How did Yemen become world’s worst humanitarian crisis?

July 14, 2021 - 19:17

Over the years, Saudi Arabia’s blockade on Yemen has been widely documented as the main reason behind the crisis. However, this policy of placing an entire region or country under siege or economic blockade did not originate from Riyadh.

Rather the policy reflects how the Israeli regime has treated the Gaza Strip by placing it under blockade since 2007 after the Hamas political party won the elections in the coastal enclave. What Israel wanted the people of Gaza to know is that you won’t see any economic prosperity as long as Hamas controls the strip (despite the fact the people voted for the party). Tel Aviv’s siege on Gaza is not because Hamas is Israel’s enemy, but because Hamas is an Israeli enemy that Israel cannot military defeat, despite its many attempts. By placing the entire population of territory under an all-out blockade, Israel to this day hopes it will weaken Hamas’s popularity and the people of Gaza will turn on their own government. Not only has this policy failed; it’s also a war crime, where Gaza is now the world’s largest open-air prison with some 2 million people locked in a cage. 

Another example of this can be seen in America’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran. The reality on the ground is that this campaign affects the ordinary people of Iran. As many observers have noted, Washington is incapable of militarily toppling the Islamic Republic, a country that stands in the way of America’s imperialist goals, the former administration resorted to what Iranian officials refer to as economic terrorism. A campaign that the current U.S. administration continues to deploy today. Essentially to hurt ordinary Iranians and hope for domestic unrest until Tehran goes back to the days of answering to Washington (pre-1979).

The facts on the ground do indicate that ordinary Iranians are suffering such as children dying from preventable diseases because foreign pharmaceutical manufacturers are wary of making financial transactions with Tehran as all of Iran’s banking sector is under American sanctions. So companies trading even humanitarian supplies face the risk of secondary sanctions by the U.S. treasury department. Here again, the U.S. underestimated the willpower of the Iranian nation, which has stood by its leaders. 

Nevertheless, it is similar tactics that Saudi Arabia deployed in its war on Yemen. 

Following the 2014 revolution that saw former President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi flee to Saudi Arabia, the initial Saudi prediction that a military intervention would take no longer than six weeks of airstrikes to complete did not materialize. The richest Kingdom in the region underestimated the popularity of the Ansarullah movement which is spearheading the armed resistance in the region’s poorest nation. And so, after the initial six weeks of airstrikes failed, Riyadh began imposing a blockade in the hope that poverty will weaken the popularity of the National Salvation Government in Sana’a. Again another pipe dream that has failed to materialize. Riyadh, to this day, underestimates the popularity of the National Salvation Government. 

Wherever a government has the support of the people, it can’t collapse as the source of its power stems from the people. Unless, a dictatorship starts detaining activists of course, such as activists fighting for the right of women to drive.

Saudi Arabia’s intentions where evident, observers note that whenever Yemeni armed forces made military gains on the ground, Riyadh would expand the blockade on its southern neighbor. 

In essence, after more than six years of Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen and nearly 60,000 Saudi airstrikes (according to the Yemen Data Project) where residential areas, health facilities, homes, schools, markets, food stores, and vital infrastructure have been blown up. Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis but continues to defend its national sovereignty. The damage and destruction from Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign, using mostly American and British weapons, has cut off Yemenis from not just access to healthcare but also clean water. At one point, the poor sanitation saw the country witness the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. Yemen is one of the most water-poor nations on the planet as it lacks any rivers and rainfall has been on the decrease. The aerial attacks are not only in violation of international humanitarian law but also makes it difficult for international humanitarian organizations to operate in the country. Indeed, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) says the war on Yemen is preventing women and children from receiving life-saving medical care on time, contributing to the increasing death toll among civilians in particular pregnant women, newborns, and children. 

