Yemen crisis: Does Saudi largess square with military campaign?

The Saudis have presented the UN with nearly a third of the $3 billion it is seeking for Yemen humanitarian aid in 2018. But critics say the kingdom is more concerned with its image, and that it's more important for the Saudi-led coalition to halt its military campaign.

Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters
A ship unloads a cargo of wheat at the Red Sea port of Hodeida, Yemen, April 1. The port, controlled by Shiite Houthi rebels, is key to feeding the capital, Sanaa, and Houthi regions. Some 17.8 million Yemenis are considered 'food insecure.'

By the third anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen last week, the coalition it leads – backed by the United States and Britain – had carried out 16,749 airstrikes against one of the poorest nations on earth. The United Nations blames coalition bombs for causing two-thirds of the more than 10,000 deaths in the conflict.

Shiite Houthi rebels marked the three-year anniversary of a war the UN blames for creating the "worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world” by launching seven missiles deep into Saudi territory. Three fell on the capital Riyadh, killing one civilian, in the most extensive counter-strike of its kind.

But two days later, while Yemenis braced for a military response, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave a strong indication that the kingdom has also begun to focus on humanitarian needs in the war, which has created widespread hunger and a raging cholera epidemic.

The crown prince presented $930 million from Saudi Arabia and its chief coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to UN Secretary-General António Guterres in New York – a sum that meets nearly one-third of a $2.96 billion UN appeal for 2018.

That philanthropic largess will be welcomed tomorrow in Geneva, where the UN is convening a high-level pledging conference for Yemen. The cash is part of a $1.5 billion package announced by Saudi Arabia in late January, which is meant to include the expansion of Yemen’s port capacity and opening of 17 “safe passage corridors” for aid supplies, mostly in non-Houthi areas.

But Yemenis affected by the war and analysts alike say the Saudi donation aims more at repairing the kingdom’s own damaged reputation than at ending a war where it plays the decisive role. Indeed, the Saudis have also hired American and British firms to wage a concerted public relations campaign.

“The money the Saudis are giving is like make-up on its face,” says Abdulrashid Al-Faqih, executive director of the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, which has been under Houthi control since 2015.

“All the warring parties are responsible for this suffering, but first is the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition,” says Mr. Al-Faqih. “What would be better than this [money] would be if Saudi Arabia stopped the war in Yemen. It’s not enough for Yemen to receive humanitarian aid as long as the war continues.”

April Longley Alley, project director for the Arabian Peninsula for the International Crisis Group (ICG), articulates only a slightly more positive view of the Saudi initiative, though she reaches a similar conclusion.

Humanitarian 'Band-Aid'

“Over the last several months, it’s very clear the Saudis are taking the reputational damage seriously, and they are mobilizing resources to address it,” she says. “This is especially true around their humanitarian plan for Yemen that they just announced.

“In some respects, it’s very good, right? They are now focusing on the humanitarian crisis…. The UN has a humanitarian plan. It needs to be funded. That’s a very positive development,” says Ms. Alley, speaking from Dubai after visiting Yemen’s southern, coalition-controlled port city of Aden.

“But the larger picture has to be that humanitarian aid is a Band-Aid, and the reason we need that humanitarian aid is because of the conflict,” she says. “So as long as the conflict continues, it’s just going to create more of a need.”

Ali Owidha/Reuters
Displaced Yemeni students attend a class in a tent at a refugee camp located between Marib and Sanaa, Yemen, March 29, 2018. Recent surveys have found a high incidence of PTSD among Yemeni children.

The Saudi-led military intervention was initially meant to last just three months, to reverse a Houthi takeover of Yemen and restore the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

But as “Operation Decisive Storm” dragged on it was renamed “Operation Restoring Hope.” Mr. Hadi is still the nominal president, but rules from exile in Riyadh, and steady coalition bombing has devastated civilian infrastructure, from hospitals and factories to bridges – and led to war crimes charges.

A strict air, land and sea blockade – which Saudi Arabia promised to ease last November, with little follow-through so far – has meant that critical food and goods are too expensive for most. The UN says a “record” 22.2 million Yemenis, some 75 percent of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance in 2018, 3.4 million more people than last year.

Children face trauma

Marie-Christine Heinze, a Yemen expert and president of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), a think tank in Bonn, Germany, argues that despite the Saudi humanitarian plan, the kingdom is not likely to scale down its military campaign.

