Yemen’s Catastrophe and the Saudi’s Fiasco

By Steve Bell

Yemen‘s Catastrophe and the Saudi’s Fiasco

Weak from five years of invasion and siege, the Yemeni people are struggling against the corona pandemic. Despite the UN call for a ceasefire, and despite the Saudi regime announcing a ceasefire, there has been no peace for Yemen. A country acknowledged to have the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today is facing further catastrophes.

The invading powers, led by Saudi Arabia, and supported by the US, British and French governments, are cutting up the country to their own ends. Different plans are being fought out within a single coalition, using heavy weapons and coups. It is hard to distinguish which is more complete – Yemen’s tragedy or Saudi Arabia’s fiasco.

Yemen’s plight

Mark Lowcock is the United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General with responsibility for Yemen’s relief. On June 24th, he briefed the UN Security Council on the humanitarian position in Yemen. He concluded his remarks with: “there is a stark choice before the world today: support the humanitarian response in Yemen and help create the space for a sustainable political solution. Or watch Yemen fall off the cliff.”

This was not routine rhetoric. On June 26th, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) published a report, “Yemen five years on: Children, Conflict and COVID-19”. The findings are horrific. Four in five children (12.3 million) are in desperate need of aid. 10.2 million do not have access to healthcare. 45 per cent of children under the age of five are stunted, meaning chronic malnutrition has left them too short for their age and caused irreparable damage to their cognitive development. 9.58 million children do not have access to safe water, sanitation or hygiene.

Before COVID-19 hit, two million children were out of school. That number has now reached 5.8 million. The report states: “The longer children are away from school, the more risk they face and the less likely they are to return”.

Vaccination campaigns have been disrupted by COVID-19. Immunisation programmes covering five million children are failing. These cover diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, haemophilus influenza, polio and measles.

Two million children under the age of five are malnourished – 325,000 of which have severe, acute malnutrition. By the end of 2020, as reported by Mark Lowcock, there will be 2.4 million malnourished children under the age of five.

The UNICEF country representative for Yemen, Sara Beysolow Nyanti, told Al Jazeera: “The crisis is of cataclysmic proportions. The children in Yemen are worse off than all the children in the world”. It is then astonishing to register the continued siege of the country by the Saudi-led coalition, and the tardiness of the international community in addressing Yemen’s plight.

Blocking and Skimping Aid

Despite the extensive suffering of the Yemeni people, the Saudi regime is currently preventing ships from unloading in Hodeida port. Yahyah Sharafaddin, vice chair of the Red Sea Ports Corporation, reports that the last ship to unload in the port was on May 20th. The Saudis are holding up 22 ships wanting to dock. This is despite the fact that these ships have received permission to do so from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM). UNVIM was set up in 2015, is based in Djibouti, and is responsible for preventing arms smuggling.

These ships contain no arms. They do contain gasoline, diesel, food and medical supplies. The impact of their denial of entry is substantial. On Thursday 25th June, 24 hospitals in seven provinces issued a statement that they were running out of fuel, and urged the UN to intervene and release the ships. Dr Mageda Al-Khatib, Director General of Al Sabeen Maternity and Childhood Hospital in Sana’a, said: “Detention of oil derivative ships threaten to stop the oxygen plant that supplies the hospital with its needs, which endangers the lives of more than 70 children at risk, and 38 nurseries for new-borns, as well as the hospital’s emergency operations that exceed 300 operations per month.”

The shortage of fuel is acute. There are few petrol stations open and then only for six hours a day. Drivers who earn their living in buses, lorries, taxis, etc, have to queue for two to three days in order to receive a rationed amount of fuel. Each bus can have 40 litres every four days. Each car can have 30 litres every five days. In a country with an acute shortage of water, the price of water has doubled as a result of water pumps and water trucks running less frequently.

In an effort to offset, or justify, their blockade, the Saudi regime say they are arranging for 800,000 litres of fuel to be trucked from Aden daily. But this is compared to a daily requirement in the affected areas of 10.2 million litres.

Yet the Saudi regime boasts of its aid to Yemen. In this it is not alone. The “international community” aid to Yemen is bound up with political manipulation and miserly commitment. Mark Lowcock’s report demonstrates this. He highlighted that the donor conference on June 2nd had pledged $1.35 billion in support. “That’s only about half of what was pledged last year. Reduced pledges from the Gulf region account for essentially all the reduction,” he reported. The UN had requested $2.4 billion to prevent “severe cutbacks”. Even the inadequate amount pledged has not been honoured. Only 47% of the pledge has actually been paid to the UN. Much more is being spent on destroying Yemen than repairing it.

