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Yemen's next steps

Some important conclusions came from the international conference on Yemen but it's not enough

Yesterday's conference on Yemen made some important signals of intent for tackling the country's fragility and insecurity. However the the need for domestic reform, the complexity of Yemen's role in regional security and the need for investment in Yemen's transition to a post-oil economy remain understated.

Agreeing on: '...respect for [Yemen's] sovereignty and independence, and commitment to non-interference in Yemen's internal affairs' was an important initial step. Visible foreign interference would have merely exacerbated existing tensions, especially in light of comments from the Council of Clerics, an influential body amongst the mosaic of tribal and religious leaders through which President Ali Abdullah Saleh governs by proxy.

Aside from opposing military intervention, including covert attacks, the group has come down hard upon yesterday's London conference. The clerics identified the event as "aggression against Yemenis" aimed at paving the way for foreign occupation of the country. A member of the Council of Clerics, Sheikh Saleh Salabani, claimed that US strikes would "drive the populace into the arms of al-Qaeda. We might not love al-Qaeda, but it is for our government to get rid of them and not anyone else."

While direct intervention has been discounted, indeed it was unlikely given Obama's domestic economic and political context, covert cooperation between the American and Yemeni intelligence services will continue. Being seen to fight Al Qaeda is a domestic imperative for Obama, as since the attempted bomb attack Yemen is perceived by the U.S. public as a threat to the heartland of America. However, any assistance provided to combat Al Qaeda needs to ensure that the separate conflicts in the north, with the marginalised Houthis, and the south, with southern separatists, are not conflated by Saleh under a narrative of counter-terrorism.

Domestic reform

The conference shied away from openly criticising Saleh's government. Despite calling for reform in-line with IMF prescriptions, there was no mention of last year's parliamentary elections, which have been delayed until April 2011 ostensibly due to issues of national security. The conference also fails to mention the presidential election in 2006, in which Saleh won 77 per cent of the vote. The EU's analysis of the election concluded that despite positive steps towards democratic procedures it had not been fairly administered due to the use of state resources, the prevention of female participation, overt favouritism from state media, the incarceration of opposition supporters and concerns over the counting process. This was overlooked by Tim Torlot, the British ambassador to Yemen.

The uprisings by the Houthis and southern separatists, although rooted in older disputes and with their own specific grievances, are both responses to their respective economic and political marginalisation. To bring stability to Yemen, issues of accountability and representation need to be incorporated into the demands and pressure placed on Saleh.

Regional inclusion

The conference agreed that "...economic and social reform by the government of Yemen was key to long term stability and prosperity." To this end a crucial step was made by the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) Secretary General, who agreed to host a meeting in Riyadh on February 27-28 for Yemen's regional neighbours and international partners.

Despite Yemen's status as the most populous country in the Arabian peninsula, the GCC has shown no sign of investing the amounts needed to develop and support Yemen's economy. Meanwhile, they continually deny Yemen membership due to the fact that the country's relatively large population, which exceeds the combined population of all six GGC members, would give it unwanted influence and undermine Saudi Arabia's leadership.

Mai Yamani, an author and commentator on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, has claimed that the GCC members' failure to open their economies, which always require migrant labour, to Yemen's young men is short-sighted and has a potentially deleterious impact on regional security. Those who have visited Sana'a say it serves as testament to the skill of Yemeni labourers. However, since the First Gulf War in 1991 Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have routinely expelled Yemeni workers. In December 2009, Saudi Arabia expelled 54,000 Yemeni workers.

Yamani has called for America and the UK, as patrons of the GCC, to encourage the Gulf states to include Yemen in the GCC. A solution to Yemen's numerous problems is dependent on its inclusion. In reference to the dissemination of Saudi Arabia's severe Wahabbi doctrine, Yamani states: "...instead of exporting religious radicalism to Yemen, importing its manpower could neutralize Yemen's problems."

The post-oil transition

The GCC together with the international community have a crucial role to play in restoring Yemen's economy. Traditionally reliant on oil, the supplies are drying up. Production peaked in 2002 at 460,000 b/d, but has fallen to the current rate of 300,000-350,000 b/d. It is hard to overstate the significance of Yemen's oil sector. The World Bank estimates that oil accounts for 90 per cent of export earnings and 75 per cent of government revenue. They predict that state revenues from hydrocarbon sales will plummet sharply during 2009-10, reaching zero by 2017.

As such, investment and economic support needs to be strategically targeted at those sectors of the economy that can play a role in Yemen's transition to a post-oil economy. Projects need to reinvest in the country's agriculture and undermine the dominance of Qat, which has a deleterious impact on both the water table and the populations' mental health.

Piracy and the Gulf of Aden

Future revenue from oil is reliant on establishing new offshore sites in order to improve output levels, however piracy risks in the Gulf of Aden have stunted international investment. This problem has also disrupted the development of Yemen's nascent liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector, which came on-line in October 2009.

Yemen is not merely a victim of piracy - weapons and money are easily passed across the Gulf of Aden, supporting militancy and piracy in the region. Moreover, Yemen acts as a conduit for international arms smuggling, notably for weapons destined for Somalia, and is crucial to improving security in the region. The conference failed to address these matters, which is a significant oversight given the ability of piracy networks across the Gulf to disrupt the stability of global oil supplies.

The conference has made important signals of intent but it is not enough. It understates the need to look at Yemen and horn of Africa holistically and how insecurity is exacerbated by Saleh's methods of governance. A lot may reside on the meeting in Riyadh.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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