Holding a nation hostage – How Saudi Arabia is withholding humanitarian aid to asserve Yemen

SHAFAQNA - While battles continue to rage across Yemen, Saudi Arabia is scrambling for new ways to exert pressure on the Yemeni nation since bombs and unprecedented devastation have failed to break the resolve of this poorest of people.

Independent and proud to a fault, Yemen stubbornly refused to bend a knee to Al Saud, however thin the odds of victory against such a wealthy regional superpower.

As Hassan Sufyani, a political analyst in Sana’a noted, “Yemenis chose to fight tyranny not because they thought they could win but because the alternative would have meant the loss of their honor. There are battles in life we fight not because victory is certain but because it is the right thing to do.”

He added, “There is only so many times a nation can crawl in the dirt and ignore the cries of its people. It was time for the sons of Hamdan to reclaim their land and sovereignty.”

Five months into this war of attrition and imperial Saudi Arabia has stooped so low in its rationale of violence and imperious necessity that it has chosen to withhold humanitarian aid toward Yemeni civilians to tame the growing insurrection movement against its rule.

In negation of not just international law but simple human decency, King Salman and his cronies have collectively worked to sabotage UN-organized humanitarian aid to Yemen, thus turning relief into a weapon of war, in the name of their broken pride.

And if April 17 marked a well publicized and mediatized announcement that Riyadh had secured Yemen a humanitarian lifeline of $274 million, following a UN emergency flash appeal, and as part of its “war relief” program, neither a penny nor a food parcel have reached the people. If anything the blockade on its ports has intensified further, allowing not a gram of wheat to get through.

Vice News reported in June how Saudi officials quite simple leaned on UN officials to sabotage aid delivery, threatening to close the kingdom’s checkbook should UN agencies deny Riyadh’s wishes.

According to a UN memo it obtained, the media organization asserts the Saudi government has applied unprecedented conditions on aid agencies, demanding that assistance be limited to Saudi-approved areas and confined to strictly Sunni civilian populations.

If such despicable logic can somehow be expected from a power which has wielded sectarianism to sow discord and from chaos rise a tyrant, what of the UN, an institution which claims itself impartial and fair?

If humanitarian organizations are to be subjected to the rules of realpolitik then truly the world has reached a dark chapter of its history and reverted back to organized barbarism.

Still, no well-thinking western powers has thought to challenge Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Yemen. In a world system where capitalism reigns king, the rich and haughty stand above the pettiness of the rule of law.

As a rule of thumb and to avoid political entanglements humanitarians organizations tend to shy away from donations which come with strings attached, especially when they fall within the umbrella of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Meant as a supranational institution, OCHA was never intended as yet another instrument of pressure, legal absolution or in the case of Yemen weapon of war.

Playing aid both as a military tactic and a PR exercise to redeem its atrocious human rights records and somewhat whitewash its despicable war crimes in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has held the UN hostage to its policies.

Needless to say that such shadowing and lobbying on the part of Saudi Arabia had experts sound the alarm bell.

But the train was already far too out of the station …

By late June and amid reports of a worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, the Saudi government finally announced that its pledge of $244 million would be divided among nine separate UN agencies. On the heel of this announcement Stephen O’Brien, the UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, sent a letter to the Interagency Standing Committee, a global humanitarian coordinating body which includes both UN humanitarian agencies and outside NGOs. The letter was attached to a Saudi press release announcing the nine-way cut, explaining how the funds would go through the recently created King Salman Center for Relief Humanitarian Works (KSC).

“Having agreed to the overall envelopes, however, the KSC would like to negotiate individual Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with each recipient agency,” confirmed O’Brien to the press, openly admitting to Riyadh’s lobby.

Interestingly few media outlets picked up on this Orwellian development! After unilaterally and let’s be frank, after illegally declaring war on Yemen, the Saudi government wants also to dictate how humanitarian relief is distributed in the country against which it is engage in a deadly struggle.

A UN aid worker had the following to say: “The UN has punted and handed off the problems to these agencies. I’ve never seen that before.”

He added, “The charitable way of saying it is this is a compromise — the less charitable way of saying it is that they folded. It’s really unusual for a single donor to have any substantive role once they contribute funds, let alone negotiate individual MoU’s with agencies. What is unprecedented is that the Saudi kingdom essentially filled up the entire UN flash appeal and are requesting unacceptable terms.”

When quizzed about this very public UN capitulation before Al Saud’s millions, O’Brien attempted to rationalize the situation by arguing a massive deficit funding gap – in other words highlighting the UN new venal and capitalistic orientation.

O’Brien wrote, “With regard to NGOs, I am aware that there are sensitivities in receiving funding directly from the KSC and we therefore must work actively to mobilize additional funds to be allocated directly, or via the Pooled Fund, to our front-line partners.”

But that’s only half of the story. What O’Brien is not telling is that by accepting Saudi Arabia’s conditions on aid distribution and aid funding in relation to Yemen, the UN de facto institutionalize aid segregation by allowing humanitarian relief to be conditional to certain criteria: political affiliation and religious orientations.

With Yemen set as a precedent, who’s to say that a similar set up will not be replicated in other countries in the region – mainly Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Libya?

By Catherine Shakdam for Shafaqna Middle Eastern Studies Department

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