As COVID-19 spreads in Yemen a real Saudi ceasefire is urgent

Saudi warplane bombing Yemen

By Stephen Bell

“Epidemiologists warn that Covid-19 in Yemen could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences than in many countries.”

On April 8th the Saudi Arabia regime announced a two-week ceasefire in Yemen.  This followed the call by the UN secretary general for a worldwide cessation of military conflicts in the time of Covid-19.  Ansarallah and allies responded with its own proposals, through the UN, for a comprehensive peace settlement and political process in Yemen.  On April 10th the first case of the virus was confirmed in Yemen, a 60 year old port worker in the eastern province of Hadraumat.  Peace may be delayed, but the virus has certainly arrived.

That elusive ceasefire

Since Saudi Arabia announced the ceasefire, military action has continued. On the 15th April there were 26 air raids, on the 16th a further 25, and on the 17th another 23 – all by Saudi planes.  There have been clashes between coalition and Ansarallah ground forces on a number of fronts.  The military conflict between the supposed “allies” of ex-President Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council has continued on Socotra Island this week.  This may just be parties attempting to gain more time to secure their field positions in any negotiations.

The UN Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has proposed a series of measures to secure the end of the fighting.  These include, an immediate truce, measures to ease the social/health crisis and the resumption of the political process.  Mohammed Abdulsalam, Head of the National Delegation (Ansarallah and allies), expressed concern that Griffiths proposals failed to address the siege that the Saudis have imposed upon the country. Abdulsalam said “We have experienced this experiment previously, and demand a complete end to the aggression and lifting the siege”.  The siege is preventing a free flow of goods; humanitarian and medical supplies; and food staples, into the country.

None of the foregoing means that a ceasefire cannot be brokered.  For different reasons, the different parties have an interest in achieving peace.  The Saudi regime is unable to make military progress against Yemeni resistance.  It has domestic economic problems, and its coalition is fragmenting.  Its partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is pursuing different goals, and supporting forces antagonistic to Riyadh in the south of Yemen. The hollow “internationally recognised government” of ex-President Hadi is desperate to avoid being completely marginalised.  Hadi remains a ‘guest’ of the Saudis, his ministers unable to stabilise their authority in the south, and excluded from the north.  For their part, the Sana’a government and Ansarallah are anxious to rebuild the country and secure the invaders withdrawal.

International help or hindrance?

A ceasefire is an open question then. The involvement of multilateral bodies such as the UN can certainly help this.  So too can other national governments.  For example, the government of Oman has been facilitating contacts between the Saudis and Ansarallah.  It appears there are negotiations being held in Muscat on the ceasefire.  And there has been some earlier progress; over 2,300 prisoners have been released by both sides since mid-March.

However, external governments can also endanger the process and encourage further belligerence.  This is surely the case with the decision of the Canadian government to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  The government had suspended new arms sales to Saudi regime in late 2018, following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.  Shortly after the 8th April ceasefire announcement the Canadian government lifted the moratorium, stating that its enquiries found no evidence that Saudi Arabia had used Canadian arms to commit breaches of international humanitarian law.

Of course it has not established that such breaches have not been committed; there is ample evidence of these.  But sophistry eases the consciences of Canadian government.  There will find further reassurance id the fulfilment of 48 applications for sales permits awaiting decision since September 2019.  Equally reassuring will be the fulfilment of a contract stalled since 2018 for the sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia worth $14 billion.

Shortage of medical supplies

The tentative steps towards peace come as the humanitarian crisis remains, and the Covid-19 outbreak begins.  Claire Ha-Duong, of Doctors Without Borders, has stated “Yemen was one of the last countries in the world with no detected cases of the coronavirus.  This can be attributed to the lack of testing equipment in the country.  The virus has probably been in Yemen for some time but was not detected”.  The veracity of this was confirmed by Youssef al-Hadri, spokesperson for the Sana’a based Yemen Health Ministry, who told Deutsche Welle TV that there were only 3000 test kits in the country, split between Sana’a and Aden.  He added, “We’ve already used several hundred”.

