Yemen feels the heat from Gaza

Summary: the war in Gaza is casting a long shadow in Yemen where urgently needed humanitarian aid is falling far short of requirements and efforts to achieve a peace deal are being stymied in part by the US designation of the Huthis as a terrorist group.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. An expert on Yemen, Helen also works as a freelance rural development consultant with a particular interest in water, among other environmental issues. Saqi Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war, what lies behind it and what needs to happen for it to end. In July 2022 Routledge published her latest book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

The world has developed a new interest in Yemen thanks to military actions in the Red Sea where the Huthis and their cheap missiles/drones (average unit cost US$ 2000) are confronting British and US highly sophisticated and expensive drones/missiles (average unit cost US$ 2 million.) Attacks against targets in Yemen  – many of which had often been hit by the Saudi-led Coalition between 2015 and 2022 – are almost daily while the Huthis continue to lob various projectiles into the Red Sea, occasionally hitting a vessel as they did on 19 February crippling a UK registered cargo ship. As we approach the ninth anniversary of the internationalisation of this civil war, and hopes for some kind of lasting settlement fade, life for ordinary Yemenis continues to deteriorate.

In a statement on Tuesday Huthi military spokesperson Yahya Sarea said the group had used drones to target a number of United States warships in the Red Sea and Arabian Sea as well as sites in the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat
In a statement on Tuesday Huthi military spokesperson Yahya Sarea said the group had used drones to target a number of United States warships in the Red Sea and Arabian Sea as well as sites in the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat

Announced very belatedly on 2 February, the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) for 2024 is significantly more modest than last year’s. In 2023, it received just 38% of the US$ 4.3 billion required. While this may appear shocking, it isn’t: world wide appeals were also funded at 38% of a total US$ 56.7 billion requested, though other war and global warming affected states in the region were better funded (Sudan 40%, Somalia 43%, Afghanistan 45%, South Sudan 50%, Palestine 100%.)

According to the 2024 HRP 18.2 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance, 17.6 million of them are facing food and nutrition insecurity, hunger in plain English, while “nearly half of all children under five (are) suffering from moderate to severe stunting; 4.5 million people (are) displaced.” In 2023 the HRP identified 21.6 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Of the 18.2 million identified this year the HRP only plans to assist 11.2 million or 62% of those in need, leaving questions unanswered: a) given the absence of improvements in the economy as a whole, what happened to the 3.4 million who were in need last year but apparently are not this year and b) how are the 7 million in need but not in the assistance plan supposed to cope? Looking at the situation in recent years, the following figures are worth noting:

 

Year In need

(in millions)

Targeted

(in millions)

reached

(in millions)

% of reached to in need Funding received to requirements %
2019 24.1 21.4 13.7 57 87
2020 24.1 21.4 10 41 62
2021 20.7 16.0 11.6 56 63
2022 23.4 17.9 10.7 46 52
2023 21.6 17.3 8.7 40 39
2024 18.2 11.2

Source: calculated from HRP 24 data

The reduced targets and planned interventions claim to concentrate on sectors essential to the long-term recovery of Yemen’s human capital and economy. According to HRP it will “foster integration and synergies between humanitarian and development efforts…is better aligned with development efforts” and will have  “a prioritized, more risk-informed and bottom-up approach … in line with the continued implementation of the recommendations of the IAHE (Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation).”  However, the detailed plan suggests otherwise: in education and health less than half those in need will be supported! In food security and agriculture, 5 million fewer. In other words the sectors suffering the deepest cuts are those most essential for people’s lifetime physical and mental well-being and the country’s socio-economic development.

In addition to the issues of principle raised above, according to its severity of needs map, most people in greatest need live in the Huthi-controlled part of the country where the WFP, the main provider of food and cash, has stopped its distributions since December due to a combination of shortage of funds and disagreements with the de facto authorities on the selection of beneficiaries. Not mentioned, but possibly also relevant, the HRP’s main funder is the USA  with 40% of the total in 2023. Other major funders are the EU (10%), Germany (9%), the UK (6%). The only other significant funder is Saudi Arabia at 11.5%. The annual pledging conference is unlikely to happen for some weeks, i.e. well into the year.

This is the humanitarian context in which the Huthi movement’s attacks on shipping in the Red Sea led to a significant escalation of the Gaza-based Middle East crisis. Although US and UK air strikes deep inside the country improve the Huthis’ public image among many Yemenis, they also create concern and reactions for others whose homes may become targets as the Huthis try to install launching facilities in residential neighbourhoods. Overall, the prospect of these strikes becoming routine and enduring re-establishes a generalised fear and concern for Yemenis throughout the country, as well as extinguishing hopes for an end to the war in the near future.

Another extremely important issue for Yemenis is the US designation of the Huthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group, which became effective on 16 February. Despite numerous assertions to the contrary on ‘carve outs’ for humanitarian aid, this has caused deep concern in the humanitarian sector; Western Union has already stopped making any transfers to Yemen, demonstrating that these concerns are very justified, and thousands of Yemeni households dependent on remittances will  suffer in the very short term. The OCHA’s aid operations director, addressing the situation told the UN Security Council that, regardless of efforts to safeguard transactions “we fear that there may be an effect on the economy, including commercial imports of essential items on which the people of Yemen depend more than ever.”

Internationally, this is another nail in the coffin of the long-awaited ‘peace’ agreement between the Huthis and the Saudis: one of its main features is that the Saudis will pay government staff, including in Huthi-controlled areas, for at least a year. Following on from the terrorist group designation, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Saudis to make the necessary transfers. These payments are at the core of the Huthis agreeing to a deal with the Saudis, a deal which might or might not have happened without the current escalation in the Red Sea. It is even conceivable that the Huthis perceive their actions in the Red Sea as a convenient excuse to put an end to these negotiations, whose positive outcome would reduce their hold on the Yemeni population.

Humanitarian operations in Huthi-controlled areas have been challenging at the best of times. Up to now relief organisations have dealt with the Huthi regime’s SCMCHA (Supreme Council for Management and Coordination of Humanitarian and International Cooperation.) On 17 February a new organisation the Humanitarian Operations Coordination Centre (HOCC) was announced under the direct authority of the Office of the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, i.e. the President of the Huthi-controlled entity. Whether this replaces or complements SCMCHA is unclear at this time, but it is likely that it will further complicate a situation which is already far from straightforward. As usual the Yemeni people are those who will pay the price in suffering, hunger and deprivation, as well as in lost hope.

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