Yemen crisis: Aid agencies urge Saudi Arabia to lift blockade

‘Worst humanitarian crisis in the world’ deteriorating over closure of ports and airports

Saudi Arabia has come under strong pressure from UN humanitarian agencies to immediately and unconditionally lift its blockade of Yemen where deprivation is "being measured in the number of lives that are lost".

In a joint statement, the World Food Programme, World Health Organisation and Unicef, the children's agency, said the blockade is deepening "the worst humanitarian crisis in the world".

Closure of the country’s main ports and airports puts children, in particular, at risk of death by starvation and disease. The agencies reported “17 million do not know where their next meal is coming from” and if supplies do not resume soon 3.2 million could be added to the seven million who are on the brink of starvation.

Before a total blockade was imposed on November 6th, UN agencies had warned that 14.5 million Yemenis are without basic healthcare. Cholera – contracted earlier this year by 900,000 and fatal for 2,200 – could make a comeback due to the shortage of fuel for electricity to purify and pump clean water and treat waste. The lack of vaccines has brought rapidly spreading diptheria, threatening 1 million children.

Saudi Arabia instituted the blockade in response to the firing of a missile toward the kingdom's capital, arguing that Yemeni Houthi rebels receive missiles and other weapons from Saudi Arabia's antagonist Iran, a charge Tehran denies.

‘Liberated ports’

In response to protests against the blockade, Riyadh announced aid can transit "liberated ports" held by forces loyal to the Saudi-backed government under President Rab Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who, like Lebanon's prime minister Saad Hariri, has been a Riyadh resident unable to return home.

The UN agencies called for reopening of all Yemeni ports as Saudi-approved ports cannot handle the volume of goods required to provide basis sustenance and medicines for the needy majority of Yemenis. When fully operational, rebel-held Hodeida port handled 80 per cent of the goods entering the country.

The Saudis not only barred UN humanitarian flights into the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa but Saudi warplanes also bombed the navigational control centre at the international airport.

Before the US- and UK-backed Saudi-led coalition launched its war against the Houthis in March 2015, Yemen, the poorest country in the region, imported 90 per cent of its foodstuffs. While the Syrian government is accused to starving insurgent-held areas in that country into submission, Saudi Arabia has been permitted by its western allies to starve rebel-ruled areas where 70 per cent of Yemenis live.

Alarmed by the crisis, the US House of Representatives adopted a non-binding resolution stating US assistance to the Saudi war effort has not been authorised. The US has provided weapons, targeting advice, and in-flight refuelling of Saudi bombers striking Yemen. Britain, France, and Germany are also involved.

Easy victory

Saudi defence minister and now crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, launched the war in the expectation that the Houthis would be defeated quickly, providing the kingdom with an easy victory. Instead, the war has dragged on, killing thousands of civilians and devastating the country.

The United Arab Emirates, the prince's partner, is critical of Riyadh's support for Hadi, who has little support in Yemen, as well as over the conduct of the war.

Fearing a regional conflict dragging in its army, the largest in the Arab world, Egypt has urged Saudi and Gulf rulers, Cairo's financiers, to cease escalating tensions with Iran. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has proclaimed threats to Gulf security are threats "to our own national security", but warned the region "has enough instability and challenges" and does not need a crisis with Iran or its ally Lebanon's Hizbullah.

He called for dialogue to end sectarian rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.