(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Opinion | It’s time for the European Union to push Yemen towards peace

    After more than three years of fighting, Yemen is teetering on the cusp of an even fiercer war. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition is poised for an offensive on the Red Sea port of Hodeidah that could plunge Yemen into greater turmoil, deepen its humanitarian crisis, and provoke a surge in cross-border missile attacks by the Houthi rebels.


    The European Union and its member states have a chance to stop the conflict from sliding into a lethal new stage; now is the time to take action. All sides have declared a readiness to engage in talks (with various conditions), but they need to be nudged towards the table before a full-fledged battle for Hodeidah breaks out.


    As the outlines of a new UN peace plan have begun to surface, the EU should use the fact that it has maintained decent relationships with the warring parties to resume the UN-led peace process, moribund since 2016. This must be done before an assault on the port that could scuttle potential talks, especially if the rebels make good on their threats to attack coalition warships and oil tankers, or if one of their missile strikes on Saudi Arabia results in high civilian casualties.


    Since Houthi rebels killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (their erstwhile wartime ally) in December last year, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their Yemeni partners have been acting as if the tide has turned in their favour. They have tried to entice Saleh supporters into their camp, encouraged intra-Houthi rifts, and targeted Houthi leadership. In April, they killed Saleh al-Sammad, the de facto Houthi president who was known as a moderate.


    On the ground, coalition-backed local forces have achieved some tactical victories since Saleh’s death, especially along the Red Sea coast. But they have failed to decisively shift the military balance to their advantage.


    Not only would fighting over Hodeidah put off any prospect of peace, but it would also compound an already acute humanitarian crisis. The port, which has been under an on-off Saudi blockade, is a choke point for goods entering the Houthi-controlled north and a lifeline for the 60 percent of Yemen’s 27 million plus population who live there.


    The UN has already called Yemen’s humanitarian crisis the worst in the world. The prolonged fighting that would likely ensue from an assault on Hodeidah would only exacerbate the suffering.


    Despite the prospect of intensified warfare, the Houthis have stated publicly and privately their readiness to negotiate with Saudi Arabia over security concerns and re-engage with the UN process, led by the recently appointed special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths. It remains unclear if the Houthis’ newly expressed appetite for talks stems from heightened military pressure or from an increased confidence from the death of Saleh, whom they suspected of dealing with Riyadh behind their backs. Either way, this opportunity for a return to the negotiating table ought not to be squandered.


    The EU and its member states are uniquely placed to steer things in that direction. The bloc has maintained working relations with the warring sides, including the Houthis, and is therefore seen as relatively neutral, unlike the United States, whose support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been critical to the coalition’s war effort.


    The EU has also provided consistent support for UN efforts to broker a ceasefire and mediate peace talks. As a non-belligerent, the EU should now reiterate its firm public position against a coalition assault on Hodeidah, building on its access to all sides and using its influence in Washington, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh.


    In return for a halt to such an assault, the EU should press the Houthis to stop missile strikes on Saudi Arabia and ships in the Red Sea, and to accept an on-shore UN inspection mechanism that would intercept weapons deliveries through Hodeidah. An agreement along these lines could be a stepping stone toward resuming political talks on a broader range of issues, including the handing over of heavy weaponry by all fighting groups.


    Moreover, European states, in particular UN Security Council members such as the United Kingdom (the penholder on the Yemen crisis), should press for a new resolution that would support a more inclusive political process. The current framework for negotiations is based on the fundamentally flawed Security Council Resolution 2216. The April 2015 resolution limits talks to the now defunct Houthi/Saleh bloc and the internationally recognised government of deposed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which fails to recognise the full range of Yemeni forces on the ground. And it places unrealistic preconditions on the Houthis, including the injunction that they withdraw from territories they control and hand over their weapons before the talking can begin.


    The fourth year in Yemen’s war is on course to be just as devastating as the previous three, if not a lot worse. But a concerted European effort at bringing the belligerents back to the table might just deter them from further foolhardy military pursuits and revive what is now a political process on life support.

    (TOP PHOTO: Yemeni women and children wait during food distribution in the province of Hodeidah, 30 May 2018. Abdo Hyder/AFP)
    Opinion | It’s time for the European Union to push Yemen towards peace
  • Twitter battles, Afghan battles, and Agadez arrests: The Cheat Sheet

    Our editors’ Friday roundup of humanitarian trends and developments.

    On our radar:


    Yemen: A Twitter battle for Hodeidah


    Let’s talk about Hodeidah — everyone else is, at least online. Late last month, Saudi officials (and a press release) said that Houthi rebels were “holding hostage” 19 ships in the waters outside Hodeidah, the Red Sea port that’s key to staving off famine in Yemen and is subject to an on-off blockade by the Saudi-led coalition. This, the Saudis said, prevented the ships from delivering fuel. A maritime tracking project jumped in via Twitter, saying that their data showed not only were the tankers delivering fuel and then departing from the port, but that the deliveries were more frequent than usual. “It seems that the more time we spend on tracking the [Hodeidah] tanker situation, the more bizarre it becomes,” the group, TankerTrackers.com, tweeted. Things got even weirder when YCHO, the coalition’s humanitarian operations in Yemen, used TankerTrackers’ data in a tweet to show that “there is no blockade on Yemen.” Confused? Here’s a handy summary from PRI. Oh, and now’s a good time to add that a battle for the port city – which would be disastrous for civilians — is still not out of the question. A senior Houthi official was recently killed nearby, apparently by a UAE drone, and we hear that the rumour mill is churning. We’ll keep you posted.


    Afghanistan: Who’s in control?

    If Afghan officials need another worry, here’s one: in the past three years, government control over Afghanistan’s territory has steadily eroded as insurgent influence has climbed. That’s according to estimates from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which was created by the US to monitor rebuilding efforts. Newly released figures offer a snapshot of the Afghan government’s unsteady grip on its own country: Militant groups including the Taliban and so-called Islamic State-aligned fighters now have control or influence in more than 14 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, up from about 7 percent in November 2015, when SIGAR began tracking such things.

    What does this mean for civilians, including the hundreds of thousands of refugees expected to return home – or to be pushed back home – this year? Afghans who have already returned find a country at war and their former homes in conflict zones, as we detailed this week from the border town of Spin Boldak. Recent returnees say they’re struggling with no land of their own, and no government plan to provide it. Others unable to return to their family homes head to rapidly multiplying tent settlements, where basic services are minimal or non-existent and humanitarian aid is often hard to come by.


    Niger: Arrests in Agadez


    Niger calls them mercenaries and wants them expelled. The UN reckons they were potential victims of slavery or extortion searching for safety. Either way, some 1,700 Sudanese refugees have left Libya for neighbouring Niger since December — moving south in search of more secure lives rather than north, a reversal of usual migration trends that was prompted by European Union efforts to stem migration. On 2 May, police in Agadez arrested around 150 Sudanese who were housed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It’s unclear why.


    Journalist Eric Reidy was recently in Agadez reporting for us and said a number of refugees told him they’re worried that Niger’s government will deport them to Libya or Sudan. Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s interior minister, told Reidy that the Sudanese “came here because they expect to go to Europe.” None of the refugees Reidy spoke to in Agadez said that was their incentive. UNHCR says Niger is the only accessible, safe country for them right now. “Is there any corridor out of southern Libya that can offer… safety? No other corridor than Niger,” said Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR’s top official in the country.


