North Africa, West Asia

Famine in Yemen finally reaches western headlines

While it is worth discussing whether the missile in the November 4 attack came from Iran in the first place, the outcome is unarguable. It has dramatically worsened an already abysmal situation.

Helen Lackner
16 November 2017

People gather in the site of an airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen, on November 11, 2017. The Saudi-led coalition has been bombing northern Yemen for several days. Mohammed Mohammed/Press Association. All rights reserved. Yemen is finally making the headlines of mainstream media in UK. Why now? Since early this year, UN and other humanitarian agencies working in Yemen warned the world that the country is about to suffer an unprecedented famine. Earlier this was discussed alongside the expected famines in Africa.  In recent months little has been heard about any of them while the situation continued to deteriorate. 

At the outset, readers need to remember that the UN’s 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan only intends to reach 7 million people with its emergency assistance, although it estimates that 21 million are in need: it is only hoping to reach one third of people needing help. This is partly due to the lack of funds: as of mid-November, 1.5 months before the end of the year, it had received only 57% of the funds required to reach this small percentage of desperate Yemenis.

When looking at UN and other humanitarian achievements, it is important to remember how many of the millions of Yemenis are not even targeted by assistance from the international community as a whole, which means us as Northern taxpayers, among others. 

Military failure leads to humanitarian war

With the exception of coalition forces taking control of Mokha port in the southern part of the Red Sea earlier this year, military stalemate prevails since September 2015. Throughout the period there has been limited ground fighting between  the Saleh-Huthi ‘rebels’ and the Saudi-led coalition whose ground forces include the Yemeni official army, various Salafi, Islahi and other militias variously supported by Sudanese and Emirati troops. Daily air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition get occasional publicity and have destroyed much infrastructure, including thousands of schools and medical facilities. They also regularly wound and kill civilians in ‘mistakes’ despite the targeting assistance the coalition gets from the US and UK as well as US in-air re-fuelling of its fighter aircrafts, an intervention without which it would be unable to carry out the majority of airstrikes. 

Other less discussed military interventions are the frequent incursions of the Saleh-Huthi forces in the Saudi provinces of Najran, Jizan and Aseer which have killed and wounded hundreds of Saudi Arabian soldiers in the 32 months since the war started. More spoken about are the occasional modified Scud missiles they launch against various Saudi locations, a few of which reach their destination. The latest of these, on 4 November, was brought down over Riyadh’s international airport. It took place, most probably coincidentally, on the day Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) implemented the latest stage in his takeover of all power (some might call it a slow coup) in Saudi Arabia.

The missile gave the Saudi regime another excuse to blame Iran as the real enemy in Yemen. While in reality this war is first and foremost one between Yemeni factions for political control, Saudi discourse has shifted from the early days in 2015 when the objective was expressly stated to be the re-instatement of President Hadi to power in Sana’a. Nowadays, Saudi discourse focuses on the claim that the war aim is to prevent an Iranian take-over of Yemen, describing the Huthi movement as nothing more than an Iranian proxy, denying its nature as an autonomous movement. This distortion of the real nature of the conflict only serves to extend the war and worsen suffering. 

Faced with a military stalemate, the Saudi-led coalition has adopted alternative strategies. Expansion of the air strikes on a Syrian model is not an option, largely thanks to pressure from its western allies, mainly the US and UK, which are under pressure in their legislatures and public opinions about their contributing role to the disastrous situation in Yemen.

