In Yemen, Trying to Save People Without Selling Out

Yemenis desperately need hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid being offered by Saudi Arabia. But relief workers are wary of taking the money while Saudi airstrikes continue.



Update, May 4, 9:15 p.m.: This article was updated with information from a statement released by the Saudi Embassy in Washington after this article was first published.

Humanitarian aid groups that have been a lifeline to millions of desperate people in Yemen are considering rejecting a $274 million donation from Saudi Arabia as long as Riyadh continues bombing Houthi rebels in the Mideast’s newest war.


Update, May 4, 9:15 p.m.: This article was updated with information from a statement released by the Saudi Embassy in Washington after this article was first published.

Humanitarian aid groups that have been a lifeline to millions of desperate people in Yemen are considering rejecting a $274 million donation from Saudi Arabia as long as Riyadh continues bombing Houthi rebels in the Mideast’s newest war.

The conflict — which is widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran — presents an ethical dilemma for aid workers who need the funds to help hungry, sick, and homeless civilians in Yemen but are wary of appearing complicit in the devastating air campaign that is believed to have killed more than 1,000 people.

The Saudi Arabian donation may be unprecedented in its scope: It is believed the first time in recent memory that a single nation has paid 100 percent of a  so-called “flash appeal” emergency fund that is managed by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Flash appeals are usually funded by multiple donors.

One Western aid worker, who was recently evacuated from Sanaa and spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of not being identified, called the Saudi donation “guilt money” for moving ahead with its bombing campaign instead of aggressively pushing for a cease-fire. Another aid worker from a different organization urged colleagues to “avoid [having] the KSA fund the humanitarian response in Yemen,” according to emails obtained by FP that were sent to at least eight relief agencies, including the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, CARE International, Oxfam, and Save The Children.

KSA stands for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On Monday night, hours after FP published this article, the Saudi Embassy in Washington released a statement saying Riyadh and other Arab coalition members will consider a cease-fire in specific areas in Yemen to give relief groups necessary access to deliver aid. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir nonetheless warned in the statement that Houthi rebels likely would “try to exploit the ceasefire and prevent the people of Yemen from receiving aid.” Jubeir said Saudi Arabia will resume bombing rebels who violate the cease-fire. Until last month, Jubeir was Riyadh’s ambassador to the United States.

The dilemma is nearing a decision point: Aid groups will have to decide in the next few weeks whether to accept the Saudi donation, which was given to the United Nations humanitarian affairs office to be parceled out to relief organizations. Top officials with U.N. and Red Cross humanitarian aid missions will meet May 13 with international relief groups to discuss the Yemen funding appeal.

At least one major aid organization — which declined to be identified until a decision is reached — is leaning against taking the money, and others are wrestling with whether they should also reject it, according to emails and interviews with a half-dozen humanitarian workers and advocacy missions. Nearly all spoke to FP on condition of anonymity as their organizations consider whether a perceived stigma of allying with Riyadh outweighs the urgent need of ministering to the war’s civilian victims.

“It is an uncomfortable situation,” said Joel R. Charny, vice president for humanitarian policy at InterAction, a Washington-based alliance for aid and advocacy organizations worldwide. “Of course it raises questions as to whether this is a way [for Riyadh] to wash [its] hands or distract attention from the humanitarian impact of the war to date. There’s bound to be a little bit of discomfort, I think, given the fact the entire pool of money is coming from a single donor that’s a belligerent.”

The U.N. will keep the money available for other aid organizations that will try to distribute it in Yemen.

InterAction represents about 10 aid groups that have been working in Yemen, including Oxfam and International Medical Corps, which suffered employee injuries or damage to warehouses storing medicine, food and other relief supplies in mid-April airstrikes they believe were ordered by Riyadh. Charny said most, if not all, aid groups have pulled their international staff from Yemen, leaving the daunting mission to local workers.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, and one of every five of its people is undernourished, according to the U.N. Humanitarian aid missions in Yemen for years have been severely underfunded, and had by late March collected only 8 percent of an emergency fund appeal by the time Saudi airstrikes began, according to the U.N.

