"Just Enough": The Saudi-led Coalition's Humanitarian Plan for Yemen

Concise and insightful analyses of the Saudi-led coalition’s Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO) plan swiftly followed its Monday announcement. Though the top line number -- a pledge of 1.5 billion USD to UN agencies in response to the 2.96 billion requested by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) from the international community -- is commendable, the YCHO’s fine print only underlines the contradictions shaping the plan for the worse: if Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other coalition governments want to be both warring parties in Yemen’s conflict and the country’s humanitarian saviors, the former will always subsume the latter.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times on the plan, the American Enterprise Institute’s Katherine Zimmerman stated that the YCHO will “‘further politicize aid in Yemen’” by deemphasizing access to ports able to service the greatest number of Yemenis in favor of distribution sites under direct coalition control. Further highlighting this differential access, Jeremy Konyndyk argued that, without guaranteed access to Hudaydah port (the plan extends the port’s opening for only 30 more days) the humanitarian crisis will continue. Capital craves stable markets, and nobody is going to properly finance food imports to a port that can be closed on a whim, ensuring that prices remain unaffordably high. Konyndyk also trains his skepticism on some of the YCHO’s finer details: for example, the 17 “safe passage corridors” for humanitarian goods the coalition plans to build into Houthi-controlled territory are sure to become flashpoints of conflict if implemented unilaterally.

While fully agreeing with these two analyses, it’s worthwhile to both expand on a few of the plan’s specifics and the response the coalition governments hope to get from the United States. First, the plan continues to needlessly undermine the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) for Yemen’s Red Sea ports. In a Monday press release, the Saudi embassy again cast doubt upon the UNVIM’s ability to monitor vessels seeking berth at Hudaydah, calling upon the international community “to continue to support and develop the UNVIM, located in Djibouti, to prevent the Iranian backed Houthi militias from continuing to smuggling weapons and military supplies into Yemen and using the port as a base to launch attacks in the Red Sea.” Given the rigor of the UNVIM inspection process and the lack of evidence that Hudaydah is a terminus of major Houthi weapons shipments, it is unclear to what extent the UN can “continue” its development. Since the UNVIM’s establishment, the Saudi government has cast doubt on its functioning without being able to point to any failures. UNVIM’s undermining has a deleterious effect on commercial and humanitarian access: on January 18, UN OCHA reported that the coalition was delaying the berth of 8 UNVIM-cleared carriers attempting to offload tens of thousands of tons of food and fuel.

Second, the coalition’s politicization of the humanitarian crisis instrumentalizes infrastructural improvements in coalition-controlled territory that the international community should otherwise laud. Proposed new cranes at Mokha, Aden, and Mukalla will expand port capacities and be an economic boon to the south, long underdeveloped by the central government before the current war; a daily humanitarian airlift to Mareb recognizes the once marginalized province’s new, prosperous status. But the future expanded capacity of Mokha, Aden, and Mukalla ports will still not bring them close to matching the combined capacity of Hudaydah and Saleef ports, which must remain the access focal point of the present crisis. This cynical gaming of Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe is doubly unfortunate because, two-and-a-half years after the liberation of Aden, the coalition has prioritized the proliferation of disputatious armed forces in the south over the security and economic recovery of its people. Instead of claiming that the plan will address humanitarian shortfalls throughout the country, a boast that does not stand up to scrutiny, why not present the plan as long overdue investment in the people, and not just the “security belts” and “elite forces,” of Yemen’s different regions?

Ultimately, these shortcomings exist because the plan is geared less toward Yemenis than toward increasingly beleaguered foreign ministries in the United States and Europe. Loathe to cut off military support that enables thousands of civilian casualties for the dubious end of countering Iranian influence in Yemen (influence that coalition air raids have only increased), the coalition’s international supporters have gone all in on rhetorical efforts to get the coalition to ease up on its blockade, which they attempt to isolate from the larger intervention. To stem increasing criticism of international complicity in Yemen’s crises, the US and various European governments need the coalition to offer a superficially credible response to a humanitarian access crisis of its own making.

For the United States in particular, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is more of an inconvenience to be managed than a problem to be solved. Coalition atrocities, powered by US jet fuel, committed with US arms, and shielded by US diplomats at the UN Security Council, undermine US moral authority just as an interventionist administration is attempting to rally international support to confront a number of perceived threats. Following today’s meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his UK, Saudi, and UAE counterparts, an anonymous State Department official informed Gulf News that continuing to expand humanitarian access is “‘what provides all of us the space’” to pursue the actual goal of countering Iran in Yemen. Statements like this exacerbate fears that the US government is looking for just enough cover to tamp down international criticism, “space” to return to viewing Yemen as an ongoing theater of war, whether against Iran or al-Qaeda, and not a long-suffering collection of peoples in desperate need of peace and reconstruction. The coalition plan, then, is an attempt not at justice, but at “just enough.”