Lowcock highlighted the impact upon UN programmes for Yemen. 10,000 frontline health workers have lost incentive pay. Water and sanitation projects serving four million people will start closing in weeks. By August malnutrition programmes will have to close.

Other aid commitments are being reduced because of hostility to the Ansarallah authorities in Sana’a. Both the US and UAE have cut aid funding to areas governed by the Sana’a based National Salvation Government. This is because of alleged misappropriation by these authorities, a charge they totally deny. What is indisputable is that they are governing a large majority the country’s population.

There certainly have been tensions between some international NGOs and Ansarallah. The resistance to the Saudi/UAE coalition strongly insists upon Yemen’s independence. It is perhaps inevitable that there would be some friction with international organisations operating in sensitive areas. The World Food Programme in January 2019 accused parties to the conflict, particularly Ansarallah, of appropriating aid money. This was ultimately resolved, but aid levels have been reduced to the north of the country.

COVID-19 in Yemen

On top of war, siege and hunger, the Yemeni people are also struggling against COVID-19. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported on June 28th, that Yemen had reported 1,107 cases and 297 deaths. The mortality rate is 27%, the highest in the world and more than five times the global average. But it is clear that the real spread of infection is considerably greater. The paucity of testing kits means there is almost no testing.

The government of ex-President Hadi has declared 900 cases with 250 deaths. Ansarallah has declared four cases with one death. Unfortunately, Ansarallah has banned all reporting of the outbreak, in an apparent effort to prevent panic. Yousserf al-Hadhari, spokesperson for the Health Ministry in Sana’a, told an Associated Press reporter: “We don’t publish the numbers to the society because such publicity has a heavy and terrifying toll on people’s psychological health.”

Incidental evidence points to the wider infection. Save the Children recorded 400 deaths in one week from virus-like symptoms. Pictures of mass graves being dug in Aden have been widely circulated. Doctors without Borders told Al Jazeera: “We have a lot of people that arrive almost dead, or dead.  So the mortality in our hospital is very high.” They estimated a further 70 deaths a day at home in Aden. They have to turn away sick people, due to a lack of oxygen supplies and personal protective equipment. Aden’s University Faculty Union reported that 27 of its professors died in May and early June from COVID-19 and other diseases. The country is also suffering from other disease outbreaks, cholera alone accounting for 142,000 cases this year.

The whole country has no more than 500 ventilators and 700 ICU beds. Most Yemenis cannot receive medical treatment as half of the country’s medical facilities have been closed. There are fewer than five hospital beds per 10,000 people – the WHO minimum recommendation requires ten beds per 10,000 people. The pandemic is raging in a population whose health service has, in the words of the UN, “collapsed”.

The outbreak has also increased unemployment. Azizah al Hayani, a forty year old displaced woman, was a trader before the virus. She, and many like her, are now forced to beg. She told the Middle East Eye: “We are ten people under the same tent and there are thousands living in this overcrowded camp who are in need of all basic services, including water and soap, so how can we save ourselves from corona? I don’t care about corona as this disease from God, but I’m worried about my children starving to death.”

COVID-19 in the Arabian Peninsula

Despite being under siege Yemen did not benefit from isolation. The coronavirus found its way through Yemen’s interconnectedness with neighbours. Generally the six Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states have fared badly in the outbreak. The aristocratic states have good health services, in large part due to their oil and gas reserves. This has meant a much lower mortality rate. But the absence of accountable government has resulted in large outbreaks amongst a relatively small population. The six countries have seen their cases double from May to June, reaching 400,000 cases in a population of approximately 59 million. This represents a higher per capita infection rate than Iran or Turkey.

Saudi Arabia has 178,000 cases with less than half the population of Iran (220,000 cases) and Turkey (195,000 cases). The UAE has less than a third of Saudi Arabia’s population, but it has 47,000 cases. Qatar with a population of just 2.8 million people has over 93,000 cases – making it one of the highest per capita outbreaks in the world.

The prioritisation of the economy over the population is evident. Curfews were only imposed in three GCC states, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Bahrain, Oman and Qatar did not impose a curfew. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both lifted their curfew, with only Kuwait retaining a partial curfew. It is not a surprise then that Yemen couldn’t remain free from the virus, despite having fewer global links.

