situation in Yemen has made that difficult to do so far. However the new committee will no doubt take note.
We have finally taken the plunge and, thanks to sponsorship, developed a new website that should be launched within the next three months. I would like to record our thanks to Brian Whitaker for hosting us for so long on his al-Bab website. We could not have done without his support. I would also like to thank Thanos Petouris for his work in developing the new website.
Oher Yemeni-related events
The crisis in Yemen has generated a much higher level of interest reflected in events, discussions and media articles. It has stimulated Chatham House and others to consider trying to re-establish the Yemen Forum. BYS members have been taking part in conferences and workshops here and abroad. The Gulf Research Centre organised workshops on Yemen in 2014 and again in 2015. Some of the papers presented in 2014 will be included in a book I am co-editing to be published in the summer in English and Arabic under the title Rebuilding Yemen: Political Economic and Social Challenges. One of our members organised the first conference of the Hadhrami Research Centre at SOAS in March and we hope that an edited book will emerge from that. I am aware of at least one other edited book to be published this year. Others to note are:
• Yemen edited by Steven Caton of Harvard with chapters covering geography, history, politics, economics and culture from leading academic scholars on Yemen
• Yemen: Revolution, Civil War and Unification by the Israeli scholar Uzi Rabi
We have had 13 new members this year. It is with great sadness that we note the death of three of our members:
James Edgar Taylor
Abdullah al-Asnaj was a famous figure in Yemen since he founded the Aden Trade Union Congress and the People’s Socialist Party in the 1960s. He was known and admired by many of our members. I was fortunate to meet him last August when he visited London shortly before he died.
Leila Ingrams was also known to most of our members for her work in maintaining the interest in Yemen established by her parents Harold and Doreen Ingrams. The Friends of Hadhramaut are organising a musical recital at the Royal Geographical Society on 27 August in memoriam.
BYS member Salma Samar Damluji has been awarded the prestigious Médaille de la Restauration 2015 of the French Academy of Architecture. The medal is awarded to a personality who helped rescue or preserve build- ings of particular architectural importance. It will be conferred on 10 June. Her inaugural lecture last year at the Ecole de Chaillot in Paris has now been published and is reviewed in the journal.
Joshua Rogers has won the BYS Award for 2015 for his study of Civil War and State Formation: Violence and the Making and Un-making State in the Yemen Arab Republic 1962-1970.
I am not standing for re-election as chairman as I feel that societies like ours need a change in leadership every five years. I have greatly enjoyed my time as chair and I am delighted that Robert Wilson has been proposed as the new chair. As a student of Arabic at Cambridge University, he first went to Yemen (then the Yemen Arab Republic) in 1972 to teach English and learn spoken Arabic. He went on to complete a doctorate on the historical geog- raphy of north-western Yemen. After teaching at Cambridge for 5 years, he joined the FCO and spent 32 years working on or in the Arab world, finishing with two years as a Counsellor at the British Embassy in Sana‘a, from 2012 to 2014.
John Mason, who has been treasurer for many years, is standing down from that position but is seeking election to the committee for a further year as an ordinary member to advise the new treasurer. We all owe great deal of thanks to John for his efforts and it will be great for the new committee to have his expertise and experience as Peter Welby settles in as treasurer.
Adel Aulaqi, Safa Mubgar and Thanos Petouris are also standing down. All have made a tremendous contribution to the BYS in the last five years and I want to thank them on behalf of all of us. They have been ideal committee members, assiduously attending meetings and volunteering to take on often time consuming tasks.
In addition to John Mason, we are proposing that four other members join the committee: Afrah Taher Qassim and Shaima Saif both live outside London and may not be able to attend meetings as often as they wish but it helps the BYS to extend its contacts with Yemenis beyond the M25 and brings two very active young women on to the committee.
The committee will also greatly benefit from the advice of Helga Graham, the well-known writer and journalist, and James Firebrace, a considerable expert on Yemen’s water and economy and the author of a recent letter to the Times about the need for urgent action on Yemen.
I would like to give special thanks to Audrey Allfree, our secretary, for all the time she gives to the BYS and to Helen Lackner for the enormous amount of work she puts into making our journal so good.
Before we finish I want to acknowledge the presence of Edmund Fitton-Brown, the British Ambassador to Yemen and one of our honorary Presidents and to Abdel Kader Ahmed Alsubeihi, the Chargé D’Affaires of the Yemeni embassy. I would also like to thank personally and on behalf of the society His Excellency Abdullah al-Radhi, the former Ambassador who was a great supporter of the BYS and to welcome – when he arrives – his successor Dr Yassin Saeed Nu’man, who has served as the Prime Minister of the PDRY and Speaker of the Yemeni Parliament.