A little over a year ago Yemen stood on the brink of a political meltdown, economic collapse and civil war. In short, it was a country staring into the abyss. Distinct challenges, including the worrying humanitarian situation, remain.
Yesterday I became the first European Minister to visit both Sana’a and Aden in the South of the country since millions demanded change and President Hadi came to power in the first stage of a political transition, brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council. What I saw was a country looking to the future and what I encountered was a people full of hope. Yemen is inching towards stability, democracy and economic growth. But this optimism rests on a knife edge, caught between the tensions of North and South.
In nine months President Hadi and his National Unity Government have made great progress. Yemeni security forces have successfully removed the presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from key parts of Abyan, and a preparatory committee on National Dialogue has completed its work. Next up is the convening of the National Dialogue Conference itself which will address the failings of the past and set the foundations for a new Yemen.
In Aden yesterday I heard about the longstanding grievances among disparate groups who want recompense for land seizures, lost jobs and unpaid pensions following unification in 1990 and the civil war in 1994. I listened as they explained how conflict had robbed them of opportunity. It became clear that if the progress President Hadi has made has been hard fought, completing the two-year transition will be tougher still.
The UK and the rest of the international community firmly believe that if Yemen is to take advantage of the historic opportunity presented by the forthcoming Conference it must be inclusive. And all sides need to participate.
My message to those I met in Aden was simple: the Conference offers a chance to work from the inside of the political establishment to shape Yemen’s future and to create stable foundations for addressing historic ills. I hope that this call was heard and that a commitment to engage fully will be met with the promise by the Yemeni government of a commission to look into southerners’ concerns. There is a groundswell of opinion in Yemen that all grievances of the past, including those from last year’s upheavals, need to be addressed.
But progress cannot be made in the South or the North separately. My visit reinforced the understanding that if Yemen is to move forward, it must move forward as a unified state. The National Dialogue will define the shape of that state. Only by taking part can southern parties ensure that their interests are advanced and protected, and only by facilitating this with complete sincerity can the North secure genuine stability. This was my message to President Hadi and his foreign minister. I was encouraged by the response and commitment to take urgent action.
While political progress is being made, Yemen still urgently needs the help of the international community. This is why in 2010 the UK founded the Friends of Yemen group and why, two years on, we continue to drive international efforts to coordinate political and economic support for Yemen.
This year the Foreign Secretary and I have each co-chaired a ministerial meeting of the Friends of Yemen. Together with pledges from a Donor Conference in Riyadh, $7.8 billion has been committed to reconstruction and development in Yemen. I am proud that the UK remains one of Yemen’s largest donors, this year alone spending £28 million on humanitarian assistance in addition to the £196 million three-year plan to help Yemen implement its key reform projects, deliver economic policy reforms, and galvanise UK and other private sector interest in Yemen. I urge all Friends of Yemen to realise their commitments and continue to support the UN Humanitarian Appeal.
During President Hadi’s visit to the UK in September, his first to a Western nation since his inauguration, the Prime Minister restated our unstinting support for his leadership. My visit and the signing with the Yemeni Foreign Minister of a document pledging mutual, high-level cooperation, underline our ongoing commitment and are concrete illustrations of this.
We are ready to play our part as Yemen continues to move away from violence, political stalemate and self-interest. This will help bring stability to the country and allow Yemen to address the root causes of violent extremism that threaten us all and that the Yemeni authorities are fighting with such courage. But if these sacrifices are to lead to sustained progress, it is crucial that all sides put aside their differences and build a new consensual future. My visit gave me hope that they will and that the Yemeni government will respond to the aspirations of its citizens as they demand change and a better future.