    Their presence is stoking fears that intensified conflict in southern Libya could lead to a large scale displacement crisis in northern Niger. Also in question is whether the UNHCR evacuation and resettlement mechanism for refugees trapped in Libyan detention centres is playing a role in drawing the Sudanese to Niger. Watch for our upcoming coverage, in which Reidy will explore these and other issues.


    Myanmar: Lives upended, again

    In January, we reported on early signs of renewed conflict in northern Myanmar, where clashes between the military and ethnic armed groups were quietly simmering – and civilians caught in the midst of things were out of the reach of aid organisations that face severe restrictions on access. Now, the conflict has escalated: in April alone, more than 5,000 civilians were displaced, and aid groups say recent clashes are the most extensive in years. This week, local and international humanitarian organisations called for a ceasefire and demanded that the government lift access restrictions. The UN’s rights watchdog for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said she had “grave concerns” for the “sharp escalation in hostilities”. About 100,000 civilians have been displaced in northern Myanmar since 2011, when a ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army collapsed. They’ll likely soon be joined in long-term displacement by the 5,000 people whose lives were upended last month, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The prospect of quick returns, the federation said in a recent update, “is rather small”.

    UAE: Undercurrents in Indian Ocean strategy


    What do Yemen and Somalia have in common? If you said they’re home to some of the most vulnerable people on earth, you’d be right. The UN has estimated their combined humanitarian need at $4.5 billion for 2018. Their geo-strategic value might be an ingredient in their suffering, prompting international military involvement and political jockeying for influence. Which leads to another commonality: the UAE. The UAE’s Indian Ocean strategy appears to be in flux, with Yemen and Somalia playing (perhaps unwitting) roles.


    In mid-April UAE pulled out of a military cooperation deal with Somalia, in a messy episode involving the looting of weapons and a planeload of $10 million in cash, according to Reuters.  And this week, the UK’s Independent stated that the UAE is gradually taking over the Yemeni island of Socotra. Journalists who visited undercover say the UAE has already “all but annexed” the island, a poor, remote, and ecologically unique part of Yemen, off the coast of the Horn of Africa. Mainland Yemen has abandoned Socotra, the report notes, and the UAE’s ability to expand its influence was helped by the impact of cyclones in 2015. This week, the Gulf state further boosted its military presence there, according to Yemeni officials. Along with setting up a military base, the UAE has invested in social services and offers education and work opportunities in the Emirates. And the Independent adds that there may be plans for tourist resorts. It’s hard to gauge if there’s any resentment among residents of Socotra, but protests did break out when UAE officials tried to burn a shipment of qat, the stimulant leaf widely chewed all over the region. Oh, and in case you forgot: UAE is a key partner to Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict.


    Your weekend read:

    Burundi: The human price of politics  

    Another vote, another call to boycott it, and fresh warnings that life may get tougher before it gets better for many in Burundi. Burundians go the polls on 17 May to vote on constitutional amendments that could see President Pierre Nkurunziza, who came to power in 2005, remain in office until 2034. The lingering effects of a devastating civil war that ended more than a decade ago, a moribund economy, a violent political crisis, and foreign aid cuts have conspired to leave one in four of Burundi’s citizens in need of humanitarian aid. Our analysis examines the toll the political tensions leading up to and perhaps following the 17 May poll may exact on Burundi’s people. And, as we’ll report next week, the growing tensions are adding to the anxiety of 170,000 Burundian long-term refugees in neighbouring Tanzania. They face increasing pressure to return despite promises of citizenship from a once-welcoming country, where many of them have spent their entire lives. One last thing before you read our analysis: In an announcement that just happened to follow World Press Freedom Day (see below), Burundi officials said local-language re-broadcasts by VOA and BBC are on hold for six months, according to a tweet from the state broadcaster, further limiting public access to information in the runup to the referendum.


    Keep in mind:

    Calling all humanitarian scholars

    If you study humanitarian issues, this one’s for you: 1 June is the deadline to submit papers for the field’s leading academic conference, to be held 27-28 August in the Hague. The theme of the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies is “(Re-)Shaping Boundaries in Crisis and Crisis Response” — boundaries both symbolic and literal, obvs.  Four themes and 60 panels (think “datafication” to “social museology”) will guide the proceedings at the fifth bi-annual gathering. What might all this achieve?  There’s a panel for that: “What do Practitioners Really Need from Academics?


    And finally:


    World Press Freedom Day: Horror and hope

    We’re always humbled to mark World Press Freedom Day, with reminders of just how difficult it is for so many people to access fact-based, impartial information and how perilous it can be to report that information. A harsh reminder came shortly before the day was marked on Thursday,  when a 30 April suicide blast killed nine journalists in Kabul, including veteran AFP photographer Shah Marai. The journalists were covering the aftermath of an earlier bombing when a second attacker struck. Marai’s images from his native Afghanistan gave the world a window onto life through civil war, Taliban rule and today’s instability. In a 2016 essay re-published after his death, Marai spoke frankly about life in Afghanistan, 15 years after the Taliban’s ouster. “There is no more hope,” he wrote: “… I have never felt life to have so little prospects and I don’t see a way out.” This New York Times piece offers more on Marai and his images. Our hope lies in the continued work of journalists around the world.



    Twitter battles, Afghan battles, and Agadez arrests
  • Record-breaking donation from Saudi Arabia, UAE sets stage for Yemen aid event

    A $930 million cheque has broken records for humanitarian fundraising in the run-up to a UN pledging conference for aid to Yemen, but the motivations behind it are being questioned.


    Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are together picking up a third of this year’s $2.96 billion relief bill for what the UN has called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”. But conflict analysts and human rights groups say Yemen’s needs wouldn’t be so intense if it weren’t for a war the two nations helped start, and how they fight it.


    Tirana Hassan, crisis director at Amnesty International, described it as “rather twisted” that a large proportion of the UN’s funding plan will be paid by those who, she argued, have “played a significant role in creating and prolonging” the humanitarian crisis. Saudi Arabia and its allies, she added, ought to go “well beyond pulling out their cheque books”, by reducing civilian casualties and lifting humanitarian restrictions.

    Diplomats, NGO executives, and other officials are due to attend the 3 April event at the UN in Geneva, which should bring more promises of cash for food, health, water, shelter, and other relief needs for Yemen’s struggling civilian population.


    But expectations are muted. With the Saudi Arabia/UAE funds pencilled in, the 2018 Yemen response plan, involving UN and NGO proposals, is around 43 percent funded. That means there’s still a big gap to pay for the basic needs of Yemen’s 22.2 million critically affected people – three quarters of the population.


    Nabil Al Kumaim, of Yemeni NGO Yemen Family Care Association, based in the rebel-held capital of Sanaa, will be at the gathering. He told IRIN: “The people's suffering is increasing dramatically day by day” thanks to “access constraints to the seaports and airports and lowering purchasing power.” But he warned that emergency relief wasn’t solving the underlying problem: “Humanitarian work can make a difference, albeit for short impact, as ending the war is the lasting solution.”


    Sixty percent of Yemenis are critically short of food – more than anywhere else in the world, and a nationwide epidemic of cholera has not yet been fully eradicated. The economy is collapsing, fuel is expensive and in short supply, and infrastructure is crumbling.


    Questionable motivation


    Pledging conferences are rarely decision-making events, said James Munn, director of the NGO Norwegian Refugee Council in Geneva. They are “exercises in protocol,” he explained, where donors “read out pre-prepared statements”.


    UN and NGO officials say some new funding will be announced (and older commitments will no doubt be recycled). A provisional total will be announced at the end of the day. On the side, a gathering co-organised by Switzerland and Sweden, who are sponsoring the main event with the UN, will debate the thornier issues of humanitarian access and civilian protection.


    UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who will open the Geneva event, warmly welcomed the record-breaking pledge from the Gulf states, accepting a symbolic cheque for the cameras on 27 March in New York. A spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told IRIN the funds are being transferred "to UN agencies to be programmed".


    A UN official familiar with the issues said the donation evidently had “reputational aims”. But, it’s not a first for warring parties to also be aid donors or for “guilt” to influence a donor’s humanitarian decision-making. Look at the United States in Iraq, the official said, or German support for the UN Palestinian relief agency UNRWA, for example, which may be connected to the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Holocaust, the official added.


    After its jumbo donation, the Saudi-led coalition may expect to “feel the love” from the UN, the official said. Nevertheless Guterres’ thank-you statement repeated calls to respect international law and to lift restrictions on commercial cargo imports – demands directed largely at the two donors.  


    Since Gulf states joined efforts to defeat northern Houthi rebels in 2015, largely with the use of airstrikes and a naval cordon, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated and some two million people are now displaced. Peace efforts have so far been fruitless, Yemeni rebels still control much of the country and are able to launch long-range missiles into Saudi Arabia, which supports President-in-exile Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.


    The Saudi-UAE donation was “not unwelcome”, Munn said, but ought to be “matched with peace talks”, fewer restrictions on relief workers, and a recognition of the “collateral damage” that affects over 22 million people. He said his agency would not directly take Saudi money on principle.


    For some, the Saudi funding signals a change of strategy. The kingdom has made significant efforts to build up its own aid capacity, setting up the parastatal King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center. It also recently launched a parallel Yemen relief plan designed to allay UN and Red Cross concerns about civilian harm. Saudi Arabia’s dramatic new announcement does seem to signal a shift, Munn and other analysts said, Munn suggesting that the country is "looking for an opportunity to show a compassionate side".


    A Saudi Arabian official denied there was a change in approach, pointed to its other operations, including $2 billion in support to the central bank, and said the UN donation demonstrates that “our approach to addressing the humanitarian challenges in Yemen is a holistic one.”


    The official said Saudi Arabia’s funding would be used impartially: ”our aid is for all Yemenis in all regions of Yemen and is strictly based on humanitarian needs.” In response to calls to relieve a commercial blockade on the rebel-controlled port of Hodeidah, the official said the rebels were raising revenue from “taxation, extortion, and creating black market for fuel”.


    Saudi Arabia pledged to pay 100 percent of a $274 million UN appeal in 2015, throwing the sector into confusion about ethics and whether Saudi Arabia was attaching strings, as reported by IRIN at the time.


    Hassan of Amnesty said this year’s donation must not be “a free pass when it comes to being held to account for the serious violations” committed in Yemen. She noted “an incredibly dangerous and slippery slope” marked by Saudi Arabia using its financial muscle to get itself removed from a UN list of states that use child soldiers in 2016.

    (TOP PHOTO: UN Secretary-General António Guterres poses with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after the signing of a Voluntary Financial Contribution Memorandum between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Nations to the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan on 27 March 2018. CREDIT: Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo)


    A nearly $1 billion pledge can’t shield the Saudi-led coalition from rights critics
    Record-breaking donation from Saudi Arabia, UAE sets stage for Yemen aid event
  • Yemen PR wars: Saudi Arabia employs UK/US firms to push multi-billion dollar aid plan

    Saudi Arabia has recruited an array of foreign consultants and public relations firms to draw up and promote its new multi-billion dollar aid plan for Yemen, one that could reduce imports of vital goods into a key rebel-held port, an IRIN investigation reveals.


    Critics say the extent of the PR campaign betrays the kingdom’s determination to win the propaganda battle after nearly three years of conflict marked by high civilian casualties, widespread food and fuel shortages, a record cholera epidemic, and fear of famine.


    Late last month, Saudi Arabia and its allies announced a new operation that commits billions of dollars “to relieve suffering” in Yemen, which is in the midst of what is often termed the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.


    The plan, known as Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations, or YCHO for short, promises $1.5 billion in “new humanitarian funding for distribution across UN agencies and international relief organisations”, plus the setting up of “safe passage corridors” to deliver relief, improved capacity at coalition-controlled ports, and regular flights of humanitarian aid to coalition-controlled Marib. It also includes the $2 billion Saudi Arabia recently said it would deposit in Yemen’s Central Bank to shore up a flagging currency.


    But the plan rejects calls by the UN to lift an on-off blockade of Hodeidah port, a vital lifeline for civilians in the rebel-held north: it proposes reducing the overall flow of cargo into the city and stepping up imports into coalition-controlled areas.


    Exact details of how (and if) the plan is intended to help hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Yemeni civilians – especially in rebel-controlled areas – are not yet clear. However, IRIN can reveal the lengths Riyadh has gone to in preparing and promoting it.  


    The press release journalists received announcing the 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.


    UK- and US-based consultants and PR firms, including US defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, were also involved in helping to write and promote YCHO, which is tagged as “counter-terrorism” on a website funded by the kingdom’s US embassy.


    A screenshot of Saudi government-funded website Arabia Now

    All of this 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.


    From PowerPoint to press release


    Two high-placed sources in the UN told IRIN they first learned the particulars of YCHO in a PowerPoint presentation – at the time a “work in progress”, according to one of the sources.


    A PDF of the presentation, obtained exclusively by IRIN and marked “confidential for discussion”, lists one “Nahas, Nicholas [USA]” as the author.


    Nahas appears to be an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, which has 35 job listings in Riyadh on its website, including “military planner”, a role that 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.”


    IRIN tried emailing and calling Nahas, as well as several Booz Allen Hamilton spokespeople, but none replied. A switchboard operator at the company’s Abu Dhabi office said Nahas was not currently in.


    Following the initial PowerPoint presentation (and, IRIN understands, high-level discussions with UN representatives, donors, and diplomats), press releases – including detailed maps and infographics – were sent to journalists by Pagefield Global Counsel, one of several successors to disgraced UK firm Bell Pottinger (Pagefield employs over 20 former Bell Pottinger staff).


    IRIN tried to contact the Pagefield associate partner who sent the emails and was involved in arranging a recent press trip to Yemen, but again there was no response.


    Metadata in the press release suggests the involvement of another firm as it lists “Madison Clough” as the author. A woman of the same name is a senior account executive at Qorvis MSLGROUP, one of several PR firms and subcontractors retained by Saudi Arabia to represent it in the United States. Clough, again, did not reply to IRIN’s emailed request for comment.


    MSLGROUP’s services to Saudi Arabia include web and social media content and over 60 contacts with US-based journalists on Yemen in the six months to 1 October 2017. The firm, a subsidiary of French PR giant Publicis, booked US revenue of more than $6 million from the Saudi Arabian embassy over a 12-month period up to September 2017.


    The promotion


    MSLGROUP’s involvement with Saudi Arabia and the new plan is hardly a secret: it is visible on the bottom of YCHO’s website, yemenplan.org, in a text that reads: “This is distributed by Qorvis MSLGROUP on behalf of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Additional information is available at the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.”


    The company also runs a website for Saudi Arabia’s embassy in the United States, where a press release on the plan can be seen tagged as “counter-terrorism”.

    In addition to the press releases, the PowerPoint presentation, and the website, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia last week delivered a package containing information on the plan to the offices of major INGOs in the UK as well as to members of the UK parliament.


    In the package was a list of YCHO accounts: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Gmail.


