As Cholera-Wracked Yemen Starves, Saudis Paint Rosy Picture of Their Relief Efforts
Aid organizations, rights groups, and lawmakers have slammed Riyadh’s obstruction of aid deliveries.
Saudi Arabia’s king sent a senior advisor to the United States this week to paint a picture of a generous nation working to ensure food and medicine reaches the suffering civilians of Yemen, even as it pursues a devastating air war against Houthi rebels.
But international relief organizations, human rights advocates, and a growing number of U.S. lawmakers say Saudi Arabia and its military partners are aggravating the mounting humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen by delaying or blocking access for emergency aid to areas controlled by Houthis, including a crucial port and the country’s airport.
At public events on Wednesday and Thursday in Washington, Abdullah Al Rabeeah, the director of the country’s main aid organization, offered a different version of Riyadh’s actions in Yemen that flew in the face of accounts from U.N and U.S. officials and aid workers.
“We have proven to our partners that we are impartial in our work in Yemen,” said Rabeeah, who handed out charts and a brochure detailing Riyadh’s relief work.
But U.N. officials say Yemen represents the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with nearly seven million civilians on the brink of starvation and a record-setting cholera outbreak affecting more than 600,000 people. Much to the frustration of aid organizations, the Saudi-led coalition has barred relief flights into Yemen’s airport and blocked the delivery of four large cranes to the port of Hodeida that could move food and medical supplies off of cargo ships on a much larger scale.
“We need Yemen’s airspace, its airport, and its main sea port reopened urgently,” said Ruairidh Villar, spokesperson for the London-based charity Save the Children.
“If the cranes were able to operate at Hodeida, it is undeniable that the flow of humanitarian aid and medical supplies, food and fuel, could restart again at a much higher level than we are currently seeing,” Villar said.
After Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels ousted the government in Yemen in early 2015, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf states launched military action in March 2015 to try to reinstall the president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. But more than two years later, the Saudi-led coalition faces a stalemate on the battlefield and has come under criticism for the humanitarian fallout and the high number of civilian casualties caused by its air war.
The U.S. assistance for the coalition — providing intelligence, aerial refueling, and American-made bombs — has prompted objections from dozens of lawmakers. A vote seeking to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia was narrowly defeated in June.
Speaking at a think tank event on Wednesday and at a press briefing at Saudi Arabia’s U.S. embassy on Thursday, Rabeeah played down the importance of the Hodeida port, saying his country had gone to great lengths to deliver aid through other routes and spent billions on aid and other assistance for Yemen.
He repeated Saudi Arabia’s position that “we would love to see those cranes installed” once the Hodeida port — which is controlled by Houthi forces — is placed under some form of international supervision.
In the meantime, he said, his relief organization was overseeing aid deliveries to Aden and several other ports in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) had hoped to get the four cranes, purchased for $3.8 million with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, to Hodeida in February. But a chartered vessel bound for Hodeida had to turn around and return to Dubai after the coalition refused it permission, according to WFP.
Rabeeah’s U.S. visit, which will include meetings in New York with U.N. officials and donor governments contributing to relief efforts in Yemen, aimed to counter accusations that the Saudi-led military coalition is depriving Yemenis of crucial aid. But his comments failed to reassure aid groups or congressional aides.
In a meeting this week with staffers for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rabeeah faced sharp questions over how the Saudi-led coalition was handling approval for aid shipments destined for Houthi controlled areas, and was asked whether the coalition believed it was upholding international law, congressional aides told FP.
Rabeeah, a surgeon and former health minister, was asked pointedly whether Riyadh has responded in writing to a June 27 letter from the World Food Programme appealing for permission to install the cranes at Hodeida. Rabeeah sidestepped the question.
One Republican lawmaker, Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, said the coalition’s actions at Hodeida may have violated international law and the Geneva Conventions, which require warring sides to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian aid.
Young told Foreign Policy that Saudi Arabia’s failure to provide a written response to WFP was “disappointing” and that Washington needed to press Riyadh to change course.
“Refusing to permit the delivery of the cranes and thereby impeding the flow of food to starving people to achieve a political purpose is inconsistent with humanitarian principles, international law, and our national security interests — and the United States should use its leverage to end this policy,” Young said.
Young, a Republican who served in the Marine Corps and is decidedly hawkish on Iran, sees the suffering of civilians in Yemen as strategic issue for the United States, and not merely a humanitarian concern. Young maintains that the longer the war is allowed to drag on, and the more Houthi civilians are subjected to Saudi-led bombing raids and a shortage of food and medicine, the more Iran is able to exploit the situation, his spokesman said.
Young recently backed proposed legislation that would have cut off U.S. refueling of coalition aircraft unless the Saudi-led countries could show they were abiding by the Geneva Conventions and lifted the blockade on the cranes for Hodeida.
Relief organizations have condemned both sides in the conflict for obstructing aid, but have argued that the United States — as a powerful ally of the Gulf countries — should use its considerable influence to help bring badly needed aid into Yemen.
Washington has discussed the issue of the cranes and other concerns about humanitarian assistance with senior Saudi and Yemeni officials, said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Thomas Duffy, the chargé d’affaires to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Rome, where the WFP is based, raised those issues in a visit to Saudi Arabia in the first week of August.
But the Trump administration declined to say whether the Saudi-led coalition had violated international law and the Geneva Conventions by its actions in Yemen.
“We take very seriously any allegations of violations of international humanitarian law. But we are not going to get into a legal analysis on this question,” the official told FP.
Rabeeah said the Saudi aid effort strictly abided by international law and that his organization did not differentiate between Houthi or government-controlled areas.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian toll keeps rising. Cholera cases have spiked in the coastal region near Hodeida and in other areas in recent weeks, according to Save the Children. The group has warned of the deadly link between hunger and cholera, with malnourished children at least three times more likely to die from disease.
The obstruction of emergency aid shipments by both sides in the war is exacting a terrible human cost, said Villar of Save the Children.
“When you’ve got crisis on this scale that we’re seeing in Yemen – even a single day’s delay can be a matter of life and death,” he said.
FP’s Colum Lynch contributed to this article.
Photo Credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images