Saudi Arabia’s Unpaid Debt

Riyadh has promised $274 million in emergency aid for desperate Yemeni civilians. Two months later, why hasn’t the money arrived?

A Yemeni woman inpect a damaged car in a residential area that was destroyed by Saudi-led air strike last month, in the capital Sanaa, on May 18, 2015. Saudi-led coalition warplanes resumed strikes on rebel positions in southern Yemen after a five-day ceasefire expired, jeopardising efforts to deliver desperately needed aid. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A Yemeni woman inpect a damaged car in a residential area that was destroyed by Saudi-led air strike last month, in the capital Sanaa, on May 18, 2015. Saudi-led coalition warplanes resumed strikes on rebel positions in southern Yemen after a five-day ceasefire expired, jeopardising efforts to deliver desperately needed aid. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Two months after committing $274 million for the victims of Yemen’s ongoing civil war, Saudi Arabia has yet to send the money to United Nations aid agencies and is putting new conditions on how it will be spent — including, potentially, withholding it from areas held by the Houthi rebels the kingdom is regularly bombing.

Faced with the shortfall, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on Wednesday announced a new “flash” appeal to try to speed up the delivery of aid to some of an estimated 21 million Yemenis who have been forced from their homes or are otherwise desperate for water, food, and medical supplies. Witnesses have reported seeing refugees chasing water trucks in some of Yemen’s communities; in others, donated medicine is left out to spoil in the sweltering sun because there is no safe place to store it.

The new appeal will ask international donors to build on a funding gap that Riyadh initially pledged on April 17 to cover in full. A spokeswoman for OCHA would not comment on whether the new flash appeal, the amount of which was not known, would ask donors to start from scratch, or if the U.N. is still counting on the Saudi funding.

“The fact they haven’t delivered the money, I find really strange and really hard to explain,” said Joel R. Charny, vice president for humanitarian policy at InterAction, a Washington-based alliance for aid and advocacy organizations worldwide.

The aid uncertainty comes at a pivotal moment for Yemen. Four out of five Yemeni need some sort of humanitarian aid; that’s a number that rose 33 percent from late 2014, from 16 million to 21 million.

Meanwhile, Saudi airstrikes continue to pound Houthi rebels who have violently overtaken Yemen’s government. As of three weeks ago, the most recent data available, nearly 2,000 people had been killed in the fighting since March, according to the World Health Organization. Riyadh also has been roundly criticized — by the U.N. and human rights watchdogs — for putting Yemeni civilians at risk with indiscriminate attacks.

U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva stalled Wednesday without much progress toward a cease-fire in what is widely viewed as a proxy war between the Sunni Muslim monarchy in Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Shiite clerical regime. The Houthis in Yemen are Shiite and have received some help from Tehran since deposing the Saudi-allied government in Sanaa last fall.

So far this year, U.N. agencies, donor nations, and private corporations have supplied $206 million in aid to Yemen, according to a U.N. tally that was updated Wednesday. The promised Saudi donation is not included in the United Nations’ tally of the $168 million in financial pledges that have yet to be delivered.

OCHA spokeswoman Amanda Pitt said there were “enormous and pressing needs on the ground” in Yemen that have grown since the war escalated this past spring. Riyadh began its airstrikes against Houthis in Yemen in late March. She said OCHA is still discussing the “modalities” of transferring the donation with the monarchy. She refused to provide any details.

A spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington, Nail al-Jubeir, told Foreign Policy that “there is no reluctance on the part of the kingdom” to fund the $274 million pledge. But he said the money would be delivered through a Saudi relief and humanitarian aid center, and that Riyadh is coordinating with the U.N. on “working out the mechanics regarding where and how the money will be spent.”

Jubeir, the brother of newly appointed Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, did not respond to a specific request on whether Riyadh is refusing to let its donation go to refugees in Houthi areas.

But in a June 16 memo, parts of which were described to FP, U.N. emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien noted Riyadh’s insistence on playing a more direct role in steering and otherwise overseeing the aid money. The memo also described Saudi concerns over the United Nations’ speed and efficiency in distributing the funding. It was addressed to the principal officials of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which is made up of U.N. and non-governmental aid organizations. FP did not see the letter, which was obtained by a person familiar with the ongoing negotiations, and Pitt declined to confirm or deny its message.

Pitt said Riyadh last week invited O’Brien to visit Saudi Arabia to discuss Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. This week, OCHA dispatched its operations director, John Ging, to the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Works in Riyadh for a meeting about the aid, Pitt said.

“The long and short of it is that they did not want aid to go to Houthi-held areas,” said one aid worker for a non-governmental agency with staff in Yemen.

Both the U.N. and nonprofit aid groups generally balk at donor nations attaching conditions onto humanitarian contributions, fearing the money could be used to obtain political goals. In the case for Yemen, and in what is believed to have been an unprecedented level of support, Saudi Arabia pledged to fully fund the United Nations’ $274 million appeal, even though the world body’s aid request had been directed at nations worldwide.

The generous donation, however, raised concerns that Riyadh was attempting to pay off critics who accused Saudi Arabia of indiscriminately bombing Houthi areas without regard for the civilians on the ground. Some aid groups privately said they would reject the money so long as Saudi Arabia continued to launch airstrikes on a near-daily basis and kept up an embargo on Yemen’s sea and airports that have blocked aid from entering the country.

Since Saudi Arabia has committed to fulfilling the entire flash appeal, other donor nations likely don’t feel compelled to step in with additional funding while Riyadh and the U.N. debate how the money will be used, Charny said. Now, aid groups are urging other nations, including the United States, to step in and fill the gap, “but even that will only go so far, given the scale of need and the daily insecurity people face,” said Scott T. Paul, Oxfam’s senior humanitarian policy adviser.

Oxfam is among a dwindling number of international aid groups that are working in Yemen. One of its warehouses, which stored medicine, food, and other relief supplies, was hit in an airstrike in mid-April. Additionally, employees with International Medical Corps were injured in an  airstrike that month. Both aid groups believe the airstrikes were ordered by Saudi Arabia.

Charny estimated it usually takes several weeks, and sometimes up to a month, for a donor nation to transfer flash appeal funding to the U.N., which then distributes it to aid workers in crisis zones.

That the Saudi funding has yet to be transferred — a full two months since it was pledged — signals that Riyadh “wants to control exactly how the money is used,” Charny said. “Which probably puts the U.N. in a rather difficult situation.”

Credit: Mohammed Huwais / Stringer

Correction, June 18, 2015: The U.N. has not announced a dollar amount for the new flash appeal that will be announced on Friday, June 19, 2015. An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported it will be for $274 million — the same amount as the earlier Saudi donation. 

Lara Jakes is the deputy managing editor of news for Foreign Policy magazine and a former war correspondent, Baghdad bureau chief and award-winning senior national security and diplomatic writer for The Associated Press. She's a 1995 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband. @larajakesFP

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