There is no doubt that migrant workers in the GCC countries are disproportionately suffering from the outbreak. Many have been trapped in crowded hostels. Others will have taken the disease to their home country. It is estimated that 3.5 million migrants in the GCC countries will lose employment (and residence) as a result of COVUD-19. 

For Yemen this will be a further blow. Remittances home from Yemenis abroad have been an important part of Yemen’s economy, assisting in family welfare and wider social development. Yemeni migrants, working mostly in Saudi Arabia and UAE, contribute around $3.7 billion annually to the Yemeni economy. That represents 12% of Yemen’s GDP, and 1.5 million children are dependent upon these remittances. According to the UN, remittances are likely to fall by between 50 to 70 per cent. Many migrants will not have received wages while laid off. Saudi Arabia pays 60% of wages to laid-off private sector workers, where migrants generally work, but only to Saudi citizens.

None of which covers the position of migrants, asylum seekers and external refugees in camps in Yemen itself. They suffer all the problems of the rest of Yemen’s population, but without the immediate kin relations and family support. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), these people are subjected to “inhumane conditions that violate norms”.

The First Saudi Fiasco – Fake Ceasefire

At the start of April the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, called for a cessation of military conflicts in the time of the pandemic. With much international boosting, the Saudi regime announced a two week ceasefire on April 8th, followed by a month ceasefire at the end of that fortnight. Yet it continued to wage war throughout that period. According to figures from “Yemen Data Project”, in the months from February, through May this year, the Saudis launched more air strikes each month than in any month in the whole of 2019. They called a ceasefire and increased their bombing.

Violations are persistent still. According to the Saba News Agency, there were 45 air raids across five provinces in the 24 hours on June 26th. On June 27th there were 34 raids across five provinces. More than five years of such raids have failed to bring the Saudi regime any substantial military victories. But they have resulted in many civilian casualties and terrible damage to the economy.

Action has not been confined to air strikes. From June 23 to June 24th, in breach of the Stockholm Agreement and ceasefire in Hodeida, the Coalition launched 26 missile and artillery attacks, and 64 live bullet attacks. This was recorded by the Liaison and Coordination Officers set up under the Hodeida ceasefire. In other parts of the country that day there were 30 military actions in various governorates. Such samples are representative of the daily toll in the continuing war.

Of course, those resisting the invasion strike back. On the 24th June, missiles and drones from Yemeni territory struck Riyadh city in Saudi Arabia. Ansarallah claims they had not targeted Riyadh since March, in deference to attempts to reach a full ceasefire. They also targeted military sites in southern areas of Saudi Arabia on June 24th. Riyadh is 990 kilometres (615 miles) from the Yemen border. Once again, the question must be asked, what happened to the fabulously expensive defence systems that were sold to the Saudis by Western governments?

The Second Saudi Fiasco – Coalition at War with Itself

After more than five years of war the Saudi-led coalition has been unable to defeat the popular resistance. In the last six months, they have lost substantial ground to Ansarallah and its allies. In this light, the struggles inside the coalition have become the most important feature of the conflict. In late 2019, there were serious armed clashes between the forces supporting ex-President Hadi, and those supporting the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The Saudis believed they had resolved this through the signing of the Riyadh Agreement by the rival parties in November. In reality, the struggle continued, breaking out into occasional armed clashes.

Matters took a sharp turn when on April 25th this year the STC declared self-rule in Aden and other southern governorates. This was the beginning of a process to establish a separate state of South Yemen. The STC was supported by the UAE in this stance. Attempts to reconcile the two sides have failed. The president of the STC, Aidarous al-Zubaidi met with Hadi in Riyadh at the end of May, but there was no progress.

This was confirmed on June 13th when STC forces hijacked a convoy bound for the Central Bank in Aden. The vans were carrying newly printed bank notes worth 64 billion riyals ($87 million approx). The STC stated that this was to end corruption and to prevent the use of public money to support terrorism. An extraordinary act, and an extraordinary accusation against coalition “allies”!

This was followed by a series of political and military gains for the STC. This was where the STC installed their supporters in governorates and ousted pro-Hadi supporters. The most notable of these was the seizure of the island of Socotra on June 20th. The island sits alongside strategic shipping lanes, and has a notable and unique biodiversity. It was declared a “World Heritage Site” in 2008.

