Saudi attack on Yemen port of Hodeidah could bring disaster
UN among those warning move on Houthi rebels may kill and maim 250,000 civilians
Workers unload wheat provided by Unicef at Hodeidah: the Red Sea port is a key entry point for aid to war-torn Yemen. Photograph: Abdo Hyder/AFP/Getty
UN relief and humanitarian agencies have warned that an offensive against Houthi rebels holding Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeidah could kill and maim 250,000 civilians, more than half of them children, and starve seven million Yemenis subsisting on imported food aid.
When operating to capacity, 80 per cent of Yemeni imports and 70 per cent of humanitarian goods pass through Hodeidah. Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food, most of which goes to Houthi-controlled areas.
Hodeidah-based Islamic Relief country manager Salem Jaffer Baobaid said “The port is the lifeline [for] much-needed supplies of food and other life-saving resources and any attack would jeopardise the ability of this country to feed itself.”
When Sunni Saudis, who claim the Houthis are Shia Iranian proxies, staged a blockade of the port last November, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warned disruption could precipitate “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades with millions of victims”.
Protracted urban fighting and bombing of port facilities could create a far more devastating famine.
Forces participating in the assault and its timing are significant. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), both a partner and competitor of Saudi Arabia, has taken the initiative and deployed southern Yemeni separatists, Red Sea area tribesmen, ex-soldiers led by a nephew of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Emirati and Sudanese professionals.
Although allied to Saudi Arabia, which is providing air support for Emirati ground forces, the UAE has its own agenda. The Saudis seek to restore exiled president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in a united Yemen. The UAE has fostered separatists who strive to regain independence from the north, and has focused on capturing the country’s ports.
Seeking to ease tensions between Emiratis and Saudis, Hadi visited the UAE capital Abu Dhabi on Tuesday where he met Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, mentor of his Saudi counterpart Mohamed bin Salman, who launched the Yemen misadventure in 2015.
The Hodeidah assault pre-empts a peace plan prepared by UN envoy Martin Griffiths. It calls for disarmament of armed elements, a demand the Houthis refuse to concede without a political quid pro quo, and the creation of a national unity government with rebel representation, a proposition rejected by the Saudis and Emiratis.
They favour a military solution and contend the loss of Hodeidah would doom the Houthis, forcing them to capitulate and withdraw from the capital Sanaa, which they have held since 2014.
The offensive coincides with Eid al-Fitr, the feast ending the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, at a time when Arabs and Muslims are preoccupied with celebrating with their families instead of worrying about the devastation an assault on Hodeidah will inflict on Yemenis.