Alistair Burt: The UK Very Actively Supports Saudi Arabia’s Right to Self-Defense

Minister of State for the Middle East: The Houthis Carefully Use the Media to Target the Kingdom

Alistair Burt was appointed Minister of State for the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister of State at the Department for International Development on 13 June 2017. He entered Parliament for the first time in 1983 and was elected Conservative MP for north east Bedfordshire in 2001.

Burt served as Minister of State for Community and Social Care at the Department of Health from May 2015 until July 2016. Previously he served as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office from May 2010 until October 2013.

In his interview with Majalla, Alistair Burt appraised the UK’s support for the legitimate right of its ally Saudi Arabia to respond to the critical threat posed to its security by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. He flagged concerns about reports that Iran is violating a U.N. arms embargo by arming the Houthis. He explained that there has been a deliberate attempt by the Houthis to mislead the public by pushing a slanted perspective of the war in the media and assured that the British government is doing its best to present the facts to the British people. And he highlighted new opportunities for cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the UK as both countries undergo fascinating changes. 

You have voiced support for the Saudi-led coalition’s support of the Yemeni government against an Iran-backed Houthi insurgency. You have also defended Britain’s support of Saudi Arabia and its allies in the conflict. Why is it in the UK’s national interest to do so?

The United Kingdom believes very strongly in a rules-based world order where states don't act arbitrarily and we see the conflict in Yemen very much as a response to an insurgency against a legitimate government. I think many people are aware of the difficult background of Yemen - the events of 2011, the abdication of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an opportunity then for Yemen to have a completely fresh start with a national dialogue and an opportunity for Yemenis to decide on the future of the government. That collapsed when the Houthi insurgency removed the government of the new president, President Hadi, and then continued its advance having captured Saleh and its advance towards Aden where the president had to flee for refuge. Now at that stage the government made a plea for help and assistance. This was backed by the United Nations and in this circumstance the coalition responded to both protect itself and to restore the legitimate government. That's what we think an international rules-based order is for. If a legitimate government cannot seek support if it has done nothing wrong then of course we are in a very difficult situation. The United Kingdom saw the intervention of the coalition as a legitimate intervention. We think it's in the United Kingdom's national interest to support such a rules-based order but we're also very conscious that Saudi Arabia itself had been under attack for some time. There have been regular Houthi attacks over a lengthy period of time but this has increased and Saudi Arabia has a legitimate right to self-defense which the United Kingdom supports very actively. For an ally under pressure and for working for a legitimate government, we think that it is in the United Kingdom’s national interest to support those interests.

What is the UK doing to contribute to a political settlement in Yemen and bring an end to the war?

It is absolutely vital that the war comes to an end as quickly as possible. It has a massive humanitarian impact on the people of Yemen, so many of whom are dependent now on humanitarian assistance. The sooner the conflict comes to an end the better. The best chance at the moment is through the United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. We practically and physically support him. £1.68 million goes to his office for support and we want to see those talks succeed. We're absolutely behind all the diplomatic efforts both at the UN in New York and supporting Martin Griffiths in the region to try and get the talks going. We're doing all we can. We do provide humanitarian support because of the impact on the people. The United Kingdom’s total contribution at the moment is something like £570 million. The best thing that can happen is that Houthi controlled areas have really got to change. It's got to be a settlement which allows humanitarian access to people in need. We are playing a part in we hope providing an opportunity for the development of Yemen in the future once the conflict comes to an end and doing all we can to promote an active end to the conflict. 

What do you think the UK can do more in the realm of helping the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?

I think at the moment it's difficult to see what more we can do. I think we've got to continue our efforts in order to encourage others to play an international part. There are others who have for example more direct relationships with Houthi which the United Kingdom does not have. The special envoy has that and we support him in that we talk to other states that might have an interest in this in order to encourage them. But the important thing is to keep very good contact with the coalition to support it in terms of making sure that it sticks with international humanitarian law in relation to its operations and above all continue to give effort to support the peace process.

How does the UK government envision a successful political settlement in Yemen?

Ultimately, it's got to be for the Yemeni people to make their decisions on this. Certainly, a reinvigoration of the national dialogue will be in everyone's best interest but that can only be done when people are free of the possibility of conflict and can attend conferences and make their own decisions. It's got to be inclusive. It has to include those who have not taken part in the governance of Yemen before. It has largely been under the control of a very small group of people and mostly using coercion. This has got to change. This is the way the world is moving. Younger people and women have got a stake in their country's future and they need to be part of the national dialogue and all regions of Yemen have got to take seriously what may happen. We are aware of the history of Yemen and those in the south who are looking for a structure of government which gives them a degree of autonomy in their region but what sort of structure that should be is ultimately for the Yemeni people to decide. The sooner that process can begin the better. 

You previously said that there is a tendency to view the conflict through a single prism. Could you tell us more about your views on this issue? Do you believe that the British public are unaware of all sides of the story?