    At the time of publication, YCHO’s Twitter account had about 10,000 followers. But analyst Marc Owen Jones, a lecturer in Gulf history at the University of Exeter who has researched bot-usage, told IRIN the majority are likely to be fake, intended to inflate the credibility and popularity of the account.


    “Previous studies have shown the use of Twitter bots and fake followers to be particularly common in Saudi Arabia,” he said.  “On certain days, up to 50 percent of the tweets using the hashtag #Saudi have come from fake (bot) accounts.”


    According to an IRIN tally, 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.


    The charm offensive organised by Pagefield included a short trip to Yemen for select journalists. A recent CNN report shows boxes of aid being unloaded from a truck. They’re labelled "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" and bear the logo of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid & Relief Centre. Similar scenes can be scene on clips on the YCHO website.


    "Yemen has always been poor and has long relied on aid from its prosperous northern neighbour," the accompanying text reads. In a separate short film from Yemen, CNN says the Saudi military flew its team into the country.


    True to form


    Saudi Arabia has a long history of using foreign PR and consultancy firms to develop economic policy, curry favour in Western capitals, and – critics argue – cover up abuses. It is even said to be the fastest growing market for consultants.


    Not long after UK firm McKinsey & Co authored a December 2015 document about moving Saudi Arabia beyond its dependence on oil, the Saudi cabinet ratified a very similar plan for economic reform called “Vision 2030”.


    In 2016, MSLGROUP distributed an article by Saudi foreign minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir justifying the execution of 47 people in one day – including Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr – as "fighting against terrorism".


    McKinsey (which told IRIN it “has not been involved in any work” on YCHO) and MSLGROUP are only two of a constellation of firms contracted by the kingdom. However, spending on lobbying and advisory services beyond the scope of the demanding US transparency rules is not publicly available.


    Late last year, the Financial Times reported that Riyadh planned to set up PR "hubs" in Europe and Asia to improve its global image. One human rights analyst on the Gulf told IRIN there are so many PR firms working for Saudi Arabia and its neighbours that keeping track is "like playing whack-a-mole".


    “Damage control”


    Saudi Arabia and its allies – including forces siding with the internationally recognised (but deposed) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi – have been battling Houthi rebels since March 2015 in a bloody war that has killed nearly 6,000 civilians and left millions close to starvation.


    All parties to the war have been accused of causing horrific suffering – with the Houthis blamed for detaining and torturing opponents, using banned landmines, and blocking and confiscating aid, especially in the besieged city of Taiz.


    But the Saudi-led coalition has something the Houthis don’t – control of the seas – and it has come under heavy criticism for slowing and sometimes completely blocking both humanitarian and commercial imports. In November, it closed all of Yemen’s major entry points, ostensibly in response to a Houthi rocket shot at Riyadh. Condemnation was quick, with humanitarians warning that famine was imminent.


    Even US President Donald Trump – whose administration has so far been a steadfast ally of Saudi Arabia – weighed in (albeit after several weeks of closures), calling on the Saudis to lift the blockade “immediately”.


    Entry is now being allowed into all of Yemen’s ports, but only on a temporary basis at Hodeidah, the Red Sea port in Houthi-controlled territory that handles the majority of the country’s imports and that humanitarians insist cannot be substituted.

    Since the November closures, leading aid figures have become increasingly outspoken about the responsibility the coalition bears for Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe, with Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, saying in early November that he believed the shuttering of ports was “illegal collective punishment”.


    It is against this backdrop that Saudi Arabia introduced the YCHO plan.


    Farea al-Muslimi, chairman and co-founder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies think tank, told IRIN it was no surprise Saudi Arabia has pulled in outside help to prepare and promote it.


    “They have always relied on these PR companies,” he said. But “no matter how creative they are, no matter how much money they spend [on aid], it is a drop in the sea of a terrible reality… until this war is over, every PR move remains [nothing more than] a costly damage control process.”


    What the timing reveals


    Saudi Arabia’s use of external advisors for economic and military strategy is well documented, but aid and humanitarian matters are more typically the domain of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The YCHO plan is not only the product of a commercial engagement but – in retaining control of Yemen’s points of entry – it appears to run against the advice of the UN and the ICRC who have both called for unfettered civilian cargo traffic and country-wide humanitarian access.


    Saudi Arabia does have a history of “bomb it, fix it” – less than a year into the war, shortly after the launch of a new centre to coordinate its humanitarian efforts worldwide, the kingdom donated $274 million towards the UN’s appeal for Yemen. Since 2015, it says it has given over $8 billion in various types of support to Yemen. Its humanitarian donations recorded in the UN’s tracking system since 2015 are $865 million, of a total from all donors of $6.28 billion.


    Previous large Saudi donations have been met with some consternation, but most aid agencies have ended up accepting the money as long as they are not told where or how to spend it. This may be the case again, but not without a degree of internal grumbling, even if most in the humanitarian community are unready to speak on the record.


    One aid worker familiar with the YCHO plan told IRIN they believed the PR onslaught, timed within a few days of the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen, was no coincidence.


    “There was a lot of pressure on the UK and US governments who were in turn putting pressure on [Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners] to say enough is enough,” the source said. “That may have been a driver for this plan.”


    The Sana’a Center’s al-Muslimi said the plan was obviously an attempt to garner good press, and one that didn’t “come out of the ether”.


    “It comes out of extreme pressure on the Saudis and their allies in Yemen,” he added. “It tells you how much there is to hide: terrible tragedies.”

    IRIN submitted written questions to YCHO and Saudi authorities for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.

    (TOP PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's aid supplies being unloaded in Yemen - photo: YCHO website)




    Yemen PR wars: Saudi Arabia employs UK/US firms to push multi-billion dollar aid plan
  • *UPDATED: A rough guide to foreign military bases in Africa

    Foreign military intervention in Africa is controversial when it happens, and occasionally controversial when it doesn’t.

    It’s a symptom of the fragility of African states, and the power of external interests. The long and inglorious history of intervention runs from colonial and post-colonial struggles, through to the Cold War, and up to the present day.

    But we are now in a complex, multipolar world. The “war on terror”, the arrival of China, and the emergence of regional powers, jostling for influence, has complicated the map. Nothing better illustrates this than the spread of foreign bases on African soil.


    The twin hotspots are the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. “It’s where Europe touches Africa, and where Africa touches the Middle East,” explained the Africa director for the International Crisis Group, Comfort Ero.

    The Sahel controls the migration route that conveys young men and women across the Mediterranean. It’s also a zone of instability, where al-Qaeda, so-called Islamic State and Boko Haram operate. It’s where state administration and even basic services are absent, encouraging that flow.

    From bases across the region, US drones and French soldiers have joined African armies to push the militants into the remote hinterlands. But blasting Jihadists from the sky does not win the hearts and minds argument.

    “The challenge is, despite the rise of new security structures in the last few years, they haven’t done much to change the [political] dynamic on the ground,” Ero told IRIN.

    Those alliances also give leaders like Idriss Déby in Chad and Ismaïl Omar Guelleh in Djibouti some regime security and a pass on their dodgy human rights record.

    And Guelleh has milked it. Djibouti lies on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to the Suez Canal, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. It’s also a waypoint between Africa, India, and the Middle East, and makes a lot of money from hosting seven armies – America, China, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, and soon Saudi Arabia.

    The lease on the only permanent US military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier is $63 million a year. China, building its own facility at the other end of the Gulf of Tadjoura, gets a bargain at $20 million. Only Iran seems to have been refused a berth in Djibouti.

    The following is a rough guide to whose boots are where in Africa.