So the tactic it has chosen is one which has failed everywhere it has been tried, namely to make living conditions for the population as unbearable as possible, in the hope that this would turn people against their rulers. In Yemen this has taken the form of the blockade preventing basic necessities from reaching the people

The blockade prevents basic supplies from reaching the people

Since early 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has enforced a blockade on Yemen’s main ports under the control of the Huthi-Saleh alliance, Hodeida and Saleef. They supply the areas where 71% of the people in need live and 82% of cholera cases are found. Despite being a rural and agricultural nation, under ‘normal’ conditions, Yemen imports about 80% of its staples, most of which arrive through Hodeida port which was equipped with the necessary infrastructure [cranes to unload the ships, and storage facilities] and is closest to the areas of highest population density. The third main port,  Aden, under the control of the Saudi-led coalition, has serious logistical problems of storage and additional transport costs, let alone the political hostility of southern separatists to anything which might help those whom they regard, at best, as ‘northern foreigners’ and at worst ‘northern invaders/occupiers’. 

Official justification for the blockade comes in UNSC resolution 2216 which includes an arms embargo against the Huthi-Saleh faction. In practice this has been an excuse to prevent the delivery of essential necessities (food and fuel).With the establishment of a UN verification mechanism (UNVIM) in early 2016, despite delays and clear obstructionism, some ships were allowed to unload.  However, operational capacity in Hodeida port has been considerably restricted by the precision bombing of its cranes and other facilities in August 2015, limiting the number and types of ships it can receive. Although the US financed replacement cranes, the coalition has prevented their installation.

A further blow to the humanitarian situation took place in September 2016 when the Hadi regime unilaterally decided to transfer the Central Bank of Yemen from Sana’a to Aden; since then neither of the two rival banks has functioned effectively. In particular this has prevented the majority of commercial food imports (who supply 80% of the country’s needs) as traders have been unable to obtain the letters of credit needed for purchases on the world market. While there is no doubt that some food reaches Yemen through the smuggling networks operated in collusion by the leaders of the various factions, these quantities are insignificant by comparison with requirements. The retail prices on local markets have risen so much that few can afford to buy at a time when the economy has basically collapsed. Most civil servants (about 1.2 million people supporting about 1/3 of the country’s population) have not received their salaries for over a year.

So by early 2017, the people of Yemen were facing hunger and, for the poorer, starvation, which explains why the UN then said 7 million of them were on the brink of famine. By the middle of this year, Yemen has achieved two tragic world records: the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and the world’s worst recorded cholera outbreak. As senior UN officials keep repeating, this is a ‘man made’ disaster, and it is primarily due to the blockade. Just as food has been prevented from arriving, medical supplies are also affected. Despite their lack of salaries many medical staff continue to work and do their very best in the desperate conditions of the remaining 45% medical facilities which operate to whatever limited extent they are able in the absence of fuel for generators, public electricity, medical supplies and medicines.


Yemenis protest calling for an end to the Saudi-led blockade on Yemen, in Sanaa, Yemen, 13 November 2017. Hani Al-Ansi/Press Association. All rights reserved.

By the middle of this year, Yemen has achieved two tragic world records: the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and the world’s worst recorded cholera outbreak.

While both the Huthi-Saleh alliance and the Saudi-led coalition share responsibility for this catastrophe, the latter has a far greater responsibility given that both the constraints on commercial imports [due to the CBY moves] and the blockade of the main ports, are of its doing. Despite having achieved these stunning and shocking records, the coalition has failed in its stated aim, and President Hadi is ensconced in Riyadh while the Huthis rule in Sana’a.


The UN’s figures for war-related casualties have remained static for well over a year, clearly not reflecting reality: its Human Rights office only recorded 13,504 civilian casualties between March 2015and June 2017 (4,971 dead, 8,533 injured). In addition to the thousands not recorded by the UN, many others have died from war-related causes, primarily hunger and disease. If the UNICEF estimate of a child dying every ten minutes is correct, that means 4 300 children are dying monthly, or 52,000 in the last year. Adults are also dying of hunger, cholera and other diseases; most recently a diphtheria outbreak has started.

Latest developments and the forthcoming famine

The 4 November missile strike, other than its contribution to the Saudi anti-Iranian discourse, has had an extremely negative impact on humanitarian conditions in Yemen. Predictably it brought about a violent and dramatic response by the Saudi regime. In addition to increasing air strikes throughout Yemen and particularly in Sana’a (where close to a hundred people were killed in a few days), preventing Iran from transferring more missiles to Yemen was asserted on 5 November as the justification for Saudi Arabia’s closure of all Yemeni ports and airports, including those theoretically under the control of the government it supports! 

