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The spin behind Saudi Arabia's 'humanitarian aid plan' for Yemen

Presented as a great humanitarian effort, the Saudi-led coalition's new aid plan for Yemen essentially aims to tighten the blockade and monopolise access to aid in the hands of the aggressors

On 22 January, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen unveiled a new plan to deliver "unprecedented relief to the people of Yemen".

The Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO) is a new "aid" programme with the ostensible aim of "addressing immediate aid shortfalls while simultaneously building capacity for long-term improvement of humanitarian aid and commercial goods imports to Yemen".

This will primarily be done through increasing the "capacities of Yemeni ports to receive humanitarian as well as commercial imports" - and all sealed with a whopping $1.5bn in aid contributions. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Starvation politics

The problem here is not only that the funding required to meet the needs created by the Saudi-led coalition is estimated by the UN to be twice that amount. The real problem is that the plan will not, in fact, increase the imports on which Yemen is utterly dependent, but reduce them still further.

This is because the much-vaunted "improvements in port capacity" will apply solely to "coalition-controlled ports", excluding the ports outside their control - Hodeidah and Saleef - which, between them, handle about 80 percent of Yemen’s imports.

For these, absolutely critical, ports, the plan explicitly states that it wants a reduction in the flow of cargo they handle: by around 200 metric tons per month, compared to mid-2017 levels. Yes, you heard correctly: cargo levels in mid-2017 - when 130 children were dying each day from malnutrition and other preventable diseases largely caused by the limits on imports already in place - are now deemed in need of further, major, reductions.

The real problem is that the plan will notin fact, increase the imports on which Yemen is utterly dependent, but reduce them still further

This plan is nothing less than a systematisation of the starvation politics of which the Saudis were accused by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen in relation to their closure of Hodeidah and Saleef in November. 

Back then, noted the panel's final report, all Yemen's ports had been closed following a Houthi missile attack on Riyadh airport. But while coalition-controlled ports were quickly reopened, Hodeidah and Saleef remained closed for weeks. 

"This had the effect," said the panel, "of using the threat of starvation as an instrument of war." Today, the "Comprehensive Operations" plan envisages making permanent the juxtaposition of wilful starvation of Houthi-controlled territory (in which the vast majority of Yemenis live) and "generous" aid deliveries into coalition-controlled territories.

Spin masters

These are the same "methods of barbarism" as were employed by the British in the Boer war - when Boer-controlled territories were subjected to scorched earth policies of torching farms and destroying livestock - and then revived for Britain's colonial wars in Malaya, Kenya and, indeed, Yemen in the 1950s-60s. Small wonder Britain is so deeply involved today.

But such a strategy will surely be hard to sell in this day and age. Certainly, the Saudis seem to think so, which is presumably why they have employed a plethora of PR agencies to help them do so.

An exceptional investigation by the IRIN news agency reported that "the press release journalists received announcing the [YCHO] plan came neither from the coalition itself nor from Saudi aid officials".

It came, along with an invitation to visit Yemen, straight from a British PR agency. The investigation also revealed that the PowerPoint presentation used to introduce the YCHO to high-level UN officials was authored by Nicholas Nahas, of Booz Allen Hamilton, a US management consultancy with long-established links to the US government (including involvement in the illegal SWIFT and PRISM mass surveillance programmes). The consultancy currently has, says IRIN, "35 job listings in Riyadh on its website, including 'military planner'".

This role requires the applicant to: "Provide military and planning advice and expertise to support the coordination of joint counter threat operations executed by coalition member nations and facilitate resourcing to enable operations."

Another PR company involved in "selling" the YCHO, long on the Saudi payroll, is Washington DC-based Qorvis MSLGroup. According to IRIN report, the company "booked US revenue of more than $6m from the Saudi Arabian embassy [in the US] over a 12-month period up to September 2017".

Women protest in Sanaa over Saudi coalition air attacks (Reuters)
These masters of spin have certainly been busy: their work on the plan has been delivered to "the offices of major INGOs in the UK as well as to members of the UK parliament", and YCHO accounts have been set up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and Gmail.

The YCHO Twitter account has around 10,000 followers; but, says the IRIN investigation, "almost half of YCHO's followers have less than 10 followers themselves, while some 1,000 followers were accounts created on the same day in 2016 – signs that a significant number of bots or fakes are inflating YCHO's popularity".

"All of this," concludes IRIN, "has fed suspicions that rather than a genuine attempt to help the people of Yemen, the plan is really intended more to gloss over the Hodeidah issue and improve Saudi Arabia's battered image, or at least a bit of both."

You would think a strategy aimed at starving the world's most starved population still further would be a hard sell. But, then, money not only talks, it silences. And $1.5bn is a lot of money.

The UN response

The UN's own Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen, issued just two days before the YCHO, on 20 January, had noted that: "Al Hudaydah port, which accounts for 70-80 per cent of commercial imports in Yemen, remains a critical lifeline, despite operating at reduced capacity after being hit by an air strike in August 2015."

The UN statement added that "the extended blockade imposed on Al Hudaydah and Salif ports on 6 November 2017 significantly threatened this lifeline of Yemenis" and that "only a sustained flow of imports of essential basic goods can avert further catastrophe".