    Djibouti: China is building its first overseas military base at the port of Obock, across the Gulf of Tadjoura from the US Expeditionary Base at Camp Lemonnier. It’s the latest in China’s $12 billion investments in Djibouti, including a new port, airports and the Ethiopia-Djibouti rail line. The base will have the capacity to house several thousand troops, and is expected to help provide security for China’s interests in the rest of the Horn of Africa.


    Chad: Headquarters of the anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane. The roughly 3,500 French troops operate in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

    Cote d’Ivoire: The facility at Port-Bouët, a suburb of Abidjan, is to be expanded from 500 to 900 men and form a forward operating base for West Africa.

    Djibouti: A long-standing French military presence, now comprising roughly 1,700 personnel.

    Gabon: A key base that has contributed troops to France’s interventions in Central African Republic.


    Niger: An air transport base at Niamey international airport to support Germany’s growing troop contribution to the UN mission in Mali.


    Madagascar: India’s first foreign listening post was set up in northern Madagascar in 2007 to keep an eye on ship movements in the Indian Ocean and listen in on maritime communications.

    The Seychelles: Has allocated land on Assumption Island for India to build its first naval base in the Indian Ocean region. The ostensible interest is counter-piracy, but India also seems to be keeping an eye on China.


    Djibouti: Since 2011, a contingent of 180 troops has occupied a 12-hectare site next to Camp Lemonnier. This year, the outpost will be expanded. The move is seen as a counter to Chinese influence, linked to a new strategic engagement with Africa, underlined by the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development held in Nairobi last year.

    Saudi Arabia

    Djibouti: After falling out with Djibouti, Riyadh is now finalising an agreement to build a new base. Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, across the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.


    Somalia: Ankara’s first military base in Africa is a training facility for Somali troops. Turkey has steadily increased its influence in Somalia, with major development and commercial projects. In 2011, then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first foreign leader to visit Mogadishu since the start of the civil war.

    United Arab Emirates

    Eritrea: In 2015, the UAE began developing the mothballed deepwater port of Assab and its 3,500-metre runway, capable of landing large transport planes. Assab is now the UAE’s main logistics hub for all operations in Yemen, including the naval blockade of the Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hodeida. In return, the isolated Eritrean government has received a financial and infrastructural aid package.

    Libya: Operates counter-insurgency attack aircraft and drones from Al-Khadim airport in eastern Libya in support of the Libyan National Army fighting jihadist militants.

    Somalia: The UAE trains and equips Somalia’s counterterrorism unit and National Intelligence and Security Agency. It also supports the Puntland Maritime Police Force, which is believed to have played a role in interdicting Iranian weapons smuggling to the Houthis.

    Somaliland: The UAE has a 30-year lease on a naval and airbase at the port of Berbera. Last year, Dubai Ports World won a contract to manage and double the size of the port, ending Djibouti’s monopoly on Ethiopia’s freight traffic. The UAE is reportedly providing military training and a security guarantee to the self-declared independent territory.

    United Kingdom

    Kenya: A permanent training support unit based mainly in Nanyuki, 200 kilometres north of Nairobi

    United States

    Burkina Faso: A “cooperative security location” in Ouagadougou provides surveillance and intelligence over the Sahel.

    Cameroon: Garoua airport in northern Cameroon is also a drone base targeting Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria. It houses unarmed Predator drones and some 300 US soldiers.

    Chad: Predator and Reaper drones are based in the capital, Ndjamena.

    Central African Republic: US special forces are based in the “temporary sites” of Obo and Djema, helping the Ugandan army hunt for Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army

    Democratic Republic of Congo: Dungu is another “temporary site” used in the hunt for Kony.

    Djibouti: Camp Lemonnier, a 200-hectare expeditionary base housing some 3,200 US soldiers and civilians next to the international airport. Home to the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa of the US Africa Command, it is the only permanent US military base in Africa.

    Ethiopia: A small drone facility at Arba Minch was operational since 2011 but is now believed to have closed.

    Gabon: Bare-bones launch pad for quick-reaction forces called in to protect diplomatic facilities in the region.

    Ghana: Bare-bones launch pad for quick-reaction forces.

    Kenya: Camp Simba in Manda Bay is a base for naval personnel and Green Berets. It also houses armed drones for operations in Somalia and Yemen.

    Niger: An initial base in Niamey has been overshadowed by Agadez, capable of handling large transport aircraft and armed Reaper drones. The base covers the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

    Somalia: US commandos are operating from compounds in Kismayo and Baledogle.

    The Seychelles: Drone operations from a base on the island of Victoria.

    Senegal: The Senegal facility was used during the US military’s Ebola response.

    South Sudan: Nzara airfield is another base for US troops searching for Kony, and related surveillance operations. US special forces have also provided training to South Sudanese troops.

    Uganda: PC-12 surveillance aircraft fly from Entebbe airport as part of the US special forces mission helping the Ugandan army hunt for Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.


    *This story was updated on 20 February 2017 to include a United Arab Emirates' base in Libya, and several US facilities in West and Central Africa not included in the original report

    (TOP PHOTO CREDIT: United States Marine Corps)


    *UPDATED: A rough guide to foreign military bases in Africa
  • Water crisis in the Gulf needs radical solutions

    Despite their location smack in the middle of the desert, the Gulf countries have water parks, public fountains, and bright green lawns.

    But all that glitters is not gold, and a water crisis is looming for countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

    Technology can alleviate its natural scarcity – there will be enough to drink – but the costs and environmental impacts are simply unsustainable in the long run.

    So what’s to be done? Experts argue that radical change is now the only way to avoid disaster, but policymakers are reacting far too slowly.

    The problem

    Desalination, a technique that removes the salt from saltwater to make it drinkable, produces around 90 percent of the water in the Arabian Peninsula, a region that is naturally arid but consumes 816 cubic metres of water annually per person, well above the global average of 500.

    The most popular technique for removing salt from water is thermal distillation – water is evaporated, the vapours collected, and the salt separated out.

    This requires a fair bit of energy, which is usually obtained by burning fossil fuels – increasing carbon emissions that some have argued, if left unchecked, could push heat in the already steamy region to an unliveable level.

    The process also leaves behind a highly saline solution that ends up in the sea: Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all have desalination facilities on the shores of the Gulf, sending brine discharges into its shallow waters.

    Columbia University anthropologist Gokce Gunel is concerned about “peak salt”, the possibility that the Gulf will become so salty that desalinating its waters will become unaffordable.

    The peak salt concept has been on the radar for years now, but only recently have scientists and policymakers begun to take it seriously.

    High salinity not only ups the price of creating drinking water, it also alters the chemistry of the marine ecosystem, threatening coral reefs and other creatures.

    Sea pollution also causes algal blooming, known in common parlance as “red tide” for the dramatic appearance it takes on – when algae spreads out of control, increases toxicity levels, absorbing the ocean’s oxygen and suffocating fish.

    The technical option

    Farid Benyahia, a professor of chemical engineering at Qatar University, is concerned that “there are big environmental issues associated with desalination on a massive scale”.

    So he’s on the hunt for a viable alternative to traditional methods, and told IRIN by email that he’s hit on an invention that aims to solve both the problems of carbon emissions and excess brine in one.

    Through a cycle of chemical reactions, Benyahia's method turns CO2 and saline solution into solid substances that can be disposed of in a more controlled manner (read: not back into the water).

    Though still at an early stage and not entirely impact-free, this new method could massively reduce the side-effects of traditional desalination.

    Other radical solutions are being explored.

    The UAE, where it rains on average only three days a year, is even reportedly looking into ways to make it rain artificially.