The ousted Governor, Ramzi Mahroos, was loyal to Hadi. He accused the Saudi troops stationed on the island of handing it over to the STC. This appears to be the case. In a Twitter post, Mukhtar Al-Rabbi, adviser to the pro-Hadi Information Minister, wrote: “1,000 Saudi soldiers are present in Socotra in support of the governor and the legitimacy, but when the govenorates capital was endangered by gangs of the STC, these forces withdrew from all checkpoints where they were stationed”. The seizure was deemed a “coup” by the Saudi regime, but it justified the withdrawal as an attempt to “de-escalate the situation”. Hadi officials have characterised it as “a betrayal”.

With Saudi mediation, another truce was agreed between Hadi and STC on Monday June 22nd. The fragility of this was soon evident. A number of armed clashes took place on Tuesday 23rd. STC/UAE supported forces in Hadhramaut rose demanding self-rule over the governorate. The Governor, Faroj al-Bahsni, a Hadi loyalist, has been detained by the UAE.

Of course, there have been responses from the Hadi camp. Hadi’s government has announced a review of UAE charities and organisations participating in humanitarian work. The claim being that some of these are “practising political discord”. Other such bodies being reviewed include those linked to Turkey.

Yet the position of Hadi’s forces is now qualitatively weakened. On June 21st, as reported by Bloomberg, Ahmed Bin Daghr, aide to Hadi and himself a former Prime Minister, said that the war “has achieved nothing of its objectives… is destroying Yemen as a state” and “the military option is no longer a viable means”. He went on to call for direct negotiations among the warring sides under the auspices of the UN.

A Piece of the Pie

The whole war was commenced in March 2015 by the coalition with the express aim of restoring the “internationally recognised government” of Hadi. Five years later, this leader is still unable to live in Yemen. Despite the useless slaughter, the Saudis and the UAE are neither of one accord, nor remotely concerned about the supposed war aim. They are of one accord on seeking benefit in the war.

The Dubai Ports World is an important company based in the UAE. It is a large company with 78 operational marine and inland terminals in forty countries across six continents. It has established ports along the Red Sea, and is now expecting an expansion into Socotra Island. The UAE has established a military base on the island, and has also awarded UAE citizenship to hundreds of Yemenis on the island. The STC has expelled “northerners” from Socotra. As well as the unity of Yemen, the rare flora, fauna and clear waters of the island are definitely under threat.

Further, the Yemen Press Agency claims that from “sources close to Hadi”, there is a document going to be signed by Hadi exchanging Yemen’s “Black Triangle” oil sector to Saudi Aramco corporation for $5 billion. This would give a forty-year monopoly for the exploitation of the eastern desert strip along the three Yemeni provinces of Ma’rib, Jawf and Shabwah. Yemen has relatively few reserves, and this would be a good deal for the primarily state owned Saudi company, if the report is true.

Time Running out for the Saudi Adventure

The Saudi regime appears to want an end to the war but is unwilling to concede its failure. Any popular movement in the Kingdom to achieve accountability from the regime faces terrifying obstacles. Its international allies, especially the US and British governments, continue to enable the war to be waged. So there is little pressure for an abrupt end. But the Saudi regime has neither limitless time nor resources.

In the June 2020, International Monetary Fund “World Economic Outlook”, the economic position of the Saudi state appears to be seriously deteriorating. While global growth is anticipated to reduce by 4.9% in 2020, for Saudi Arabia the reduction is anticipated to be 6.8%. This is not only worse than the world average, it is also worse than the Middle East/Central Asia average loss of 4.7%. On other measures, the Saudi government’s fiscal balance is anticipated to be a deficit of 11.4%, compared to a regional average of 9.8%.

The problem is not simply the impact of COVID-19 upon the Kingdom. It is also the impact of the drop in oil prices, due to the drop in demand and a glut of supply. At the start of January 2020, oil was averaging $61 a barrel.  This collapsed. In April there was even a short period when Texas crude was worth minus $37 a barrel. The storage was so expensive that it was cheaper to pay someone to take the unsaleable oil away.

The price stabilised at $24 a barrel in May, after OPEC and Russia agreed to lower output until April 2022. The US Energy Information Administration (USEIA) estimates that prices will average $38 a barrel over 2020. This represents a considerable fall in anticipated income for the Saudi government. On top of this, production levels will be lower. The USEIA anticipates world production will fall on average by 8.3 million barrels per day. The country with the world’s largest volume of oil reserves, Saudi Arabia, will not fare well in such circumstances.

