By Bryant Harris
September 20, 2017
Saudi Arabia dispatched its top
humanitarian aid official to Washington this week amid a growing US backlash
against the kingdom’s war in Yemen.
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Raabeah, the head
of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid & Relief Center (KSrelief), is making
the rounds with policymakers, journalists and think-tank experts to tout the
country’s relief efforts amid what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian
crisis. In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor in between meetings with
Senate staffers and the US Agency for International Development (USAID),
Raabeah defended Riyadh’s record in Yemen.
“I don’t want anybody to think that Saudi
Arabia wants any harm for Yemen,” Raabeah told Al-Monitor. “Saudi Arabia is
there to help Yemenis. We’re there to see stability, to see safety.”
In particular, the Saudi official is making
the case that international assistance should be relocated to new ports away from
rebel-controlled areas, including in Saudi Arabia. The push comes amid
increasing US and international resistance to Riyadh’s de facto blockade of
Yemen’s largest port, Hodeidah, which is in Houthi hands.
Raabeah’s visit comes as the March 2015
Saudi-led intervention to restore the UN-backed government of President Abed
Rabbo Mansour Hadi has contributed to a famine and public health crisis in what
was already the Middle East’s poorest country. Riyadh and its partners have
been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilian targets, such as schools and
hospitals, in addition to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels they are fighting.
KSrelief was established in 2015 shortly
after the Saudi coalition began bombing Yemen. Promotional materials
distributed by Saudi lobbyist Qorvis MSL indicate that the agency directs 82.6%
of its budget to Yemen, providing the war-torn country with $847.6 million
between 2015 and 2017.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has requested
that member states contribute $2.3 billion to humanitarian relief efforts in
Yemen, of which only $1 billion — or 44% — has been raised to date. In an
uncharacteristically blunt statement, David Beasley, the executive director of
the UN’s World Food Program, told Reuters in September that Saudi Arabia should
end the war or pay for 100% of humanitarian assistance to Yemen. Riyadh says it
has provided $8.2 billion in aid to Yemen from 2015 to 2017.
Raabeah said KSrelief operates 153 projects
in Yemen, ranging from medical treatment for victims of the war and the country’s
cholera epidemic to public health, sanitation, food security and the
rehabilitation of child soldiers pressed into combat by Houthi militias. He
also stressed that KSrelief operates throughout Yemen, including in
Houthi-controlled areas, pointing to KSrelief-supported hospitals in Saada and
Humanitarian organizations remain extremely
skeptical of Saudi Arabia’s good intentions. While they recognize that KSrelief
may earnestly be seeking to help Yemenis, they point out that it exercises
little control over Saudi Arabia’s wartime policy decisions.
“Yemen is the biggest food security
emergency in the world today,” Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead for
Oxfam America, told Al-Monitor. “The Saudi-led coalition is conducting
hostilities in a way that is exacerbating the crisis itself.”
The coalition has come under intense
international scrutiny for its high volume of civilian casualties. A UN report
published Sept. 5 blamed Saudi Arabia for more than half of the 5,144 civilian
deaths documented between March 2015 and August 2017, and it called for a probe
of human rights abuses in Yemen. Human Rights Watch has accused the coalition
of directly targeting civilians. The rising death toll, in turn, has put
pressure on the United States to end its de facto support for the campaign
through its refueling of coalition planes and munitions sales to Saudi Arabia
and the United Arab Emirates.
"A lot of what people read in public
has to do with civilian casualty incidents, but some of the most damaging impact
of airstrikes has been on critical economic infrastructure,” said Paul.
Paul pointed to the coalition bombing of
farms, bridges, hospitals, schools and ports, particularly the bombing of
cranes used to unload cargo, including food assistance, at Hodeidah. The Saudi
coalition infuriated international aid groups when it destroyed five of the
port’s seven cargo cranes in 2015, greatly hampering ships’ abilities to unload
humanitarian assistance and commercial goods. Paul estimated that about 80% of
the Yemeni population is in need of food assistance and that 70% of Yemen’s
food and fuel imports go through Hodeidah.
The UN Security Council, hoping to
forestall a coalition offensive on Hodeidah that would further devastate
humanitarian aid, has proposed turning the port over to a neutral authority,
but the Houthis have not agreed to the proposal. And while USAID has paid to
replace the five cranes to Hodeidah to offload goods, the cranes remain stalled
in Dubai as Saudi Arabia refuses to permit their installation until the Houthis
turn Hodeidah over to a third party.
"Saudi Arabia would love to see
Hodeidah work in full capacity, so they would love to see the cranes being
installed,” Raabeah told Al-Monitor. “However, Hodeidah is being controlled by
militia groups, and they are actually violating international humanitarian law.
They are putting high dues on both humanitarian and commercial ships, and they
are either confiscating or hindering the movement of shipments.”
Raabeah suggested seeking new Yemeni ports for
humanitarian aid shipments, adding that Saudi Arabia is contributing four
cranes to ports at Aden, Mukalla and al-Mokha. He also argued for using Saudi
Arabia’s large port in Jizan along the Red Sea coast near the Yemeni border,
which KSrelief already uses to distribute its aid to Yemen, as another point of
Paul, however, questioned whether Yemen’s
other ports can handle the kind of traffic that comes through Hodeidah.
“Most other ports in Yemen don’t have
either the piers or the infrastructure to accommodate the kind of imports you
want,” Paul said.
He also pointed to the relative isolation
of most ports, meaning that assistance through Jizan in Saudi Arabia or
alternative Yemeni ports could delay aid convoys as they get held up at
“Arranging for commercial imports to go
through Jizan and then importing it overland in Saudi Arabia is not going to
solve the problem of extreme food insecurity among more than half of the
population,” argued Paul.
To help unblock the situation, Sen. Todd
Young, R-Ind., introduced an amendment in July to the annual defense
authorization bill that would have barred US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia
until the secretary of state certifies that Riyadh is allowing the delivery and
installation of World Food Program cranes in Hodeidah. Senate leadership,
however, did not bring up the amendment when the bill came up for a floor vote
“The Saudi-led coalition has unnecessarily
delayed desperately needed humanitarian shipments to Yemen and refused to
permit the delivery of much-needed US-funded cranes to the port of Hodeidah,”
Young told Al-Monitor. “Delivery of the cranes would facilitate quicker
delivery of food and medicine needed to save lives in immediate danger.”
In addition to Hodeidah’s five
out-of-commission cranes, Paul also pointed to a “de facto blockade” he argues
the Saudis have imposed on Yemen.
“Essentially, the coalition is using naval
assets to stop and delay most imports coming into the country,” said Paul.
According to Paul, the blockade, combined
with the coalition’s threats to attack Hodeidah, has caused insurance rates to
surge, making it harder to maintain credit for imports and thereby causing a
spike in the cost of food and consumer goods.
Saudi Arabia maintains that the blockade is
necessary because Iran is smuggling arms to the Houthis, including missiles
used to attack Saudi territory. A UN report released in 2016 noted that
anti-tank guided missiles intercepted during transfer off the coast of Oman
were made in Iran. And just Monday, The New York Times reported that US Vice
Adm. Kevin Donegan, the commander of the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, said that
Iran is continually providing the Houthis with missiles, sea mines and
Paul, however, said that he has yet to see
a credible report of Iran using aid shipments to smuggle weapons to the
“One thing that’s hardest for me to wrap my
mind around, and I think least credible, is the idea that Iranian weapons are
coming in commercial grain shipments or on container ships,” he said. “That’s
just not how it’s going to get done.”
Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously
the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest
newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS
News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps
volunteer in Morocco.