    The people problem

    Whichever way you look at it, Benyahia believes that over-consumption is a major piece of the puzzle.

    "Water has been historically heavily subsidised by Arabian states and in some countries… it is free,” he said. “This is set to change soon, and it has already started being more expensive in some Gulf states."

    Gunel said that because humans can produce fresh water artificially, we have come to see it as an inexhaustible resource.

    “There is not enough attention towards the social relations that created climate change in the first place,” Gunel told IRIN. “[This] perpetuates the environmental conditions in which we find ourselves.”

    So locals water luxurious gardens, keep their lawns in tip-top shape, and wash cars with abandon, lulled into a false sense of security.

    After years of attempting to encourage residents to decrease their water usage with limited success, countries like Qatar are now enforcing penalties against wastage – first time violators who use drinking water to wash cars or clean courtyards can incur a fine of up to QR 20,000 ($5,500).

    And in Saudi Arabia, new policies that reduce or remove water subsidies have led to a public outcry. Authorities have also attempted to lower water use, handing out showerheads that are more efficient.

    At the end of the day, if a crisis is to be averted Gunel says Gulf countries must do more than artificially boost the availability of fresh water – they need to change the public perception of water from a free, endless resource to a man-made commodity that is expensive, finite, and has to be managed.

    That’s a tough ask in countries where gated communities sport pools and golf courses, and Gunel believes that for the most part, politicians are still not really challenging the status quo.

    “You can't ask people to change their lifestyle radically, it's not an idea that will ever become popular.”


    (TOP PHOTO: The Dubai Mall sits on an artificial lake. Guilhem Vellut/Flickr)







    Water crisis in the Gulf needs radical solutions
  • Should Save the Children take money from this donor?

    A foundation set up by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is donating £20 million ($29 million) to British NGO Save the Children to train a “next generation” of emergency aid workers from developing countries.

    The six-year pledge was first announced on 19 May, weeks after the UN accused a Saudi-led military coalition of killing 510 children in Yemen last year. Critics say Save the Children should not take the money on ethical grounds and that it weakens respect for international humanitarian law. Others say humanitarian funding is often tainted and ask why Saudi Arabia should be singled out for criticism.

    Saba Al Mubaslat, chief executive of Save the Children’s Humanitarian Leadership Academy, welcomed the donation in a press release: “We are delighted to partner with HRH Prince Alwaleed, a philanthropist who sees the benefit of investing in front-line responders, investing in peace and investing in a global public good.”

    The multibillionaire prince chairs Alwaleed Philanthropies, the source of the funding. The donation will go towards setting up 10 training centres for professional humanitarian responders over the next few years. By the end of 2016, new centres will be set up in Dubai and Bangladesh, according to Save the Children. On 1 June, Alwaleed also joined the Giving Pledge, a club of ultra-rich charitable donors started by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates. Alaweed Philanthropies, via its PR firm, declined to comment for this article.

    Despite being a prominent royal, Save the Children pointed out to IRIN that Alwaleed “does not hold a government position”. Sultan Barakat, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center however told IRIN that Alwaleed is “clearly aligned with government policy, and over the years he has always been careful about criticising wrongdoings by the Saudis”.

    A senior staff member at a humanitarian NGO, who requested anonymity, told IRIN that accepting the donation is highly dubious because of “a stark and fundamental contradiction between Saudi behaviour in the real world and what the aspirations or goals would be of this Humanitarian Leadership Academy”.


    Humanitarian Leadership Academy training graphic
    Humanitarian Leadership Academy
    A graphic from the Humanitarian Leadership Academy website

    The funding crosses an ethical line, he said, in a style of “anything goes” fundraising, practised notably by Save the Children, but also by many other aid organisations: “It’s not where you draw the line, it’s that no one’s drawing any line. No one.”

    Save the Children UK, in a written response to IRIN questions, said the grant passed the organisation’s “robust” donation acceptance policy. The policy “means deciding whether the impact the charity can have through programming and advocacy funded by a donor or partner outweighs any potential risks that the donor's practices may have on children, our staff, or Save the Children’s reputation.” In 2014, the NGO’s donation acceptance process declined only £700,000 out of a potential £22.5 million in “high-risk opportunities”.

    “It’s not where you draw the line, it’s that no one’s drawing any line. No one.”

    If there is a line, many aid agencies have already crossed it, a senior UN official working on the Middle East told IRIN. (The UN received over $300m of humanitarian funding from Saudi Arabia in 2015). He said any aid agency, UN or NGO, taking UK or US money, but turning their nose up at Gulf funding because of Yemen, was operating a double standard, “verging on racism”. “The Yemen war would not last 10 minutes without the support of the Americans and the British. Impossible.”

    As long as the donor does not influence decision-making nor become too dominant as a proportion of income, any ethical dilemma is no greater with Saudi Arabia than with the US or UK, he argued, adding: “it’s about whether the money converts into control” and whether grantees gag their own public statements. If Save the Children, for example, were to stop condemning rights violations by Saudi Arabia, “you’d have to ask questions”, he said. In a written response to questions from IRIN, Save the Children said: “This donation in no way impacts our programme or advocacy work in Yemen or elsewhere,” pointing to its recent statements on the UN-Saudi Arabia “list of shame” furore.

    The "list of shame"

    The Saudi Arabia-led coalition was named for killing and injuring children and bombing schools and hospitals in an annual UN review of the impacts of war on children. Saudi Arabia strenuously rejects the findings of the report and its listing along with other offenders in a “blacklist” annexed to the document. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted he had capitulated to demands from Saudi Arabia and its allies for the country to be at least temporarily delisted. The climb-down was slammed by a range of organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam and InterAction, a US consortium which includes Save the Children’s US wing.

    The NGO staffer said the timing could hardly be worse for the Save the Children funding news: “Here you have the Saudis putting the squeeze on the [UN] secretary-general in the exact opposite way that you would want from the perspective of humanitarian leadership.”

    "Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries should be made accountable for what’s going on in their immediate neighbourhood"

    Barakat, of Brookings, commented that it would be “unfair” to see the funding as an attempt to whitewash Saudi Arabia’s reputation, partly because it was already in play before the latest controversy. He did comment on the international flavour of the grant, saying: “I think, in general, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries should be made accountable for what’s going on in their immediate neighbourhood and invest the money to build capacities, first locally, nationally, regionally and, if there is extra money, internationally. It is quite depressing when you see them investing huge amounts of money [abroad]. This is clearly about soft power and they don’t do this sort of thing at home.”

    The Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA) intends to provide specialist training for humanitarian management, especially for professionals from the global south. Its first initiatives are in Kenya and the Philippines. HLA was registered as a UK charity in January 2015. Its chair is Jemilah Mahmood, and the board includes Mark Goldring, the CEO of Oxfam. Other trustees include a Save the Children executive, the vice chairperson of the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC, and figures from academia and the private sector. Jan Egeland, chief of the Norwegian Refugee Council, stepped down from the board in March 2016 to work on the Syria situation.

    On behalf of Goldring, an Oxfam spokesperson told IRIN: "Mark has received assurances that all due process were followed in checking the suitability of this donation and that the Humanitarian Leadership Academy can accept this generous support." Other trustees contacted by IRIN for this report either did not respond or referred enquiries to Save the Children.

    An earlier controversy last year over Saudi humanitarian aid centred on a donation of $274 million, specifically for Yemen, that was held up by issues of independence and ethical concerns.