Yet the biggest contribution to what the United Nations describes as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world is Saudi Arabia’s all-out blockade. A land, air, and sea blockade and a pressure tactic the Kingdom hoped would starve the Yemenis into submission and reinstate a Saudi-friendly regime back into power. The starvation policy worked but the latter part has failed. After nearly seven years of blockade backed by almost daily bombing campaigns, the National Salvation Government remains in power in the capital Sana’a. It also controls the majority of the territory where Yemenis reside. However, many human rights groups and international organizations have slammed the Saudi siege as a war crime, saying Riyadh is responsible for the humanitarian crisis. Despite attempts by Saudi Arabia this year to try and portray itself as providing aid to Yemen. Humanitarian groups are not buying it. 

The all-out blockade is still in place while Riyadh has laid siege to the most important entry points for Yemen. One of these is Hodeideh port on the Red Sea, where 90% of vital goods, medicine and other essential commodities enter the country. What happens here is that cargo ships would be inspected by the United Nations, then taken to a Saudi controlled area, where they faced another round of inspection and at times extreme delays before being allowed to dock at Hodeida. 

Since the beginning of this year, in what has been viewed as another desperate attempt by the Saudis, the Kingdom has prevented vital fuel tankers from docking. Fuel that is desperately needed in Yemen and measures that have further exacerbated the dire humanitarian crisis. Some fuel tankers have been waiting for six months to dock. Under pressure, Riyadh allowed a few of these ships to unload their cargo; but this was far from enough. Rights groups and international charity organizations accuse Saudi Arabia of using starvation as a weapon of war. Indeed more than 80% of the population of some 30 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, with the most vulnerable being children, women, and the elderly. This year, one Yemeni woman is dying every two hours during childbirth, from causes that are almost entirely preventable. 

Another vital entry point for Yemen is Sana’a international airport, which again, Riyadh has prevented from operating. The reopening of the airport can strongly help facilitate those in need to lifesaving medical treatment which they can only access abroad. Meanwhile, the war has ravaged Yemen’s economy. Millions of civilians have lost their income as one business closed after the other. Even those working in the public sector rarely receive their salaries, another contributing factor to the increasing poverty. It’s impossible to say how many civilians have been killed from the Saudi blockade, at one point, the United Nations estimated that one child dies every 10 minutes from preventable diseases. 400,000 children under the age of five are currently severely malnourished. But children over five are also dying from malnutrition and starvation.

International Charity Group, Oxfam, says Yemen is not starving but rather the country is being starved. More than four million people are internally displaced within Yemen, these are literally the forgotten ones despite the fact that 73-percent of them are women and children. In 2018, Save the Children said 85,000 children may have died from hunger as a result of the Saudi war. A 23-page research study conducted by Martha Munda, a Professor Emeritus at the London School of economics included the world’s worst kept secret by an anonymous Saudi official, who said ‘once we control them (the Yemenis), then we will feed them’. 

Earlier this year, the UN aid chief to Yemen, Mark Lowcock, said 16 million people, more than half of the population, are going hungry. From that devastating number, Lowcock says five million are on the brink of famine. Lowcock says Yemen could face the worst ‘man made’ famine that the world has seen for decades. 

The situation has worsened dramatically with the coronavirus pandemic. According to the UN and aid agencies, official figures from the disease are underestimated. This is largely because of the lack of proper medical facilities. The real figure is believed to be much higher than what is being stated. 

And even worse, the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom, despite all the disturbing facts on the ground, have so far failed to use their leverage as top diplomatic allies and military supporters of the Saudis to end the violence. 

This humanitarian crisis will only continue to grow as Saudi Arabia’s war rages on and those in vital need of assistance are prevented from receiving life-saving help. This is, after all as noted, a man-made disaster. The United Nations Security Council must live up to its responsibility and take punitive actions against Saudi Arabia for cussing what the UN itself calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis. However, as long as the top Saudi ally the United States holds veto power, it is difficult to see any action, such as sanctions, being imposed on the Saudis. Unfortunately, this will only give Riyadh the green light to continue its blockade and attempts to strangle its southern neighbor.

Analysts have noted that the only real answer to break the Saudi blockade lies with the Yemeni resistance. The increasingly sophisticated retaliatory attacks on Saudi targets including the state-owned Saudi Aramco might be the only answer to break the siege and bring the Saudis to the negotiating table to discuss serious terms on how to end the war they started.

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