As many as 16 million Yemenis were reliant on international aid before the war began, and up to 12 million are in immediate danger of going hungry, according to a senior Western aid worker who recently left Yemen. And if fuel cannot be shipped into the country within two weeks, he said, it’s likely that many relief efforts will shut down.

The U.N. has demanded a cease-fire in Yemen, and the U.S. has called for a political solution to the unrest, although Washington supports a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states determined to shut down the Shiite Houthi rebels. Riyadh shows little sign of stopping: Human Rights Watch on Sunday reported evidence of banned cluster munitions being used in airstrikes along the Saudi border in mid-April.

Cluster munitions are banned by the U.N. and 91 countries — but not the U.S., Saudi Arabia, or most of the Mideast — because they are imprecise weapons that leave unexploded but still operational bombs in conflict areas that can be picked up or otherwise detonated by civilians. The Human Rights Watch findings put new pressure on the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which generally accept donor funds from belligerent nations so long as efforts are made to protect civilians and make sure they are not confused with combatants.

On April 17 — a week before Riyadh pledged to wind down its bombing campaign but continued to attack — Saudi King Salman donated the full amount of a new, three month $274 million U.N. appeal for a Yemen-focused program that aid groups had helped design. It followed more than $850 million Riyadh has given to refugee, emergency health, and other humanitarian crises in the Mideast and West Africa since last July.

“The significance of this money cannot be underplayed,” said Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. He called the situation in Yemen “desperate and getting worse.”

“All humanitarian organizations are committed to delivering life saving aid, but to do this they need resources,” Dwyer said. “And resources for Yemen at this scale are very, very difficult to get from alternative sources.”

Dwyer also said the Saudi government has put no conditions on how the funds are spent or who they will go to help. Charny called that “very rare in this day and age of emergencies” and said that should ease the aid groups’ concerns they are talking sides, in the war, which would cast doubt on their neutrality.

The U.N. and world powers like the U.S. have long pressured nations in the Mideast to take the lead in helping victims of war in their own region, often to little or no effect. “So you can look at this and say, ‘Wait a second, from a Saudi perspective, they’re stepping up; they’re doing exactly what we’re asking them to do,’” Charny said.

But aid groups that have been working in Yemen say there’s little point in accepting the funding if it cannot get to the people who need it most.

A Saudi airstrike last week hit an airport runway in Sanaa, blocking aid planes from landing. Riyadh said it was trying to stop an Iranian plane suspected of carrying assistance to Houthi rebels. Most of Yemen’s main seaports also have been shut down, either by the Houthi-controlled government in Sanaa or in what Charny called a Saudi blockade to further cut off the Shiite rebels from Tehran’s assistance. Saudi officials, meanwhile, say it’s the continued attacks by Houthis that are preventing aid from reaching civilians in Yemen.

One senior Western aid worker who was forced to flee Sanaa for safety said Yemen depends on 350,000 tons of food each month and 144,000 barrels of oil daily to keep its people fed and hospitals, transportation, and other vital infrastructure up and running. That aid is “stuck outside Yemen at the moment,” he said.

And the few local relief workers who are still in the country find it increasingly dangerous to distribute what aid is available due to the ongoing violence.

Airstrikes last month that hit relief agencies’ warehouses has further spooked aid workers who fear they will become the war’s next victims. Those airstrikes were widely believed to be ordered by the Saudi government.

The State Department is working with Saudi officials to “ensure safe conduct of humanitarian operations” in Yemen, said spokesman Daniel Langenkamp, and a USAID adviser is in Riyadh to help guide coordination with aid agencies in battle zones to avoid similar strikes going forward.

On Friday, White House counterterror czar Lisa Monaco met with new U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to discuss how to speed access and delivery of “badly needed food, medicine, and other supplies to the people of Yemen who are suffering.”

But that is of little assurance, and no comfort, to the relief organizations.

“With all the bombing going on, how will we be able to spend that money if you can’t actually get access?” said the senior Western aid worker, who remains in the Mideast and refused to be identified, in part for fear of the safety of his local staff still in Yemen.

His organization is leaning against accepting the Saudi donation, especially as the bombing campaign continues.

“It’s guilt money,” the worker said, and “it doesn’t seem like they’re feeling all that guilty.”

Photo credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

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