Quarantine is being arranged for suspected cases, but medical facilities and materials are scarce.  There are only 12 ventilators in Sana’a.  Masks and disinfectants are only available at phenomenally inflated prices.  Echoing the importance of lifting the siege, UN Coordinator in Yemen, Lise Grande confirmed that it is difficult to buy lifesaving equipment because of the coalition’s blockade of the country.

A country terribly weakened

The UN’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs published a report on 8th April which highlights the fact that Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.  The report estimates that the war has cost Yemen, the poorest Arab majority country, a loss of $90 billion in economic output.  The country’s GDP has declined by 50% since 2015.

24 million people, 80% of the population, require some form of humanitarian assistance and protection.  Nearly half of the country’s families are in acute need.  230 of the 333 governates are food insecure – 103 of these are at risk of famine, with 41 districts having a malnutrition rate above 15%.  Only half of the country’s health facilities are functioning.  There are intermittent electricity and power outages across the country.

The arrival of Covid-19 is at a time when the report states there are “…ongoing risks of cholera, malaria, dengue and other disease outbreaks”.  2.3 million cholera cases have been reported since 2017.  46 districts remain at high risk of cholera.  Tackling Covid-19 will not be straightforward in a country where 14 million people lack basic hand-washing facilities.

A further addition to the humanitarian crisis?

Lisa Grande believes the country will struggle to fight a pandemic, one she says is “one of the biggest threats in the past 100 years”.  It is hard to see how things could become more difficult.  But on 16th April, in a report to the UN Security Council, Mark Lowcock, Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, reported that the UN’s aid programme to Yemen was in immediate financial crisis.

He first emphasised the particularly severe threat Covid-19 posed to Yemen.  “More than five years of war have severely degraded Yemen’s health infrastructure, exhausted people’s immune systems and increased acute vulnerabilities.  As a result, epidemiologists warn that Covid-19 in Yemen could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences than in many countries”.

He then set out the financial problems.  31 or the UN’s 41 major programmes will close down within a few weeks without additional funds.  This would mean 1 million displaced people will not receive critical supplies, including hygiene items.  Nutrition programmes will be cut, affecting 260,000 severely malnourished children and 2 million children with moderate malnutrition.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 80 per cent of health services provided could stop at the end of April.  UN agencies estimate they need more than $900 million to carry them through July.

The world’s response to Covid-19 has seen some governments withdrawing from international commitments.  This includes the US government decision to freeze $400 million to the WHO, and the EU’s decision to ban export of personal protective equipment.  Lowcock reported that so far in 2020, the UN has received around $800 million in pledges and contributions for Yemen.  This compares to a figure of about $2.6 billion for the same period in 2019.  The last thing Yemen needs is for the international community to withdraw support.

The onset of an international recession is also particularly threatening to Yemen.  Yemen has limited oil reserves in comparison to the fabulous wealth of the Saudi and UAE invaders.  But the oil it produces is one of the main sources of government revenues.  The recent collapse of oil prices is reducing the value of these limited resources.  Yemen’s currency, the rial, has suffered serious depreciation, and will worsen if the national economy deteriorates further.  Yemenis working abroad currently send home more than $3 billion a year in remittances, the largest source of hard currency in local markets.  One report from Yemen suggests these remittances will fall by as much as 70 per cent in the coming months, as migrant workers become unemployed.

Don’t overlook Yemen!

It is vital that multilateral organisations and governments across the world assist Yemen immediately.  The example of the Canadian government must not be followed.  Governments should be pressing for a ceasefire, and for the lifting of the siege they have imposed upon Yemen.  There must be a renewed commitment to fund the programmes that Yemen needs. 

For the anti-war movement in Britain, we must continue to focus on the Tory government’s support for the Saudi war.  The Tories want to resume arms sales by overturning the Court of Appeal ban, with an appeal to the Supreme Court. We must demand they drop the appeal.  The government has supported BAE systems selling $15 billion of arms to the Saudis since the war started in 2015.

The government must also end its military contribution to the war, by withdrawing British personnel from the Saudi command centre.  Despite the restrictions we face on public activity, we must make our voices heard in demanding an end to the British government support for this terrible war upon the Yemeni people.

The above article was first published by the Stop The War Coalition.