Even as the Saudis and the Emiratis continue to wage war in Yemen, they should step up and at least double the money they have been providing for humanitarian aid in the country. It is a moral duty and an ethical obligation, and although these are clearly not the main drivers of foreign policy for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, they should nevertheless view such funding as a smart political move as well as a legal obligation.
Some humanitarians cringe when warring parties who kill thousands of innocent civilians and inflict untold misery on millions of people fork out money to their victims to ameliorate their suffering. “Blood money,” they scream. “Whitewashing,” they lament. They are probably right to abhor this apparent duplicity, especially if it is associated with a display of feigned magnanimity. The USA has blazed this hypocritical trail in many wars it has launched over the years.
Still, these funds are helpful and needed. They should not be celebrated. But they should not be discouraged either. In fact, they should be demanded.
Of the US$3.4 billion that UN aid agencies requested for humanitarian operations in Yemen in 2020, Saudi Arabia provided $297 million, while the UAE provided none. The UN is still 60 percent short of its target for this year.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been fighting in Yemen for nearly six years, during which at least 100,000 Yemenis have been killed, and malnutrition rates among women and children remain among the highest in the world, with more than a million women and two million children requiring treatment for wasting or acute malnutrition, according to the UN World Food Programme. Without additional funds, a WFP spokesperson recently told me, around 530,000 of these children may not receive nutritional treatment, putting them at risk of death.
Exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Saudia Arabia’s southern neighbor, is a self-destructive political call by Riyadh. In supporting food aid, health care, and various other basic needs and social services to the 20 million Yemenis who are in need, Saudi Arabia would simply be serving its long-term interests.
Moreover, under the laws of war, combatants should allow, and even encourage and guarantee humanitarian aid for civilians. The opposite is sadly taking place in Yemen. A recent Human Rights Watch report titled “Deadly Consequences” documents how the Houthis, who control northern Yemen, along with Saudi and Emirati proxies and other militias who control the rest of the country, have obstructed aid supplies and often failed to provide minimal operational conditions for humanitarian agencies. UN officials claim that this kind of obstruction, especially by the Houthis in whose territories most aid work is concentrated, is behind a visible decline in donor support in 2020. Regardless of the degree to which the Houthis are hampering aid operations — including their decision on September 7 to close down the Sanaa airport — the root of the humanitarian crisis is the naval and aerial blockade the Saudi-led coalition has imposed on Yemen since March 2015. This siege severely restricts the flow of food, fuel and medicine to all Yemenis and is an incontrovertible violation of the laws of war.
Underfunded aid agencies have already resorted to desperate measures. Only half of the 12 million people whom the WFP planned to help now get their rations on any given day. Health care efforts have come to a virtual standstill in many parts of the country. All in all, nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s 30 million people depend on aid to meet some or all of their basic needs. Cholera and other menacing but preventable diseases are common, while malnutrition is widespread and rising along with contaminated and insufficient water resources. The HRW report claims that “only half of the country’s 5,000 or so health facilities [are] fully operational and with massive medical supply and staff shortages.” In August 2020, the UN warned the country was, again, on the brink of a full-scale famine.
The other four countries involved directly in Yemen or through arms sales and political support (the USA, the UK, France and Iran) would do well by initiating or increasing their support to aid operations. Aid does not resolve war. On the contrary, some analysts argue it prolongs conflict. Yet there is conversely no evidence that a lack of aid, and the consequent suffering civilians are forced to endure, does anything to help reduce or end the bloodshed.
Saudi and Emirati funding to aid agencies in Yemen has gradually declined since 2016. For example, the Saudis gave the World Food Program $380 million in 2019, but gave only a third of that amount in 2020, despite the fact that conditions have worsened in Yemen. UNICEF, the second largest agency operating in Yemen, has received only $268 million since 2016 from both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Saudi Arabia has been the largest world importer of arms since 2015, comprising 12 percent of all global weapons deals, with tens of billions of dollars spent annually on arms acquisition and other military capabilities. The UAE comprised 3.7 percent over the same period. During this time, blood has been shed in Yemen, most certainly by these very weapons. Until they end their military interventions in Yemen, all parties to the conflict, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, should stem the gap in funding needed for essential aid operations. This would, after all, represent only a small fraction of their military expenditures.
In a better world, a full arms embargo on all parties should have been imposed to help end this carnage. In an ideal world, this war should never have begun. Though this conflagration is arguably a Yemeni war, it is the foreign players who have made it far more bloody and destructive.
Even if Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not deem increasing humanitarian aid a legal obligation or politically worthy, they should consider their contribution as a form of blood money for the thousands being killed in a war they keep fighting and fueling. After all, blood money, or diya in Arabic, has a long tradition in the Arabian Peninsula and is still practiced.
Since March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE intervened militarily in Yemen, at least 8,000 civilians have been killed in air raids attributed to the Saudi-led coalition, according to the Yemen Data Project. If we take conservative estimates for accrued diya, the Saudis owe some $650 million to Yemeni families. This could be a place to start, whether they channel the money through humanitarian aid or put it in a trust for future Yemeni generations who will suffer the consequences of the ongoing carnage and destruction for many years to come.