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BEIRUT, 23 April 2015 (IRIN) – If the Saudi Arabian-led coalition genuinely wants to prove its commitment to the people of Yemen, it must allow freer access for trade vessels. Trade, not aid, is the real humanitarian priority right now.
After a four-week bombing campaign targeting Houthi rebels who had overthrown the elected president, nearly 1,000 people are confirmed dead and 150,000 have been displaced.
The negative impact of the scale of the humanitarian suffering in the Middle East’s poorest country appears to have finally dawned on the coalition. Gulf officials have warned the casualty list is “becoming an issue,” with many believing the whole of Yemen is being punished, rather than just the pro-Iranian Houthis and their allies.
“In Syria, Iraq and Libya, we haven’t seen free trade targeted like this”
The coalition has belatedly realised the need to engage in the propaganda war, in recent days seeking to stress its humanitarian commitments.
The United Nations put out an emergency appeal for $274 million for humanitarian aid in the next three months. Within 48 hours, the Saudis had pledged the whole lot.
Then, on Tuesday, Operation Decisive Storm was replaced with the warm apple pie approach of Operation Restoring Hope: declared aims – protecting civilians and supporting relief operations.
The bombing campaign hasn’t ended, but it has at least slowed. The UN is working with the Saudis to deliver aid to the most needy. So far, so humanitarian.
Yet what doesn’t appear to have changed are the restrictions on commercial ships and planes, which one senior humanitarian told IRIN last week was almost unprecedented.
“In Syria, Iraq and Libya, the countries have slid into civil war, but we haven’t seen free trade targeted like this,” he said. Without trade routes opening up, aid organisations are putting a band aid on a gaping wound, he added.
A crippling partial blockade on all trade has been tightened in recent days, after the UN Security Council passed a resolution imposing an arms embargo on the Houthis and their allies.
To say the blockade has been clumsily imposed is an understatement.
Dozens of ships carrying vital fuel, grain and other goods have been kept at anchor for days waiting to be searched before they can unload, if indeed they get to unload at all.
Aid becomes largely irrelevant if trade restrictions mean Yemeni civilians – both rich and poor – are starved of fuel and food imports.
It also means the aid agencies can’t do their jobs. Even if they can get supplies delivered by air to the capital Sana’a and other cities, they can’t do much with them without fuel.
In 2011, Yemen imported 2.6 million tons of wheat. Aid agencies brought in about 0.5 percent of that.
As IRIN reported last week, millions of dollars of crucial vaccines and medicine are likely to be ruined if more fuel does not arrive to keep the refrigerators on. Hospitals are also running out.
The whole aid system breaks down if the bare essentials are not allowed into the country. For example, without petrol, no one can travel to areas where water pumps need fixing, meaning the country effectively runs dry.
Delivering food becomes a far more cumbersome process, and prices have soared in local markets.
More fundamentally, while those in the industry are often loath to admit it, aid is essentially a sideshow. It can make a big difference for a small number of people, but it can never replace commerce.
Research suggests that even refugees often treat aid as an additional benefit, rather than their baseline.
Consider Yemeni food imports. In 2011, the country imported 2.6 million tons of wheat. Aid agencies brought in about 0.5 percent of that – or one in every 40 bags of grain (see chart below).
Trond Jensen, head at the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, told IRIN his office was encouraging the Saudis to explore “alternative modalities” for enforcing the weapons ban on the Houthis. In plain-speak, that means loosening the naval blockade.
If it remains in place, all the humanitarians in the world won’t make much difference.