Yemeni-UK Relations: RAPID DETERIORATION [Archives:1999/02/Front Page]

January 11 1999

The Republic of Yemen and the United Kingdom barely came out of the cold bilateral relations that followed Yemen’s 1994 civil war. President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his team, coming victorious out of the civil war, were not happy with Britain’s position during the war. 
Through patience and foresight, the two countries were able to collect the pieces and work on new, improved relations. Indeed, a warm and vibrant bilateral relationship was achieved in a very short time. 
By 1996, the Yemeni Foreign Minister at the time, Dr. Abdul-Karim Al-Iryani, visited London, and the UK Foreign Minister, Mr. Malcolm Rifkind, responded by a visit to Sanaa. Since then, several senior officials, parliamentary and academic delegations exchanged visits. The climax came with the visit of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to London in 1998. 
Parallel to the official warming up, many private trade delegations were popping in and out of the two countries in search of business opportunities. 
It all looked wonderful. Then all of a sudden, there was trouble. 
Apparently, London reached a not-so glorious assessment of Yemen’s democratization process as well as of the level of tolerance of the rulers in Sanaa. With that background, new difficulties helped break the camel’s back. 
At the same time, Yemeni authorities grew less and less comfortable with the British role – locally and in the region. Locally, the return of warm bilateral relations did not lead to any sizable bilateral assistance or investment from the UK. Official and private British involvement with Yemen remained minimal. 
Within the region, the teaming of the UK with the US in the recent bombing of Iraq dismayed many Yemenis, including senior officials. Hence the scene was being gradually prepared for a cooling off of the relations. 
The first problem was the Abyan crisis. Kidnappers had picked up 16 tourists – 12 Britons, 2 Americans and 2 Australians, on 29th December. The next day, army and security units stormed the hideout of the kidnappers in an effort to free the hostages. Unfortunately, there were casualties. Among the tourists, 3 Britons and one Australian were killed. 
The UK government was upset, because it had advised against the use of force. It was also upset by what it perceived as a mis-reporting of events. 
There were more complications. Sanaa, citing national sovereignty and proper diplomatic conduct, is reluctant to give full access to a Scotland Yard team that arrived here to investigate the case. 
Then there was another crisis. The Daily Telegraph ran a story on January 3rd quoting an official at the Foreign Office in London. He said that Yemen’s application for membership to the Commonwealth of Nations may not succeed. That triggered a hasty and negative response from Sanaa. In a communique issued by the Foreign Ministry on Monday 4th, the Yemeni government announced that it was no longer interested in pursuing the membership application. 
A clarification from the British embassy in Sanaa did not help though it assured that the article did not represent the UK Government’s views and that British support for Yemen’s membership did not change. 
There was yet another crisis. Five British nationals were arrested, among others, on charges of sabotage. The Yemeni Government had earlier announced that the Abyan kidnappers were linked to fundamentalist/terrorist groups based in London. 
Finally, John Brooke, a British national was kidnapped from the Haliburton compound near Marib on January 9th. The identity or demands of the kidnappers were not known as the paper went to press. 
It looks like Yemeni-UK relations are destined for a deep freeze, unless the two sides snap out of the present mood.