Critics say humanitarian operations scheme would further limit access to 8 million people on the verge of starvation
A much vaunted Saudi plan to relieve the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen has been branded a tactic of war and a “cynical PR exercise”.
Riyadh announced its $3.5bn (£2.5bn) Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations plan in January, following months of criticism over the effect of a blockade that has left an estimated 8 million people facing acute malnutrition in a country where 75% of the population of 29 million are in need of aid.
However, as a war that has pitted a Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels approaches its fourth year, critics have slammed the scheme as ploy to distract international attention from the continuing civilian cost of the conflict.
At the centre of accusations levelled against the British and US-backed strategy is the claim that, despite Saudi Arabia’s promise to open the key port of Hodeidah – a city of 400,000 largely controlled by Houthi rebels and closest to the areas of direst need – the plan actually perpetuates the Saudi choke on imports there.
Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, will meet Theresa May next week after a fresh warning by the UN’s humanitarian chief that conditions in Yemen remain “catastrophic” with “famine remain[ing] a real threat”.
The International Rescue Committee has been prominent in condemning the Saudi aid plan, describing it as a “war tactic”.
“The name in itself is misleading: it is neither comprehensive, nor particularly humanitarian,” said Amanda Catanzano, advocacy director at the IRC, who emphasised that the threat of mass starvation in Yemen was the direct result of Saudi policy.
Catanzano said: “The Saudi-led coalition is offering to fund a response to address the impact of a crisis it helped to create. The acute crisis in Yemen needs more than what appears to be a logistical operations plan, with token gestures of humanitarian aid.
“A meaningful response to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis requires more access – not less. At best, this plan would shrink access and introduce new inefficiencies that would slow the response and keep aid from the neediest Yemenis, including the over 8 million on the brink of starvation.
“At worst, it would dangerously politicise humanitarian aid by placing far too much control over the response in the hands of an active party to the conflict.”
Critics have highlighted the plan’s almost total failure to address the key demand that Saudi open the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef to commercial traffic and aid shipments. Agencies say this is required to relieve the threat of starvation in the large areas controlled by Houthi rebels.
There are also concerns about a section of the Saudi plan suggesting further strengthening of the existing UN arms inspection regime, designed to prevent what Saudi claims are Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis. Critics say such checks would further slow traffic through ports.
“The Saudi humanitarian support package is rather like a torturer following a session of pain-inducing activity bringing his victim a cup of coffee,” said Andrew Mitchell, the Tory MP and former international development secretary.
“Frankly, it has all the appearance of a cynical PR exercise. It is hard to take seriously a humanitarian relief plan which is accompanied, night after night, by major bombing attacks from the Saudi air force which are killing innocent civilians.”
Observers point out that the new plan only loosens a devastating blockade the Saudis themselves imposed, and that Riyadh’s previous promises to ameliorate the suffering of one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes – which its own military caused – have not been followed through.
In particular, say critics, continued restrictions on the import of fuel are still responsible for the rampant food price inflation in many areas, putting basic necessities out of the reach of millions.
“While we welcome any aid,” Catanzano told the Guardian, “there is already a well conceived UN humanitarian plan.
“The existence of this parallel Saudi plan is a distraction pointing to what it actually is: a disingenuous effort by the Saudis.”
Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s country director in Yemen, underlined another key criticism of the Saudi plan – that while it appears to promise more supplies coming into the country’s south, and over long-closed border crossings with Saudi, much of that aid would have to travel long distances – and through dozens of militia checkpoints – to reach those most in need.
“The Saudis are very clear about wanting to reduce the use of the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, but the issue is they need to accept there is no option but to go through Hodeidah and Saleef when we are already seeing waits for ships going into Aden of three and four weeks because of congestion.”
The controversy over the Saudi aid plan comes with little apparent international agreement on how to bring the conflict to an end.
A British-drafted UN security council resolution accusing Iran of violating sanctions on arms shipments to Yemen was vetoed by Russia earlier this week amid accusations that it was too pro-Saudi, while neither of the main sides in the conflict seems any closer to agreement despite apparent recognition in Riyadh that its military offensive has become bogged down.
source – TheGuardian