What I meant by that is that there are elements who have access to the media who have for a long period of time targeted the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and have done everything that they could to make this a one-sided issue to try and either not talk about the events and facts that led to coalition intervention or to betray this conflict only as the military power of the coalition against legitimate interests in Yemen. We've done our best in government to try and explain to the British people what the real circumstances are. We continue to do that for those who wish to hear that we're quite sure that the message is sound a one and is out there. For those who don't wish to hear of course, it's very difficult. The situation is always complicated by access to media locally and these days people are very adept at using it. We know that the Houthi very carefully use media to put over a point of view which reinforces that overall sense which I gave you a moment ago. It's vital therefore that everything the coalition does is transparent and that if there are military interventions which cause civilian casualties that that is explained and that there is a mechanism to explain to the public what has gone on and that there is complete openness. This always helps as well. And then when opponents of the coalition can be confounded by how the Coalition has approached something then of course we think that is a good message as well. We're very clear about our aims but above all the best message would be that the conflict has come to an end because if there are no more casualties to report, if there are no more air strikes to report on because the work has been done to get the conflict ended and people talking, that is the best message of all and the United Kingdom will be very involved in that. 

Do you believe that there is a tendency to equate the actions of the coalition that entered the war to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from takeover with the actions of the radical militia that are allied with Hezbollah and Iran? 

Yes. People always like to seek equivalence in these things where it doesn't exist and we're very clear on that. There is a legitimate internationally backed United Nations backed effort to restore a legitimate government and that is straightforwardly the fact. That is being opposed by those who caused the war through the insurgency and those who support them. The best thing that those who are supporting the insurgency can do is to stop that, to do everything in their power to encourage those who have been involved in the insurgency to take part in talks that will end it and for the coalition to be very active in those talks as well and to appreciate that the end of this will come through a political resolution supported by the U.N. That’s what the UK wishes to see and in the meantime, we make strenuous efforts to protect those civilians who have been affected and the effect has been hugely significant. Yemen needs a fresh start and it needs a fair start for its people otherwise the risk of people using the space of Yemen for further unprovoked attacks on Saudi Arabia and its neighbors will still be there. Now Saudi Arabia is entitled to defense against that, the support from those who provide its defense and the combined efforts of all of us to end the conflict that causes the opportunity for attacks against innocents in Saudi Arabia.

You were in Saudi Arabia in July where you met with with Saudi Ministers, the Secretary-General of the GCC and the Foreign Minister of Yemen. How was your visit?

I enjoy my visits to the Kingdom as it gives me the opportunity to meet with my counterparts. I spent time with his excellency the Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. It was also a chance to meet the Yemeni Foreign Minister which was very important. All in all, it was a good opportunity to visit. It is an exciting time in Saudi Arabia. We of course had the pleasure of his Highness the Crown Prince’s visit to the UK in March which was so important totalk about Vision 2030 and what is in store for Saudi Arabia. It is a chance for me not just to do politics but to see a bit of life there and appreciate the changes that are taking place. Our relationship is very strong and these regular exchanges help a great deal.

Saudi Arabia is undergoing a transformational change under Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s Vision 2030. What are your impressions of the initiative and how do you view this as an opportunity to deepen the UK-Saudi relationship, particularly as the UK is also going through a transformative period in its history?

We have both got long histories and it's fascinating what's happening in both our states. Change comes quicker these days and sometimes that's hard for countries to appreciate the time scale. Traders measure the time it takes from the imagination of a product, the development of a product, to it appearing in the market. And if you look at these trends you find that things that took months or years before, now happen in almost a blink of an eye. We've seen it with technology and everything else. Everything's quicker but people don't change quite as quickly as the world around them and in some places, it's even harder. We've all got within our societies people who like change - young people of course who see a world developing that they want to be part of and their world is the future rather more than the past. And then there's an older generation who have gotten used to things as they were and sometimes of course there's a clash between them. That is in any society. What His Highness appears to be doing is to recognize the changes that are taking place in the world and looking at what Saudi Arabia can contribute to that. It also realises that over time the foundation of its wealth will have to change. The oil rich mineral based wealth will one day not be there so to use that wealth now to prepare for change is absolutely the right thing to do and we're very excited about that because we've got a lot of technological developments that can make a contribution. We want to see the passage of more people between the two states. The world is becoming a smaller place so we think this is an exciting time for all. You refer to changes in the United Kingdom, it is absolutely true. Our relationships within Europe will obviously change next year but it won't change our determination to be a global state -global Britain- and so the long term relationships particularly in the Gulf will be of great importance to us. It is an exciting time for all. Vision 2030 makes a really good contribution to this. There are developments in other Gulf states that we support as well. It should be a good time for many different sectors of our societies to do more with each other.

Earlier this month you met with Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi and Iranian officials in Tehran and Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its destabilising activities in the Middle East were discussed. Has the UK put pressure on Iran to cease their interference in Yemen by supporting and exporting weapons to the Houthi militia? 

We are very disturbed at reports that have liked Iranian supplies of weapons to the Houthis. It is contrary to the United Nations resolution which bans such exports into Yemen. We are very disturbed by these allegations and these reports which report very directly to the Iranian authorities. We don't believe it can be in the Iranian state’s interest to keep the conflict going. We believe it is in their interest to do all it can in whatever influence it may have with the Houthis to bring things to an end. We do make this very clear in our engagement with the Iranians and we believe that all parties that have any contact with any of the parties to the conflict should be doing as much as possible to persuade them that the only settlement is a political settlement, not a military solution, and everybody should be playing their part in relation to that. If not there are great risks in the region of things escalating which would absolutely be in no one's interest.