UK Minister for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly has urged the Houthis to renounce conflict and violence and engage in meaningful negotiations for a political solution to end the war in Yemen.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Cleverly confirmed that the UK has held direct conversations with the Houthis, and has stressed the importance of a number of issues, including renouncing violence, engaging with the political peace process, ensuring that there is access to the Safer oil tanker, and the release of a British national who is being held in Yemen.
He also welcomed the US administration decision to lift the designation of Houthis as a terrorist organization, starting this Tuesday, for humanitarian reasons.
“We were concerned when the previous US Administration designated the Houthis as a terrorist organization. We were very concerned that that would make humanitarian support going into Yemen harder. And we communicated our concerns to both the Trump and the Biden administrations, and we enjoy very good relationships with both", he explained.
“I'm pleased that the designation has been lifted for humanitarian reasons. But we are still deeply opposed to the Houthis aggressive actions. We've seen attacks on Aden airport, and attacks going into Saudi Arabia”, he added.
The Minister reiterated that his country’s message to the Houthis “is very clear, and it is that they need to step away from violence. They need to engage with a political process, and they need to work with (UN envoy) Martin Griffiths and the United Nations to find a sustainable peaceful solution, and they have to step away from conflict and violence”.
The conflict in Yemen has dragged on for many years, “and we've seen that the people of Yemen have suffered. I don't think anybody wants to see an escalation of the conflict. Therefore, we should pursue a political solution. The attacks are incredibly counterproductive and incredibly frustrating. And the international community has rightly called out the Houthis for the attacks that they have made”, Cleverly noted.
Referring to the UK’s efforts to reach a political solution in Yemen, Cleverly said: “We engage with all parties with interest in Yemen, including Saudi Arabia of course, the government of Yemen, and indeed with the Houthis directly. And we always made it clear that a political negotiated solution is the right way forward. There cannot be a military conclusion to this. It has to be done through negotiation. And we push very hard the Houthis to engage in meaningful negotiations”.
Cleverly also mentioned that he had “direct conversations with representatives of the Houthis. And we stress the importance of a number of issues, including renouncing violence and engaging with the political peace process, and ensuring that there is access to the Safer oil tanker, as well as the release of a British national who is being held in Yemen”.
The Minister highlighted that “we speak frankly and honestly with them. And we made it clear that the UK expects that they engage with the political process and renounce violence, because there cannot be a military solution to this conflict which has dragged on for years and years”.
On the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, Cleverly welcomed US President Joe Biden's “desire and attempts to re-engage with an updated version of the JCPOA”.
He said that the UK “has made it clear to Iran that we want to see it re-enter the international fold. And the UK's position has been clear and consistent for a long time, that Iran must come back to compliance with regards to nuclear enrichment”.
Cleverly urged Iran to grasp “this real opportunity to choose a different and better path, and re-engage with European nations, like ourselves, and the United States of America. But Iran must really understand that it has to come back into compliance for that more positive opportunity to be grasped”.
British dual-nationals held in Iran
British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s five-year sentence in Iran is due to expire next month. But there are real concerns as to whether she will be able to come back home on March 7.
“We made it clear both for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other British dual-nationals held in detention, that this is completely arbitrary detention, and that we do not agree that there is any justification for these people being held”, Cleverly said when asked about Nazanin’s case.
He added: “It is completely arbitrary, and Iran should release them all, and do so now. There is no legitimate excuse, and I sincerely hope that Iran realizes that they should do the right thing and release these British nationals”.
The Minister insisted that the “UK's work is relentless on this. And I speak with Foreign Secretary regularly on this issue. The UK government works relentlessly and consistently trying to get our dual British nationals home”.
He also confirmed that the UK raises this issue “on every occasion that we speak with our Iranian counterparts, and they must understand that these detentions are completely illegitimate and completely arbitrary”.
Post-Brexit trade relations with the Gulf
Turning to the subject of economic and trade relations with Gulf countries, Cleverly said that the UK “has always enjoyed very good relationships with the countries in the Gulf”, and welcomed “the announcements that came out of the most recent GCC Summit, and that the members of GCC are working more closely together”.
The Minister added: “We are currently working on a Joint trade and investment review, which is one of the mechanisms to find ways of increasing trade between the UK and the countries of the GCC.”
He confirmed the UK is very keen to build on what is already a very strong trading relationship, to go even further, “working in developing areas of interest in the Gulf, including green energy, education, healthcare, as well as areas of traditional business”.
“The long-standing relationship has served us well. But now that we have left in European Union, we are looking to build an even stronger and future-proof relationship, looking at business opportunities that will service both in the UK and the Gulf States for years and decades to come”.
Saudi Arabia’s commitment to Green Energy
Talking about the private sector’s interest in Saudi mega projects, Cleverly said: “We’ve always had a lot of private sector companies in the UK be very proactive, very ambitious, and very entrepreneurial in their relationship with Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the Gulf, and that will always continue".
That said, the UK minister also stressed out the importance of government-to-government cooperation. “There are some incredibly exciting projects going on in the Gulf. The reform of the economies moving away from hydrocarbons and oil and gas, and increasingly to things like green energy production”, he said.
Additionally, he applauded Saudi Arabia’s commitment to greener, more sustainable energy production. And said: “We were very pleased with the Communiqué at the culmination of Saudi’s G20 presidency, about its commitment to green energy production. (…) These are really exciting times. I think there's a very positive future for the Gulf States, and the UK and UK businesses are very keen to be part of that, and help evolve, revolutionize, future-proof, both our economies and the economies of the Gulf States”.
UK’s vaccine success
In its fight against the pandemic, the UK believes that it is not safe until everybody is safe, and that its fight against the coronavirus is, and will continue to be, a global endeavor.
“At the start of this pandemic, the Gulf countries were very good partners and very good friends to the UK, in terms of helping us repatriate British nationals, and making available PPE, and we are very grateful for the strength of that relationship”, noted Cleverly.
He added: “Now that the UK is doing so well in the vaccinations, we are absolutely determined to share our vaccine technology and the scientific insights that we get through our genomics research, with the world.
“We were very proud that the global Vaccine Summit that we hosted generated 8.8 billion dollars for the purchase of vaccines for less developed countries. We were incredibly pleased with the international response to that, and we will continue to work very closely with our friends and partners in the Gulf to make sure that we can get vaccinations right across the globe wherever they are needed”.