    Save the Children’s launch of the HLA was set back by funding issues. The 2014 annual report states that the venture “...was delayed until 2015 pending funding decisions”. The HLA has also now received backing from the UK, Norway, the Gates Foundation and Unilever, according to Save the Children. In open data published by the UK, Alwaleed’s donation matches a multi-year £20 million pledge from the UK’s Department for International Development.

    Barakat told IRIN: “The real question is why did he not invest in the region… and why would he want to give it to Save the Children to do global work?… Clearly he is trying to get an international headline.”

    The NGO staff member was adamant: “The point is obvious. The Saudis are violating every humanitarian rule in the book in Yemen… You, Save the Children, one of the leading INGOs in the world, you’re willing to take 20 million pounds from the Saudis for a quote-unquote humanitarian leadership academy… Right now, money talks, period.”


    Saudi grant for aid training gets a mixed reception
  • MERS’s best friend is ignorance, so it’s time to wise up

    The full story of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is yet to be told. Would South Korea now be in the grip of one of the disease’s largest ever outbreaks if more had been done sooner to unravel its mysteries?

    A key point about MERS was that it gave some warning of its arrival. This was not the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which struck in early 2003 after an infected Chinese doctor and travellers from Vietnam, Singapore and Canada mingled in a Kowloon hotel. At the time, no-one knew a disease was afoot.

    The gravely ill doctor took his virus filled-lungs into Hong Kong’s hospital system, touching off a massive wave of infections among health care workers and their families. And after they went home and became sick, the hotel guests seeded infections into their hospital systems. 

    By contrast, a full 33 months before a South Korean businessman was confirmed to have brought the MERS virus his country, the discovery of a new coronavirus appeared in a report from Saudi Arabia published in ProMED, a disease and outbreak reporting system with broad international reach.

    Shooting the messenger

    Egyptian virologist Ali Zaki teamed up with the Netherlands’ renowned Erasmus Medical Center to identify the virus that had sickened and killed a Saudi Arabian man in June 2012. That it was Zaki, not the Saudi health ministry, who revealed the existence of the new SARS-like virus turned out to be impolitic. He was quickly stripped of his Saudi job and left the country.

    Looking back, that initial official reaction was perhaps a harbinger of what was to come. Over nearly three years, information about MERS has systematically either been hoarded, mishandled or perhaps not even collected at all. 

    That has left the world still unable to answer key questions about MERS and how it occasionally infects people. To complicate the situation, over the past year MERS efforts sputtered, overshadowed by west Africa’s catastrophic Ebola outbreak. 

    “The world’s attention has understandably shifted to managing that crisis,” said Kamran Khan, an infectious diseases physician who researches the global spread of diseases at the University of Toronto.

    “Although MERS has continued to ‘simmer’ in countries across the Arabian peninsula, it hasn’t - until now - evolved into an international outbreak that has reminded us all that it’s still out there and continues to pose a threat,” added Khan.

    The virus is most prevalent in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And with millions of pilgrims flocking there annually and with its large contingent of foreign workers, Saudi Arabia seems to pose the biggest risk of exporting MERS to other parts of the world. 

    But these countries appear not to have fully grasped the dangers, or taken on board their own responsibility to prevent precisely the kind of scenario that is now playing out in South Korea.

    The disease and death toll (which stands at 19 as of June 16), the social and economic disruption as well as the fear and political strife South Korea is experiencing will likely ratchet up the pressure on the source countries – and the World Health Organization – to come up with more answers about MERS as well as strategies for limiting its damage.

    Peter Ben Embarek, WHO’s point person for the disease, knows what is happening in South Korea could happen elsewhere. “So we should also use it as an argument for doing more in the Middle East.”

    Next time could be worse

    But infectious diseases expert Michael Osterholm is worried the lesson the world will take from the Korean outbreak will be the wrong one.

    “What I fear is once we get through Korea people will say ‘See, we can control this. Don’t worry.’ And they’re going to miss the point that we may not be so lucky next time,’” said Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

    To date, 25 countries have reported cases of MERS. Most have had the traveling kind: tourists who contracted the virus on trips to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, or infected wealthy Middle Easterners flying out for care via air ambulance.

    The vast majority of cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia, which claims roughly 1,030 infections, more than 450 of which were fatal. The WHO puts the global MERS count close to 1,300, with at least 455 deaths.

    Read: Preparing for MERS virus ahead of hajj pilgrimage

    While MERS is believed to have originated in bats, camels are now known to play a role in its spread. Multiple studies have confirmed dromedary (single hump) camels can become infected with the MERS virus, though it doesn’t make them noticeably ill.

    Don’t kiss your camel

    In Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, the beasts are ubiquitous and beloved. They provide meat and milk, are kept as pets, and are raced. Warnings to be careful around camels (Don’t consume their raw camel milk or undercooked meat; Wash your hands after contact) have not always worked. Defiant camel owners have insisted their own animals are disease-free and have, in front of cameras, drunk fresh-from-the-udder milk, or received slobbery camel kisses, to press home their point.

    Is that how people become infected with MERS?  We don’t know. What about the myriad people who contracted MERS but said they had no contacts with camels? The world still does not have the answer, a fact Khan describes as surprising this late in the game.

    The way to answer those questions is through conducting a case control study, where epidemiologists quiz people who have and have not been affected by MERS and then compare data on their movements, animal and human exposures, and food and drink consumption. It is frustrating to scientists who study emerging diseases that there still isn't a published case control study on MERS.

    Read: Lessons from the last outbreak 

    That may be about to change. A study, the product of a collaboration with US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists, is said to be somewhere in the publication pipeline. Whether it provides the needed answers about how MERS comes to infect people, though, remains unclear. 
    But why has it taken so long? Was it a lack of local ability to do the work? If so, there were multiple outside researchers offering to help with the study.

    Defiant camel owners have insisted their own animals are disease-free and have, in front of cameras, drunk fresh-from-the-udder milk, or received slobbery camel kisses, to press home their point.

    In off-the-record conversations a number of scientists complained the Saudi deputy health minister in the early days of MERS, Ziad Memish, was keen to maintain control over data, specimens and access, and to be named a prominent author of any scientific papers that emerged. In the first couple of years of MERS research, the publications section of Memish’s CV mushroomed.

    He and his boss were fired in the spring of 2014 when MERS cases in Saudi Arabia skyrocketed due to spread within hospitals that practiced poor infection control. But those who hoped the search for answers would gear up after Memish’s departure were disappointed.

    They drink what?

    Ben Embarek suggests some of the problem is cultural. “They're not used to sharing private things outside of the family environment,” he explained. "People tend to be very evasive and not terribly precise in the way they answer. They don't understand what is expected."

    A case in point: The WHO MERS team first learned some people in Saudi Arabia drink camel urine - believing it has medicinal properties - about a year and a half after they started working on the virus.  The WHO team didn’t think to ask. And when MERS avoidance advice related to camel contact was originally drafted, their Saudi contacts didn’t offer the information.

    When the South Korean outbreak started to take off, some scientists who follow MERS closely noted there had been large hospital outbreaks in the Middle East too. But they often were not recognized as such because the affected countries don’t report them in the detail South Korean officials have released. And they are rarely reported in the scientific literature.

    “The willingness and or the ability to share detailed scientific information about an outbreak is often based on the culture in which that outbreak occurs. We’ve seen that in countries like China,” Osterholm said. “But I think that here [in the Middle East] that has become an acute problem.”

    He and others suggest the answer to the MERS problem has to be a vaccine that blocks the infection in camels, thereby stopping the virus from jumping to people.  “There is nothing right now to support that this is going to go away in camels,” Osterholm explained. 

