Saudi Arabia promises $1.5 billion in aid to Yemen — but it's still bombing the country

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Smoke rises as people inspect damage at the site of airstrikes in the city of Saada, Yemen, Jan. 6, 2018.

Saudi Arabia announced $1.5 billion in new aid for Yemen this week, a move it says is aimed at alleviating the country’s humanitarian crisis nearly three years into a Saudi-led military campaign there.

But critics, among them a number of Yemenis, have questioned the motives behind the donation, given the Saudis’ own role in prolonging the crisis.  

An estimated 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict between a Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

The US-backed coalition began bombing Houthi-controlled areas in 2015 when the group seized the capital city of Sana’a from the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.  

What began as a local conflict spurred on by domestic grievances spiraled into a proxy war between regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Related: After 1,000 days of civil war in Yemen, violence has become 'normalized'

The UN has called the conflict “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.” Aid groups say the crisis has been made worse by a Saudi bombing campaign and a blockade that has hampered aid efforts.

Today, hunger and disease are rampant across the country. Yemen is suffering from the worst cholera epidemic in history. Two million people have been displaced and as many as 8 million people are near starvation, according to the UN.    

Most of the aid announced on Monday will go to UN agencies and international aid organizations working on the ground, the Saudi coalition said. The plan also aims to expand Yemeni ports under the coalition’s control and create new routes for aid.

Saudi Arabia had already announced a $2 billion injection for Yemen’s central bank.  

Mohammed Saeed al-Jaber, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, said the aid would provide “urgent relief for the widespread deterioration in food and water security that has occurred as a result of the continued attacks of Iranian-backed Houthi militias.”

Saudi soldiers walk past a Saudi air force cargo plane delivering aid at an airfield in the northern province of Marib, Yemen, Jan. 22, 2018.

Saudi soldiers walk past a Saudi air force cargo plane delivering aid at an airfield in the northern province of Marib, Yemen, Jan. 22, 2018.


Ali Owidha/Reuters

The plan was greeted with a mix of skepticism and guarded praise elsewhere.

Farea al-Muslimi, chairman of the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, questioned whether the plan was motivated by altruism.  

“Keeping in mind the Saudi military role, the siege it is imposing, new restrictions it is imposing on Yemeni labor in Saudi Arabia, many Yemenis look to the aid package as ‘making the ugly look beautiful,’” he said. “Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction.”

Save the Children, an international charity that works on the ground in Yemen, echoed that sentiment.

“We welcome any plan that allows for more humanitarian access for Yemen and also more funding for the UN appeal, that's vital. But it's really important to remember that this is not going to solve the humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” said Caroline Anning, senior conflict and humanitarian adviser with the charity.

She added that the coalition has not fully lifted its blockade of Hodeidah port, which is a key route for imports.

“As a result [of the blockade], there's crippling shortages of vital fuel across the country and massive price rises which are hitting families already on the brink of starvation, really hard.”

RelatedHere's how you can send help to people trapped in the world's worst humanitarian crisis

Others were entirely hostile to Riyadh’s announcement.

Haykal Bafana, who lives in the capital Sana'a, wrote on Twitter: “Keep your money, and keep your bombs and missiles, ya Saudi. Yemen does not want you or your 'help.'”

Saudi Arabia has faced increasing criticism for the way it is conducting its campaign in Yemen — even from its own allies.

In early December, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for Riyadh to be “more measured” in Yemen and across the region. The US remains deeply involved in the Yemen conflict, providing Saudi Arabia with arms and logistical support for its campaign.  

Following that criticism, Saudi Arabia eased its blockade of the Hodeidah port. But December was particularly deadly for civilians, with 279 civilians killed by Saudi airstrikes. A further 121 were killed by Houthi fighters over the same time period.  

Speaking on the sidelines of the announcement on Monday, coalition spokesman Col. Turki bin Saleh al-Malki called reports of high civilian casualties “unreliable,” but said that efforts were underway to reduce them.

“[The UN] are taking it from some of the NGOs on the ground which belong to the Houthis,” he told PRI. “It’s not a reliable number. Still, we are improving. We have learned a lesson from some incidents that have happened in Yemen.”

“Through the campaign we have improved the procedure for targeting to minimize the [civilian casualties]. If there is any incident happening in Yemen, we will admit it,” he said.

On the same day as the aid announcement, Reuters reported that seven people were killed in an airstrike that struck a building in Saada province, among them five children. Twelve people were killed by rockets fired by Houthi fighters.

A day later, another nine civilians, including four children, were killed in an airstrike in the country’s north.

Stephen Snyder provided additional reporting.

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