Following an attempted Houthi ballistic missile strike on Riyadh, the Saudi government announced today that the coalition would continue “opening Hudaydah port to humanitarian and relief supplies and allowing the entry of commercial ships, including fuel and food vessels, for a period of 30 days to implement the proposals” of the UN Special Envoy to Yemen concerning vessel inspection measures at Hudaydah port. The announcement was intended to elicit relief and praise from the international community. After the Houthis’ last attempted attack on Riyadh, the Saudi government made its partial blockade of Yemeni ports total, closing humanitarian and commercial access to Yemenis bearing the brunt of the nation’s humanitarian catastrophe. It’s tempting to think that the loud and continuous outcry of the international community, with late contributions from the United States and United Kingdom, has checked the Saudi government’s most punitive impulses.
The announcement, however, is hardly praiseworthy, and its uncritical reception would entrench the most pernicious aspects of the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of Yemen. Not only does it subtly reinforce a status quo that has brought 8.4 million to the brink of famine, it also undermines a rigorous UN inspections regime and continues to position the Saudi government as ultimate arbiter of whether civilians, caught between coalition bombs and Houthi repression, live or die.
First, the assertion that the coalition is “continuing” Hudaydah’s opening to humanitarian supplies and commercial goods is thin. Since mid-November, the Saudi government has promised to restore humanitarian and commercial access to Hudaydah port, the nation’s largest entrypoint for some 70 percent of Yemen’s food imports and the bulk of its fuel and medical supplies as well. Since mid-November, international humanitarian organizations and UN agencies have asked when this access will be granted to more than a handful of vessels. Most crippling is the continued refusal of fuel, which, as of December 19, Oxfam states is ongoing; fuel shortages have severely curtailed access to power, transportation to remote areas in significant need of humanitarian help, and the flow of clean drinking water.
Second, the reference to “implement[ing] the proposals of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen concerning the port of Hudaydah” needlessly questions the United Nations’ already considerable inspection efforts. Beginning in the spring of 2016, the United Nations has worked with coalition governments to implement the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM). UNVIM rigorously vets vessels attempting to dock at Hudaydah and other Yemeni Red Sea ports, accepting requests for clearance and inspecting questionable shipments. A January 2017 report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs attests to UNVIM’s thoroughness: 394 requests processed, 324 vessels cleared, 21 vessels submitted to inspection. Even prior to November, the coalition imposed additional inspection measures, interminable wait periods, and all manner of bureaucratic red tape on humanitarian and commercial vessels attempting to dock at the major Red Sea ports of Hudaydah and Saleef, duplicate measures that spoiled food and wasted medicines that could have curbed the sharpest edges of Yemen’s crises. To date, Saudi Arabia has not presented any substantial complaints about UNVIM’s efficacy, or any acceptable justification for these obstructions, which have nothing to do with interdicting weapons or contraband.
Finally, the Saudi government’s 30-day window for eased humanitarian and commercial access reads more like a threat than a promise. Yemen’s Red Sea ports are a lifeline to 75 percent of the nation’s populations, not a humanitarian switch that the coalition can flip on and off depending upon whether its members find political conditions favorable. Under international humanitarian law, Saudi Arabia and other coalition members are obligated to facilitate the free access of relief for civilians in need. Saudi officials can mouth platitudes about assisting “the brotherly Yemeni people” and rhetorically distinguish civilians from Houthi insurgents; but conditioning assistance upon nebulous inspection improvements via an arbitrary time limit threatens the former while doing nothing to weaken the position of the latter.
If, in the coming days, the Saudi government does truly lift its blockade and permit humanitarian and commercial shipments to pass through Hudaydah and other Red Sea ports at the required pace, it will save thousands of Yemenis in Houthi-controlled territory, serve as a first step to de-escalating the conflict, and elicit real sighs of relief from the international community. If the United States and others recognize rhetoric over material progress, however, they will further establish the Saudi government as the ultimate administrator of the global humanitarian response to Yemen’s crises, a role it has abused with abandon.