    Without a camel vaccine, South Korea’s experience will be repeated. And next time the virus may turn up somewhere without the system capacity and economic resources to respond effectively. 

    *Helen Branswell is the medical reporter for the Canadian Press


    MERS timeline


    April: A cluster of undiagnosed respiratory illnesses occurs at a hospital at Zarqa, Jordan, claiming two lives. (MERS is confirmed in late November.)

    June 13: A man is hospitalized in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and later dies. Egyptian virologist Ali Mohamed Zaki and experts at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands confirm the infection was caused by a new coronavirus.

    Sept. 20: Zaki reports the new virus to ProMED Mail, an infectious diseases online alert operation. Zaki is later fired. The yet unnamed virus is known as “novel coronavirus” or NCov for short; it is from the same family as the SARS virus.

    Sept. 22: Britain reports to the World Health Organization that a London hospital is treating a Qatari citizen infected with the new virus. The man dies nine months later.

    Nov. 23: Saudi Arabia reports a cluster of cases in a family.


    February: A UK resident who had traveled home from Pakistan via Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is diagnosed with MERS. In Britain he infects his son, who dies, and another family member. This is the first known transmission outside of the Middle East.

    March 26: A man from the United Arab Emirates dies in a German hospital where he sought care for MERS. The man kept racing camels, which raised suspicions the animal may be a source of MERS.

    May: Infections that spread among dialysis patients at a hospital in Al-Ahsa, in northeastern Saudi Arabia triggered a large hospital outbreak.

    May 15: The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses’ Coronavirus Study Group reveals an agreement to rename NCoV. It becomes the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus or MERS-CoV.

    July 9: WHO convenes an emergency committee under the provisions of the International Health Regulations. The advisers say MERS does not constitute a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The Emergency Committee has met seven times since, each time confirming that view.

    Aug. 9: International researchers report finding antibodies to MERS or a MERS-like virus in dromedary (one hump) camels from Oman and the Canary Islands. Multiple studies have since found viruses or antibodies in camels from Arabian Peninsula and African countries.

    Aug. 21: U.S. and Saudi researchers say they found an RNA fragment that is a perfect match for the corresponding part of the MERS virus in droppings from an Egyptian tomb bat.


    April 14: Malaysia confirms MERS infection in a Muslim man who had recently been on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. No cases have to date been connected to the Hajj, the major annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

    May: A massive surge in MERS cases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is caused by outbreaks in hospitals. The Saudi health minister and deputy health minister are replaced and outside management experts are brought in to help improve the Saudi response.


    May 20: A South Korean businessman who had travelled to Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia who became sick after he returned home is diagnosed with MERS after visiting three medical facilities. He infects more than two dozen people, igniting the largest MERS outbreak outside the Middle East.

    May 29: A man from South Korea tests positive for MERS in China. The man flew to Hong Kong then travelled by bus to Huizhou, in China’s Guangdong Province. Alerted by Korean officials, authorities in Huizhou detain and isolate him on May 27. He appears not to infect anyone in China.

    June 9: A joint WHO-South Korean mission, with experts from Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and the US Centers for Disease Control and Protection, begin investigating the South Korean outbreak. They conclude though the outbreak is large the virus is not behaving differently.

    June 16: The WHO’s MERS Emergency Committee meets for the ninth time. The outbreak has claimed 19 lives.



    MERS's best friend is ignorance
  • Briefing: How the world's top donor spends its aid

    2013 the United Arab Emirates spent over US$5.5 billion on Overseas
    Development Assistance (ODA) – at 1.33 percent, it had the largest ratio
    of Gross National Income to aid of any country globally during that
    year. * - See more at:

    During 2013 the United Arab Emirates spent over US$5.5 billion on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) – at 1.33 percent, it had the largest ratio of aid to Gross National Income of any country globally during that year. *

    This week the UAE’s Ministry of International Co-Operation and Development (MICAD) presented a detailed breakdown of how and where it spent its 2013 foreign aid. In total it supported 145 different countries, with Egypt dominating spending. Here’s a breakdown of some of the key trends.

    - Overall development spending - budget assistance, fuel support, health, education, infrastructure, agriculture, energy, biodiversity etc - accounted for 94.60 percent of the money.

    - The Egyptian government received more than 80 percent of this - $4.6 billion - four times the amount of the UAE’s total aid allocation in 2012 (see chart below).

    - Humanitarian causes - food, shelter and other relief for emergencies – received $144.3 million (2.45 percent) and $173.96 million (2.95 percent) went to charity projects, such as religious sites and small organisations (see chart below).


    - Shelter and non-food items were distributed to 32 projects in the following 10 countries: Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Sudan, Kazakhstan and the Philippines.

    - Nearly two thirds of the UAE’s humanitarian aid – $87.2 million - was directed towards to Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.

    - During 2013 the Emirates Red Crescent shipped 735 tons of dates to various countries across the world.


    More on this topic: UAE aid - a top 20 donor plans to get bigger

    Serving up five-star service for refugees the UAE way


    *According to the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the body at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD) responsible for issues surrounding aid, development and poverty reduction in developing countries.



    Briefing: The world's top aid giver
  • NGO probes gaps in tackling anaemia in pregnancy

    Are iron-folic acid tablets difficult to take? Is the packaging appropriate? What are health workers advising? Is the mineral content correct?

    These are some of the questions the organization Micronutrient Initiative (MI) is posing in several developing countries – studying women’s use of iron-folic acid supplements to get at why despite widespread coverage “on paper”, anaemia prevalence in pregnant women remains high.

    The coverage data does not necessarily reflect how or whether women are taking the supplements, or factors that might deter them.

    “We know from efficacy trials that if women take iron-folic acid supplements the prevalence of anaemia in late pregnancy and at delivery is low,” Lynnette Neufeld, MI chief technical adviser, told IRIN.

    In most countries where MI works there are high levels of anaemia and folic acid deficiency during pregnancy, despite almost all of the countries having iron-folic acid supplementation for pregnant women in their health policies and including the products in their standard drug procurement lists, she said.

    “If these policies and the supplements are in place but we are not seeing improvements, something is amiss.”

    Countries’ demographic and health surveys have information about iron-folic acid supplement coverage, but generally the question posed to women is simply whether they received the supplements.

    “Our plan is to accumulate specifics from the countries where we work about iron-folic acid supplementation to get a clear understanding of formulation, supply issues, usage and other factors, with the aim of creating programmes more effective in reducing anaemia.”

    She noted that so far MI is studying programmes for public distribution of prenatal supplements for the most vulnerable populations.

    MI has already done ‘mini situation analyses’ in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Pakistan, Neufeld said. In one case researchers found that the dose of iron in the supplements used was much higher than World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and above the level associated with frequent adverse effects including cramping and heartburn.

    Women’s nutrition

    Many health experts say in discussions about child malnutrition all too often the importance of women’s nutritional status is overlooked.

    “Absolutely the nutritional status of a woman during pregnancy gets neglected,” Neufeld said. “But also if a woman is not well-nourished or is anaemic before she’s pregnant that too will affect her and her child.”

    The issue is beginning to get more attention. After consultations in 2007 on anaemia in women, WHO put out a policy statement in 2009 on providing iron-folic acid supplementation to non-pregnant women of child-bearing age.

    Improving iron and folate nutrition of women of reproductive age could improve pregnancy outcomes as well as enhance maternal and infant health, WHO says in the policy statement.

    “There is growing recognition that you cannot fix [nutritional deficiencies] just once a woman is pregnant,” Neufeld said.


    NGO probes gaps in tackling anaemia in pregnancy

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