This is a plan to tighten the blockade while monopolising access to aid in the hands of the aggressors, presented as a great humanitarian effort, and unveiled just as the coalition begins an attack on the country's "vital lifeline"

Yet the cash-strapped UN, facing dramatic budget cuts from the Trump administration, and presumably nervous of saying anything that might jeopardise Saudi-Emirati money as well, officially welcomed the announcement, despite its clear commitment to essentially tightening the very blockade of Hodeidah and Saleef ports which the UN had denounced just days earlier.

Politicising humanitarian aid

Thankfully, the aid agencies do not seem to have been fooled. A joint statement on the YCHO by a number of international NGOs, including Oxfam and Save the Children, stated that:

"We remain concerned that the blockade on Red Sea ports has still not been fully lifted and about the insufficient volume of fuel reaching these, which has led to an increase in the price of basic goods across the country. 

"As a result, we are seeing families pushed into preventable disease and starvation because they cannot afford to buy food and clean water. Hodeidah port handles the majority of the country’s imports and cannot be substituted. It is vital that the warring parties commit to keep Hodeidah port fully open and functioning, including unfettered access for both humanitarian and commercial supplies."

Save the Children's Caroline Anning explained that the plan "is a misconception - in the publicity around this new plan they say the blockade around Hodeida port has been fully lifted but actually what we’re seeing is that fuel is still being blocked coming into that port which is having a really horrendous knock-on effect around the country."

Yemeni child suspected of being infected with cholera receives treatment at a hospital in Sanaa on 15 May 2017 (AFP)
And the International Rescue Committee (IRC)'s scathing response - issued with the title "Yemen: Saudi 'aid' plan is war tactic" - is worth quoting at length:

"The Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO), announced on January 22, 2018, is neither comprehensive, nor reflective of clear, shared humanitarian priorities... The YCHO politicizes aid by attempting to consolidate control over access and transit points. Rather than endorsing a parallel plan, which was created without broad input from humanitarian actors, the Saudi Led Coalition (SLC) and its supporters, notably the US and UK, should work to ensure the full implementation of the existing UN humanitarian response plan.

"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 eight million on the brink of starvation," said Catanzano.

"At worst, it would dangerously politicize humanitarian aid by placing far too much control over the response in the hands of an active party to the conflict."

Essentially, this is a plan to tighten the blockade while monopolising access to aid in the hands of the aggressors, presented as a great humanitarian effort, and unveiled just as the coalition begins an attack on the country's "vital lifeline" which will lead to "a complete horror show" and "near-certain famine".

Tighten the blockade

On 9 February, the UN announced that 85,000 people had been displaced in 10 weeks due to "surging violence", particularly on the Red Sea coast, where the coalition have mounted a new campaign to capture the country’s strategically important Hodeidah port.

With the Hodeidah campaign now entering a new phase, this war on the Yemeni population is set to escalate still further. Since it launched in early December, the coalition and its Yemeni assets have taken several towns and villages in Hodeidah province, and are now poised to take the battle to the city itself.

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On 20 February, Emirati newspaper The National reported that, in the coming days, "more forces will be committed to Hodeidah as a new front is to be opened in the next few days by Maj Gen Tariq Mohammed Abdullah," nephew of the deceased former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

This attack would put the almost completely import dependent country's most essential port out of action for months, leaving millions unable to survive. "If this attack goes ahead," Oxfam chief executive, Mark Goldring, told the press when a similar attack was proposed earlier last year, "this will be a deliberate act that will disrupt vital supplies - the Saudi-led coalition will not only breach International Humanitarian Law, they will be complicit in near certain famine."

His colleague Suze Vanmeegan added that "any attack on Hodeidah has the potential to blast an already alarming crisis into a complete horror show – and I'm not using hyperbole."

The Yemen Quartet

There is no doubt the war's British and American overseers have given their blessing to this escalation. In late 2016, the "Yemen Quartet" was formed by the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to co-ordinate strategy between the the war's four main aggressors.

Throughout 2017, they met sporadically, but since the end of the year their meetings have become more frequent and higher-level.

At the end of November, just before the launch of operations in Hodeidah province, British Foreign minister Boris Johnson hosted a meeting of the Quartet in London as British Prime Minister Theresa May simultaneously met with King Salman in Riyadh, presumably to give the go-ahead to this new round of devastation for Yemen's beleaguered population.

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They met again two weeks later, and then too on 23 January, also at Johnson's instigation, where the meeting was attended, for the first time, by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The "economic quartet" - also attended by officials from the IMF and World Bank - convened on 2 February in Saudi Arabia, while Johnson and Tillerson once again met with their Saudi and Emirati counterparts to discuss Yemen in Bonn on 15 February.

Of course, these meetings do not carry out the nitty-gritty of strategic war planning - civil servants in the military and intelligence services do that. The purpose of such high level forums is rather for each side to demonstrate to the other that any strategic developments carry the blessing of each respective government at the highest level.

That the "quartet" met just days before an announcement that the long-planned attack on Hodeidah port was imminent, then, speaks volumes about US-UK complicity in this coming new premeditated war crime. 

In the twisted minds of men like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Rex Tillerson and Boris Johnson - for whom even the liquidation of an entire people is apparently a noble cause in the pursuit of containing Iran - this is what passes for humanitarianism today.

- Dan Glazebrook is a political writer and editor of He is author of Divide and Ruin: The West's Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis and blogs at

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: An injured boy cries as he flees an area where air strikes hit a house in Saada, Yemen on 27 February, 2018 (Reuters).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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