Despite Biden's vows, Yemen starves
A year after Biden took the office, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is worse by many accounts than what it was during Trump's era.
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Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, backed by the United States, have waged a relentless war against their impoverished neighbor Yemen in a bid to reinstate the pro-Saudi government toppled by a popular uprising. The unrest gave way to an armed rebellion led by the Houthis, which Riyadh accuses of being an Iranian proxy group. The United Nations has described Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe. The World Food Program estimates that half of all the country’s children under 5, about 2.3 million kids, are at risk of acute malnutrition, with 400,000 at risk of dying if they don’t receive treatment, according to a spokesperson for the organization who asked not to be named because even the U.N. fears the consequences of criticizing Saudi Arabia.
Since President Barack Obama, successive American administrations have given Saudi Arabia crucial support to sustain its war in Yemen. Joe Biden promised to change that. On the campaign trail, he vowed to stop the conflict and end “Donald Trump’s ‘blank check’ for Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses at home and abroad.”
“This war has to end,” Biden said in his first address as president. Noting that the conflict had “created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe,” he pledged to halt all American support for “offensive operations” in Yemen, including relevant arms sales. Progressives welcomed the announcement, and the new administration basked in the glow of positive press coverage. However, just over a year later, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is worse by many accounts than what it was during Trump's time.
In the last year, Saudi Arabia tightened a devastating fuel blockade that Riyadh has long used as a war tactic. As Biden was entering the White House, commercial fuel imports to Yemen ground to a halt, with no fuel entering Yemen’s Hodeidah port for 52 days from January 28 to March 21, 2021, according to a report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “This is an alarming development, considering that more than half of Yemen’s commercial fuel imports had been coming through Al Hodeidah in recent years,” the report noted, referring to the port, which is administered by the Houthi-dominated government and through which 70 percent of Yemen’s imports enter the country. The agency called the shutoff “a precedent not seen since the beginning of the conflict in 2015.”
On February 4, 2021, Biden appointed Tim Lenderking as a special envoy to Yemen. Soon afterward, Secretary of State Antony Blinken removed the Houthis from a terror list his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, had issued in his final days, which the United Nations and many aid groups had warned would severely impact the roughly 24 million Yemenis who live in Houthi-held territory. The Biden administration made clear that lifting the designation was mainly to “alleviate or at least not worsen the suffering of the Yemeni civilians who live under Houthi control.”
It didn’t work out that way. In a field visit to Yemen in March of last year, World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley sounded the alarm, saying that the dire effects of the fuel shortage included widespread power outages at hospitals. “And now, to add to all their misery, the innocent people of Yemen have to deal with a fuel blockade,” he said. “The people of Yemen deserve our help. That blockade must be lifted, as a humanitarian act. Otherwise millions more will spiral into crisis.”
Later that month, the Houthis rejected a partial ceasefire proposal offered by Saudi Arabia, asking instead for a complete halt to the blockade and the air campaign.
The intervening months brought no relief. Food prices rose in Houthi-controlled areas, according to Famine Early Warning Systems, a food security warning system created by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Goods imports through the Houthi-held north of Yemen must undergo a lengthy, U.N.-administered inspection process known as the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism to check shipments for possible arms smuggling. But even after the UNVIM clears food and fuel shipments, the Saudi-led coalition controls whether and when these goods can reach Yemen. Sanaa-based Yemen Petroleum Company, which buys fuel for both the private sector and public use, says it incurs charges of $20,000 per day for delays in clearance caused by the Saudi-led coalition, which it passes on to consumers.
In 2020, such charges totaled more than $91 million, said Essam al-Mutawakil, a YPC spokesperson. Last year the charges were lower, nearly $54 million, which signals a sharp drop in the amount of fuel coming into the country, al-Mutawakil said. “Trump was an explicit and clear enemy who after all would permit entry of fuel products,” al-Mutawakil told The Intercept in a phone interview. “Biden’s administration is lying and depends on a publicity stunt.”
A State Department spokesperson said in December that the U.S. had raised the blockade issue with Yemen’s Saudi-backed government in exile, noting “progress” in fuel imports cleared by the Yemeni government. There was a “surge in fuel imports through southern ports, much of which ends up in Northern Yemen. However, much more is needed,” the spokesperson said. Both the State Department and Lenderking have toed the Saudi line that fuel is being confiscated by the Houthis for use in their war effort. “A more durable solution is needed that will encourage more fuel ships to come to Hodeidah and address Houthi price manipulation, stockpiling, and profiteering on the black market of fuel prices,” the State Department spokesperson said.
