A little more than five years ago, Saudi Arabia amassed a coalition of nine Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to intervene in what was then a civil war in Yemen. It began in 2014 when Yemeni Houthi rebels challenged the sitting government. In March 2015, supported by American logistical, intelligence, and other assistance, the Saudi-UAE-led coalition began a campaign of airstrikes on Yemen, backing the government and claiming the Houthis were simply a proxy for Iran.
Five years later, the Saudi-UAE-led war effort has been an abject failure, Yemen’s infrastructure is in a shocking shambles, and the Yemeni people are on the verge of utter calamity from famine, disease, and human rights violations, and now a pandemic. And the war appears far from being over.
Impact of COVID-19 on an Already War-Decimated Yemen
Coalition airstrikes have targeted schools, open air markets, hospitals and clinics, and essential service infrastructure such as water purification and sanitation plants, according to a UN report. The impact of the disproportional force used by the Saudi-UAE-led coalition in response to the Houthi threat has been devastating on the population, especially the most vulnerable. Essential infrastructure, roads, hospitals, schools, and waterworks have been destroyed.
The worse effects are being borne by women and girls. Pregnancy and child birth don’t stop in war or during a pandemic and are complicated by malnutrition and lack of clean water. Sexual gender-based violence has also been used as a weapon of war.
In fact, the price the Yemeni people have paid in suffering and gross violations of their human rights—by all sides including the Houthis, not just the Saudi-UAE-led coalition—cannot be overstated. Their human rights have been disregarded as they have been subjected to war crimes and used as human pawns for political ends.
The effects of five years of air strikes and a total land, sea, and air embargo have been amplified by the COVID-19 crisis.
The effects of five years of air strikes and a total land, sea, and air embargo have been amplified by the COVID-19 crisis. In just the last few months, another 20,000 families have been forced out of their homes by armed men, conflict, and violence. They have had to move to camps and now live in makeshift tents. In a country where people’s homes have been bombed and destroyed and 80 percent of the population was already receiving humanitarian aid, without fresh potable water or medical care, the notion of social distancing and washing hands is impossible.
The UN stated in May that Yemen’s health system had collapsed with the spread of the coronavirus. But the pandemic is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. In reality, Yemen’s health system had already collapsed with the targeting of many healthcare facilities by Saudi air strikes, the Yemeni Houthi Rebels, and Yemeni government forces during the five-year war.
Dr. Aisha Jumaan, a doctor of epidemiology and Founder and President of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, told Inside Arabia that Yemen’s health system has been destroyed. “At best,” she said, “only 50 percent of it is functioning in a dismal environment with no medicine and no equipment.” Health care workers are “dying due to lack of personal protective equipment.”
“The general immunity of the population has been weakened by famine and infectious diseases including the multiple outbreaks,” according to Dr. Jumaan. Therefore, she predicts that the impact of COVID-19 in Yemen will be very severe and Yemen will have a very high fatality rate.
According to official numbers as of June 19, Yemen had a total of 909 COVID-19 cases and the pandemic had claimed 248 lives since Yemen’s first recorded case on May 29 with both having more than doubled in just ten days. But testing is at an extraordinarily low rate at 31 tests per million people, and the numbers are thought to be vastly underreported and undercounted, with claims that the outbreak’s toll is being covered up as bodies are buried in secret graves.
COVID-19 testing is at an extraordinarily low rate, and the numbers are thought to be vastly underreported.
The International Observatory on Human Rights has accused both the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government of deliberately underreporting the numbers of deaths and not transmitting information to the World Health Organization, thereby hampering aid efforts, with potentially dire consequences.
According to Dr. Jumaan, “Data from the UN are indicating a fatality rate from certain areas that is reported to be over 22 percent. This is the highest in the world.”
Yet, because of the lack of funds for humanitarian relief, almost 75 percent of the UN’s aid efforts in Yemen have been shut down.
Saudi Arabia and the UN Call for Donations
In a perverse and rather sick irony, Saudi Arabia joined the United Nations on June 2 in organizing a “pledging conference” specifically to make an urgent plea to donors around the world to raise $2.41 billion USD for the UN to continue to provide humanitarian aid to Yemen.
In April 2018, the US Secretary General called the country the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” as the UN launched a call for $3 billion USD at that time to assist 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. More than two years later, with no cessation of the war despite calls for a ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people in need of humanitarian aid has soared to 24 million, more than 80 percent of Yemen’s population.
With no cessation of the war, the number of people in need of humanitarian aid has soared to 24 million.
A wide range of donors pledged a total of $1.35 billion USD at the June 2 conference, far short of the $2.41 billion USD goal. The United Kingdom pledged a $200 million USD aid package, and Germany offered $139.8 million USD.
The US pledged $225 million USD. The United States has been a substantial weapons provider to the Saudi kingdom and has provided ongoing logistics, intelligence, and training support for the Saudi-UAE-led coalition throughout the war, despite efforts to stop the administration’s support, among other measures, through a joint House and Senate Resolution.
Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million USD in aid to Yemen, a pittance considering what it spent destroying the country. In 2018, the war was said to have cost the Kingdom upward of $100 billion USD.
The UAE pledged zero funding.
The UN is calling upon the donors to pay the money immediately.
Officials from UNICEF, the World Food Program, and the World Health Organization said in a joint statement they are “alarmed” about the situation in Yemen: “We are running out of time.”
Human Rights Violations, War Crimes, and Saudi Whitewashing
According to an analysis co-published by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the Yemeni human rights group Mwatana, from March 2015 to December 2018, hospitals and doctors in Yemen were attacked at least 120 times by the conflict’s warring parties. These attacks included Saudi-UAE-led coalition airstrikes, ground attacks, military occupation, assaults on health workers, as well as other violations such as looting and restrictions on humanitarian aid.
Osamah Alfakih, Mwatana’s Advocacy Director, who co-authored the report, said in a tweet that the report demonstrates “how blatantly international humanitarian law has been ignored in Yemen’s conflict and how in particular attacking healthcare facilities has a long-term and wide-reaching impact.”
As the pandemic rages through the war-torn country, the war is not over yet and despite its failure to achieve its objective, the Saudi-UAE-led coalition continues its assault.
“If [Saudi Arabia stops] the war, the budget they will save will be enough to support the rebuilding of Yemen.”
“Saudi Arabia is spending billions for their war on Yemen,” said Dr. Jumaan. “If they stop the war, the budget they will save will be enough to support the rebuilding of Yemen.”
She says Yemenis have been living under what has essentially been a COVID-19 economy for over five years: “The blockade is still hurting people. Yemen’s economy [was already] similar to the COVID-19 economy. Yemen’s businesses have been shuttered or destroyed either because of the blockade or the airstrikes.”
Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s commitment to offer financial aid to Yemen at a time when its continuing military actions are jeopardizing the entire country appears disingenuous at best and downright Machiavellian at worst. It is yet another attempt at whitewashing Saudi Arabia’s reputation on the international and domestic scene.
For Saudi Arabia to be in the forefront now of offering Yemen humanitarian aid is like saying, “We set fire to your house, and burned it to the ground; we’re still pouring fuel on the flames, but don’t worry, we’ll help you rebuild it . . . eventually.”