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4th Mar 2024

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Ex-UK envoy to Yemen: Houthis using Gaza to mask own agenda

  • Edmund Fitton-Brown was British ambassador to Yemen until 2017 (Photo: ctc.westpoint.edu)
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The Houthi militant group in Yemen is using the Gaza war to mask its own wild agenda, a former British diplomat has said, as the EU prepares to join the US in Red Sea clashes.

"This isn't about Gaza. It's about the Houthis trying to disrupt international trade and the world economy just for the sake of it. Solidarity against this is very important," said Edmund Fitton-Brown, the UK's former ambassador to Yemen.

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"This is a very good example of behaviour that can only be put down by force," he told EUobserver on Tuesday (16 January).

He spoke the same day Houthi rockets hit a Greek cargo ship sailing from Vietnam to Israel, causing minor damage.

He also spoke days after the US and UK bombed Houthi bases as part of a US-led naval operation dispatched to the region.

The Houthis, who are getting arms and money from Iran, say they are acting in solidarity with Gaza, but have also targeted ships with no Israeli links.

The EU is aiming to send three warships to the area by March.

"This would be a useful contribution. The Red Sea is not a very big body of water, so any additional eyes and ears are likely to make a difference," Fitton-Brown said.

But naval power Spain has said it's staying out of the EU mission, while voicing criticism of Israel's killing of thousands of civilians in Gaza.

Some segments of the Arab and Muslim population also see the Western naval build-up as a "pro-Israeli coalition", the EU foreign service said in its proposal for the EU mission.

And that was "muddled thinking" based on a romantic view of the Yemeni warlords, Fitton-Brown indicated.

"I've had a lot of experience talking to the Houthis and it wasn't very rewarding ... I found them rather unpleasant and very, very hardline, frankly cruel people," he said.

Fitton-Brown's Houthi experience dates back to negotiations on the Yemen civil war in Kuwait, Oman, and Switzerland in his time as British ambassador to Yemen from 2015 to 2017.

And his portrait of them stood in stark contrast to their noble Gaza talk.

"We had a peace agreement [on Yemen] in Kuwait in 2016 and they walked away from it. They walked away to some degree because they prefer fighting," Fitton-Brown said.

"A lot of their field commanders preferred to fight because they gained wealth, respect, and satisfaction from it. When you put to them an agreement in which they become civil servants, that's actually not such an attractive package," he said.

"What they have morphed into in recent years is a free fighting outfit. They love to fight. They enjoy conflict," said the ex-diplomat, who is now an adviser to the Counter Extremism Project, a non-profit group based in Germany and the US.

"They're also deeply chauvinistic — they [the Houthis — who belong to a Shia Muslim sect] have an absolutely nauseating contempt for the Sunni Muslim population of Yemen, which is the majority," he said.

"Then you add into this the peculiar Yemeni habit of chewing gat. Because they are gat-chewers, which isn't helpful: If you're already fired with religious or militant fervour, you chew gat, it makes you even more fervent," he added.

And all that led to the irony that they were more like to receive sympathy in badly informed Western capitals than in Arab ones, Fitton-Brown said.

"If you ask an ordinary Egyptian, they don't think: 'They [the Houthis] are my heroes for standing up for Gaza'. They're seen as brutal thugs and oppressors," he said.

The British expert predicted the Houthi Red Sea aggression will continue so long as there is Gaza fighting — but only because it isn't in the group's mentality to admit defeat.

"Their attacks will become less frequent and less effective as the degradation of their capabilities and arsenals goes on," he said.

"But the Houthis will only stop when they can claim they've won — most obviously if the Israelis draw dawn operations in Gaza and there comes a point they [the Houthis] can say they've achieved their objectives in the Red Sea".

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