But U.N. figures suggest that the notion of Houthi interference is largely a red herring. Fuel imports through the Hodeidah port from January to October 2021 declined by 70 percent compared with the same period in 2020, according to a November World Food Program update. Fuel imports allowed in by Saudi Arabia per month average 45,000 metric tons, less than one-tenth of the country’s pre-conflict needs, which the World Bank has estimated at 544,000 metric tons.
Meanwhile, Biden’s insistence on reaching a broader resolution to the conflict instead of first addressing the fuel shortage looks increasingly like a fig leaf for his administration’s support for Saudi Arabia and its allies. Shortly after he was appointed, Lenderking said that ending the blockade wouldn’t work if done on its own, but only as part of a broader truce followed by negotiations between the warring parties, a much more complicated and difficult task. “In fact, as long as the war continues, the humanitarian crisis will continue to get worse,” Lenderking told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee last April. “There are no quick fixes. Only through a durable end to the conflict can we begin to reverse this crisis.”
Progressives in Congress pushed for a different approach. Rep. Ro Khanna, along with 78 other House members, called on Biden to end the blockade “independently of negotiations,” and Sen. Elizabeth Warren demanded that “Saudi Arabia immediately and unconditionally stop the use of blockade tactics.” Khanna described Biden’s promise to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen as historic but said “the job isn’t done,” noting continued U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. “Ending this support is key to both ending U.S. complicity in the war and using the best leverage we have to push the Saudis to lift the blockade on Yemen that is pushing countless Yemenis closer to starvation,” Khanna told The Intercept last fall.
Since December, the Saudi-led coalition has escalated air attacks on Yemen’s capital after a long lull, targeting residential areas and Sanaa International Airport, which is under Houthi control, and destroying mechanics’ shops and key bridges; another coalition strike landed near a detention facility for prisoners of war, which Saudi Arabia later misidentified as a drone manufacturing plant. Coalition strikes hit the airport’s customs department, a Yemen Airways hangar, a Covid-19 quarantine building, and an aviation training institute. On January 18, two Saudi strikes hit houses north of Sanaa, killing 14 and wounding eight, nearly half of whom were women and children. The attack came in apparent retaliation for Houthi attacks on UAE oil facilities and airports in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
On the night of January 21 in Saada province, coalition airstrikes struck a remand prison housing over 1,000 people, including African migrants, killing 91 and wounding 236. The U.N. and other aid groups denounced the attack and called for an investigation. The Saudi coalition’s spokesperson said that the facility wasn’t on the no-target list, blaming the Houthis for failing to notify aid groups that coordinate the locations of such sites. The coalition has, however, targeted a number of detention facilities despite their being on the no-target list. Blinken, while noting that the strike was “of great concern for the United States,” stopped short of directly condemning it, seeming to equate it with a “Houthi attack on civilians in Abu Dhabi that also resulted in several casualties.”
Since March 2015, the Saudi coalition has targeted detention facilities across Yemen, killing 417 prisoners and wounding 484, according to the Legal Center for Rights and Development, a Sanaa-based rights group that documents coalition casualties and has identified weapons fragments from U.S. and British arms manufacturers. Among the dead detainees were 144 Saudi-allied prisoners of war, most of whom had been defending Saudi Arabia’s border areas with Yemen, according to LCRD data shared with The Intercept. The International Committee of the Red Cross noted that it had visited one of the prisons before it was targeted in a 2019 air attack, meaning that the coalition was already aware of the facility’s coordinates and should have avoided hitting it.
The coalition claimed that the airport and Hodeidah port are launching pads for missile and drone attacks against the kingdom. Coalition spokesperson Turki al-Maliki justified bombing the Sanaa airport, saying that the Houthis have misused its special status under international humanitarian law as civilian infrastructure and that the strikes were lawful. Yemen’s aviation authority, however, denounced the coalition’s accusation as false, saying that Saudi Arabia sought to hinder the operations of aid agencies, which are the only entities using the airport. After the collapse of peace talks in August 2016, the coalition banned commercial flights from using the airport. In November 2017, the coalition bombed the airport’s navigation system.