While it is worth discussing whether the missile came from Iran in the first place, given the large stocks of Scuds bought by the Saleh regime over decades, the outcome of this decision is unarguable. It has dramatically worsened an already abysmal situation and, since then, senior UN officials have been raising the alarm on a daily basis: no UN flights travel, leaving humanitarian personnel and material stranded, ships in transit accumulate demurrage costs while their medical or food cargoes deteriorate, increasing the risk of their becoming unfit for use. Among others, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was prevented from delivering 250 tons of basic medical supplies.

The international outcry in response to the Saudi decision to close all ports and airports in Yemen led its decision makers to formally partly back down. On 12 November they announced that the facilities in the areas controlled by the Internationally Recognised Government would be re-opened, but that Hodeida and Saleef, the main ports under the control of the Saleh-Huthi alliance, would remain closed until the UN provide ‘a more robust verification and inspection mechanism aimed at facilitating the flow of humanitarian and commercial shipments while preventing the smuggling of weapons, ammunition, missile parts and cash that are regularly being supplied by Iran and Iranian accomplices.’[1] Maybe it is worth pointing out that there has been no evidence of any of these items being smuggled into Hodeida or Saleef ports since the conflict started or any claims that the UNVIM has not been effective.

Appeals to basic humanity

Saudi Arabia’s proposed alternatives to Hodeida and Saleef are unrealistic and merely demonstrate its determination to restrict the delivery of necessities to the Yemeni people. As put by the UN “transporting humanitarian aid on a large scale from Aden, Jizan, and Salalah ports to areas with the highest number of people in need, would entail crossing conflict areas and frontlines, and can present delays, clearance restrictions, security-related complications, high transportation costs and disruption of supplies.”[2]  Jizan, in Saudi Arabia, is in an area frequently attacked by the Huthis, while Salalah in Oman is 1,900 km from Sana’a along the route currently practicable for trucks; they would need to negotiate about 100 checkpoints on the way, manned by a wide range of mutually hostile groups, many of which ‘tax’ traffic, particularly traffic carrying goods.

As for Sana’a airport, it has been closed since August 2016 to all except UN and some humanitarian organisation flights, preventing the departure of people desperate for medical treatment abroad or needing to travel for other reasons. In response to outrage from the international community and renewed demands for its re-opening, the Saudi-led coalition found a highly effective mechanism to address these appeals to the basic humanity of its leadership: on Tuesday 14 November its air raids destroyed Sana’a airport’s radio navigation station putting it out of action,[3] ensuring that no UN or other flight can land for some time to come. On Tuesday 14 November its air raids destroyed Sana’a airport’s radio navigation station putting it out of action, ensuring that no UN or other flight can land for some time to come.

So the only conclusion that can be reached is that, in its proxy war against Iran, Saudi authorities have decided to accelerate the death of millions of Yemenis. Not content with having blockaded the country and helping it to achieve two horrific world records, it is now trying to ensure that Yemen achieves a third: the highest death toll from famine. 

May one hope that someone, somewhere among the decision makers retains enough compassion to reverse these decisions and re-open all sea and air ports to civilian travel, food and fuel imports, medical supplies and other necessities, whether by commercial or humanitarian agencies, and enable the Yemeni population to lead as normal a life as is possible under war conditions. The vast, not to say overwhelming, majority of Yemenis just want to live and would be only too happy to be rid of all the so-called leaders who have shown so little consideration for their lives, let alone welfare, in recent years. 


[1] Letter from the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations, New York, 12 November 2017

[2] UNOCHA statement on 13 November 2017  ensuring Yemen’s lifeline: the criticality of all Yemeni ports.

[3]  Reuters, 14 November 2017

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