United Nations aid chief Mark Lowcock was able to breathe a sigh of relief this week as he announced that Saudi Arabia was finally going big on a multimillion-dollar pledge to tackle Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
For weeks, Lowcock had complained that Saudi and the United Arab Emirates, who head a military coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war, had only paid a fraction of the combined $1.5 billion they promised for the turbulent country in February.
On Monday, Lowcock, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator said a recent UAE payment of $200m and a pending Saudi transfer of $500m would help fight cholera and provide food, water and other supplies to some 24m aid-dependent Yemenis.
While the new funds will keep life-saving aid schemes running a few more months, humanitarian experts told Inside Over that Saudi and UAE pledges and payments should be seen in the context of their military operations in Yemen.
Jeremy Konyndyk, an Obama-era US aid chief, and Aisha Jumaan, a Yemen aid coordinator, said that by over-pledging funding and then under-delivering the cash had helped push millions of Yemenis closer to the brink of famine.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh launched military operations in Yemen in 2015, hoping for a quick victory over the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels and to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Konyndyk, who headed USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance during the Obama administration, told Inside Over that “pledging bait and switch” by Saudi and the UAE undercuts UN aid projects in Yemen.
By failing to deliver on funding promises, the UN is “left in the lurch” and has to abandon life-saving schemes, said Konyndyk, now a policy analyst at the Center for Global Development, a think tank.
“The Saudi strategy isn’t explicitly designed to make the Yemeni population suffer, but the suffering of the Yemeni population is a byproduct of the strategy that they are completely willing to accept,” said Konyndyk.
“The idea is to choke off enough of the economy to weaken the Houthis and strengthen the hand of the coalition. And, if the Houthis are put under enough pressure, they will buckle.”
Konyndyk did not accuse Riyadh of malice but described a “Byzantine bureaucracy” with competing political, military and humanitarian agendas that result in more “capricious and politicised” decision-making than is found with traditional Western donors.
“The Saudi government really wants to get good PR from the aid that it provides for Yemen. At certain levels of their government, there is more interest in the PR bump they get than from the actual good” of aid work undertaken, said Konyndyk.
Jumaan, founder and president of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, an aid group, went further, describing a Saudi-UAE strategy to deliberately hurt ordinary Yemenis in rebel-held areas in a hope that they rise against the Houthis.
“It’s a war tactic; it’s not accidental. Its part of their starvation warfare on Yemeni people,” Jumaan told Inside Over. “The Saudis pledge for Yemen but they never pay up. By pledging, they deter other countries from make pledges themselves.”
At the pledging meet in February, the two Gulf monarchies each promised $750 million to Yemen. In July, a UN tracking system showed that Saudi had paid only $121.7m while the UAE had handed over about $195m of that sum.
“Yemen should get unconditional funds. They also should get it promptly with UN agencies having to beg for it. It should come without strings attached or favours. Better yet, the coalition blockade on Yemen should be lifted,” added Jumaan.
Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia’s mission to the UN answered Inside Over’s interview requests. Previously, both Gulf governments have rowed with the UN over how much money they routed through the world body.
The long-running war, widely seen as a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has left more than two-thirds of Yemenis needing aid, forced millions of people from their homes, and killed tens of thousands more.
Pre-dawn strikes on Saudi oil facilities on Saturday, to which the Houthis claimed responsibility but which the United States blamed on Iran, have raised tensions in an already-turbulent region and raised the prospects of a broader conflict.
Iran has repeatedly denied organising the September 14 raids, which hit the world’s biggest crude oil processing facility and initially knocked out half of the output from Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil exporter.