As for the Hodeidah port, through which the vast majority of Yemen’s imports enter the country, the coalition said that it was being used to stockpile and assemble “Iranian” ballistic missiles. In January, al-Maliki held a press conference at which he showed what he claimed was “exclusive” footage of purported missiles inside a hangar at the port. There was no audio, and al-Maliki said he could not disclose the exact location where the video had been shot. It was later revealed that the footage was from a 2009 American movie and that the location al-Maliki refused to disclose appeared to be in Iraq.
The scandal went viral across social media, and al-Maliki later acknowledged the error, saying the clip had been “passed to us by mistake by some of [our] sources.” He called it a “marginal mistake” and said it did not negate the fact that the port and other civilian areas were being used by the Houthis for military purposes. In a field visit, the U.N. team in charge of monitoring the Hodeidah ports noted that they are “a crucial lifeline for millions of Yemeni people.”
The fuel shortage, meanwhile, reached a horrifying level this winter as the coalition further tightened its blockade. Long lines of cars have queued at official fuel stations across northern Yemen, and on March 1, drone footage showed a line of cars more than 2.2 miles long at the main YPC station in Sanaa. Each vehicle is only allowed five gallons at a cost of $4 per gallon at one of two YPC-run stations, and can only refuel every four days until the stations run out. The other stations, which get their fuel from the south, charge $7 per gallon. Black market fuel, which had largely vanished in recent months, is back, selling at $13 per gallon. The price of black market cooking gas, which most taxi drivers use, has also jumped from $4 to $8 per gallon since January, but there has been none to buy for the last six months, forcing drivers to rely on black market fuel. Beginning March 3, the cost of bus fare reached its highest rate since the war started, reflecting the rising costs of cooking gas.
YPC distributes household cooking gas for $2 a gallon, about a dollar more than it cost late last year. On March 1, the UNVIM issued a clearance certificate to a ship called Caesar, carrying 32,000 metric tons of fuel, to dock at the port in Hodeidah. But as in so many other cases, the Saudi-led coalition has stopped and held the Caesar in the Gulf of Aden, as shown by MarineTraffic, an online tracking service. The clearance certificate the UNVIM issued March 1 estimated that Caesar would arrive at its destination March 2. Yemenis are still waiting.
The Biden administration has been eager to condemn Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are in retaliation for the blockade and often result in no casualties. When Biden was asked in January if he would consider a UAE request that the U.S. redesignate the Houthis as a terror group, he said the move was “under consideration.”
On January 24, the Houthis fired two missiles at Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi, where about 2,000 U.S. troops and civilians are stationed. The U.S. military repelled the attacks with a missile defense system and there were no casualties. In response, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that he would send the USS Cole to “conduct a joint patrol with the UAE Navy and a port call to Abu Dhabi” and deploy fighter jets “to assist the UAE against the current threat and as a clear signal that the United States stands with the UAE as a long-standing strategic partner.”
Biden had noted that ending the war in Yemen would require “the two parties to be involved to do it. And it’s going to be very difficult.” Brett McGurk, Biden’s point person on the Middle East, went further in a January 27 event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment: “It takes two to get to a ceasefire and end the war."
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, called the Saudi blockade of Yemen the most “offensive action” the Saudis engage in.
“The blockade is an act of war against the Yemeni people and is directly responsible for the massive humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, especially the malnutrition of children,” said Riedel, who served as a CIA analyst and adviser on Middle East issues to four U.S. presidents until his retirement in 2006. Biden has “broken his promise to make peace in Yemen a top priority,” he said, adding that the blockade “should be investigated as a war crime.”
“The Saudis are bogged down in an expensive quagmire,” Riedel said. “The Congress needs to step in and cut off all military assistance to Riyadh.”
Until that happens, more Yemenis will be pushed closer to famine. Acute malnutrition has increased by 284 percent among children and by 374 percent among pregnant women since October 2020, according to U.N. figures.
Last month, the World Food Program’s Beasley was back in Yemen, and noted that “it is worse than anyone can possibly imagine.”
“Yemen has come full circle since 2018 when we had to fight our way back from the brink of famine, but the risk today is more real than ever,” he said at the end of a two-day visit to the Sanaa, Aden, and Amran governorates. “And just when you think it can’t get any worse, the world wakes up to a conflict in Ukraine that is likely to cause economic deterioration around the world, especially for countries like Yemen, dependent on wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. Prices will go up, compounding an already terrible situation.”
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