All of the above is a long way from the glad days of 2016, when the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, launched his grand plan, called “Saudi Vision 2030”. This aimed to reform the economy, making it less reliant upon oil. A recently published Atlantic Council document, “Assessing Saudi Vision 2030: A 2020 review”, gives insight into Saudi economic progress. The authors of the document, Stephen Grand and Katherine Wolff, are evidently keen to support the project. But this makes their findings more damning: “The data provide little indication that the government’s reforms have brought the kind of domestic change that might lead to a rapid transformation of the country’s economy. To date, Saudi Arabia has made little progress against any of its headline measures” (p57).

The aim of “2030” was to have non-oil rise from 10% of Saudi revenues in 2016 to 70% by 2030. To do this requires the sum of $4 trillion in new investment, which was supposed to come from state privatisations and new foreign investment. But the report finds a decline in Foreign Direct Investment, and a rise in capital leaving the country (p.53).

This setback to securing the confidence of investors, at home and abroad, may well have two sources, those being the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, and the regime’s detention and forcible extortion of vast sums of money from members of the Saudi royal family and the Saudi business elite.

Nor does the report let the impact on Saudi Arabia of the war on Yemen go unnoticed. “No matter how dangerous the neighbourhood in which it lives, Saudi Arabia can ill afford to prosecute a war of attrition in Yemen and escalate its confrontation with Iran, while at the same time having the resources to transform its economy. Saudi defence expenditures, which at nearly 9 per cent of GDP are among the largest in the world, place undue pressure on government finances” (p59).

And, as a ‘final recommendation’: “The Saudi leadership needs to be far more discerning in the military ventures it undertakes and to take clear steps to wind down the region’s civil wars. Regional instability only makes the task of reform more difficult and diverts critical resources elsewhere.  Saudi Arabia’s foreign entanglements place significant pressure on its budget, underscoring the classic trade-off that economists have highlighted between guns and butter” (p65).

Action Needed to Save Yemen

The failure of Saudi policy has been comprehensive. On June 5th, this year, was the third anniversary of the commencement of the blockade of Qatar by the coalition of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE in 2017. This organised bullying has merely forced the Qatari regime to seek political and economic links outside the GCC, rather than accept surrender to Saudi and UAE whims. The whole experience strengthened Qatar, as documented in the recent, excellent book from Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “Qatar and the Gulf Crisis”. If the Saudis are unable to subdue a small emirate, who can believe they will subdue the proud, independent people of republican Yemen?

Still, the Saudis are being offered inducements rather than pressure. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, recently removed Saudi Arabia from the list of regimes committing crimes against children. He claimed that the Saudis have shown a substantial significant decrease, since 2019, in child casualties. He did, however, retain both Ansarallah and the Hadi government on the list.

In response to this decision, Adrianne Lapar, Director of Watch Liston Children and Armed Conflict (an international advocacy group), stated that: “The secretary general sends the message that powerful actors can get away with killing children”. She called for an independent and transparent assessment of the process of delisting. Since 2015, the Saudis and UAE have killed, in military strikes, 3,742 children and wounded 3,592.

Yemen’s national commission for UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), urged the world body to reconsider the decision. Its statement on June 23rd reads: “The UN decision ignores the confessions of members of the Saudi-led coalition regarding massacres of Yemeni kids and the legal reports issued by the UN’s own bodies that prove the coalition’s involvement in the killings, starvation and beatings of Yemeni children”.

As there is no pressure for settlement from the coalition’s main backers, the US and British governments, the war continues. Inside the British government there is clearly no attempt to grasp the depth of the Saudi fiasco. Rather, the priority is to ensure that if the Saudis wish to continue to pursue the war, they will do so to the benefit of the British arms industry.

The British government was forced to suspend arms licences to Saudi Arabia, thanks to the successful court case brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade in June 2019. But it has since emerged that while British government has not issued any new licences, it has allowed firms in possession of licences to continue to serve and support the Saudi war effort. This includes BAE, which is involved in the Saudi air force’s current bombing raids on Yemen’s towns and cities. As opposition parties in Parliament have pointed out, the British government is allowing the export of arms by some firms.

It is vital that the anti-war movement in Britain, and elsewhere, demands the government faces up to the collapse of all justification for the war on Yemen. The catastrophe being endured by Yemen can only be relieved by cutting support for the coalition. Yemen needs peace, not visits from British-made bombers and missiles. Yemen must not be allowed to “fall off the cliff”. Act now – not a penny more for war on Yemen!

This article was originally published by the Stop The War Coalition.