“They continue the blockade, they continue to bombard civilian infrastructure, all of which continues to impact the humanitarian situation on the ground.... I don’t see this as a change,” says Ms. Heinze.

More broadly, the scale of bombing has “traumatized a whole population,” especially a generation of children, she says.

“Even if the war came to an end tomorrow, we would have to deal with the consequences of this for decades,” says Heinze. “You also have the conflict on the local level, the sectarian undertones, the hatred, the propaganda that is now not only dividing regions, north and south, but dividing governorates, villages, whole communities, dividing families – that’s going through the social texture in a way that [can’t] be easily mended.”

More than 79 percent of children experienced “severe symptoms” of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as being “unable to cry or unable to feel happy,” according to an independent survey published by CARPO. More than 900 Yemeni children were examined after the first year of the Saudi intervention, during which the coalition bombed Sanaa several times a day.

By comparison only children in northern Iraq, in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds in 1988, registered similar levels of PTSD, according to this study. Today that impact would be greater, since Yemen’s children have been subject to two more years of conflict.

Yet the coalition air war – supported by American and British intelligence and advisers, and critically by US aircraft mid-air refueling capacity – is just one factor in Yemen’s suffering.

Food security

“Yemen is one of the most food insecure countries in the world,” where vulnerable populations in one out of three districts “are facing heightened risk of famine and require integrated response efforts to avert a looming catastrophe,” the UN states in its current appeal.

The conflict “exacerbated the poverty and vulnerabilities that were entrenched in Yemen before 2015,” says the UN. The result today is that 17.8 million Yemeni are “food insecure,” with 8.4 million of those “severely food insecure and at the risk of starvation.”

Such figures, and the widespread perception that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the bulk of Yemen’s civilian agony with little military result, has stung in Riyadh. Crown Prince Mohammed, 32, is the Saudi defense minister and architect of the war. He is nearing the end of a three-week visit to the US, where he met President Trump, lobbied for support for his shock-therapy reform program at home, and defended the Yemen war.

He told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that the Houthis are “using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy,” and charged that the Houthis “block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.”

Early in the prince’s visit, the Senate narrowly defeated a bipartisan bill to end US refueling of coalition jets and intelligence support. Defense Secretary James Mattis argued that both the refueling and US advice on how to target were aimed a “reducing the risk of civilian casualties” by preventing “rash or hasty” decision by pilots running low on fuel during bombing runs.

It’s not clear how the announced Saudi plan will mesh with the multibillion dollar UN aid strategy.

Those Saudi steps are “very problematic” because they are not yet defined, says the ICG’s Alley. In the case of the ports they appear to be a bid to shift away from reliance on the crucial, Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, which feeds the capital and Houthi regions.

“Three years in, there is no longer a Yemeni state, per se. There is no longer one country, [it] has fragmented along historical divides, and you have various power centers,” she says. “This is a largely stalemated, grinding war of attrition on many of these fronts…. It’s a multi-layered conflict, even inside Yemen.”

Civilian casualties

Saudi Arabia has addressed criticism of the war in other ways. A reporter for The Wall Street Journal was allowed rare access last month to the command center in Riyadh, for example, from which Yemen military operations are conducted.

Saudi officers spoke of trying to minimize civilian casualties in its mostly combat missions over Yemen.

“We’ll watch for hours, days sometimes, and not strike to protect civilians,” Maj. Gen. Abdullah al-Ghamdi was quoted as saying, while watching a live feed from a drone over Yemen that he said showed a group of fighters hiding in a compound.

The Houthi missile strike was a “message” to Saudi Arabia on the war anniversary, Alley says.

“The perception from their side is that, until Saudi Arabia feels pain from its side domestically, they are not going to be serious about negotiations,” she says. “That’s the Houthi perspective.”

For human rights activist Al-Faqih, in Sanaa, the deaths of civilians on any side is condemned. But the Houthi’s seven-missile strike a week ago pales in comparison to the coalition’s near-17,000 airstrikes – a figure from the Yemen Data Project.

“The airstrikes were almost all focused on destroying the interests of people, like attacking factories, the markets,” says Al-Faqih. “The military campaign conducted by the coalition is against the people, it’s not really against Houthis – it’s against Yemenis.”

“We do see the suffering every day on the streets and even on the faces of the Yemeni people,” he says.

“What could be worse than the current situation?” he asks. “All forms of normal life have been fading. It’s started to disappear.”

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