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Record-breaking donation from Saudi Arabia, UAE sets stage for Yemen aid event

A nearly $1 billion pledge can’t shield the Saudi-led coalition from rights critics

Eskinder Debebe/ UN Photo

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)


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