First aid flights finally touch down in Yemen, but it’s too little, too late for millions

The Saudi blockade cut off food and medical supplies, pushing 21 million people into acute hunger and illness.

Yemen’s raging two-year conflict has served as an incubator for lethal cholera. CREDIT: Hani Mohammed/AP Photo.
Yemen’s raging two-year conflict has served as an incubator for lethal cholera. CREDIT: Hani Mohammed/AP Photo.

A slight easing of the Saudi Arabian-imposed blockade of Yemen on Saturday allowed for aid flights to land in the capital of Sanaa on Saturday, but aid shipments have yet to arrive via sea.

A major international outcry followed the start of the blockade three weeks ago. Humanitarian groups pointed out that cutting off aid and food supplies would worsen  the horrific humanitarian crises of famine and cholera affecting 21 million people — 11 million of them children — in the war-torn country.

Roughly 900,000 have contracted cholera, and over 2,000 have died from the disease. According to the U.N.’s World Food Program, an additional 3.2 million people will be “pushed into hunger,” and an additional 150,000 children will die of malnourishment within months.

According to Reuters, the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen on Wednesday announced that in addition to allowing aid flights into Sanaa, it would also allow shipments of food and medical supplies via the Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Salif. As of Saturday, however, no shipments have arrived by sea. Port officials said they did not expect any ships to dock there soon, even though aid groups say the aid flights will not allow for enough aid to enter the country. Prior to the blockade, 80 percent of food imports arrived through Hodeidah.

The blockade has further devastated a population who, according to a World Health Organization statement, is already in an extremely fragile state: “We are already seeing the humanitarian consequences of the blockade. Diphtheria is spreading fast, with 120 clinically diagnosed cases and 14 deaths — mostly children —  in the last weeks. We have vaccines and medicines in transit to Yemen, but they are blocked from entry. At least one million children are now at risk of contracting the disease.”

The impoverished country has been battered by the civil war that has dragged on for over two years now. The involvement of the Saudi-led coalition has escalated the fight, and has rained a staggering number of airstrikes (over 5,600 in one six-month period alone) on rebel targets as well as schools, markets, and clinics.

According to U.N. figures, over half of the 10,000 who have been killed since the start of the conflict have been civilians. With U.S. support, Saudi Arabia effectively fought off efforts by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate it for the deaths of civilians in the war. Stonewalling lasted until September, when the stalemate was broken, allowing for an investigation into alleged human rights violations.

Saudi Arabia implemented the blockade, it said, in order to block Houthi access to missiles from Iran. The Gulf Arab kingdom has escalated its showdown with Iran in recent months on several fronts.

It is leading a blockade against Qatar with the cooperation of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and an increasingly reluctant Egypt, as well trying to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon. It claims that Iran-backed Hezbollah has declared war on Saudi in the midst of a bizarre political crisis that saw Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resign while in Saudi Arabia, only to retract his resignation nearly three weeks later.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman went so far as to call Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “Hitler.” The U.S., meanwhile, backs the Saudi narrative of Iran as the aggressor not only in Yemen, but in the region in general.

“They desperately want to change the conversation away from starving children to Iranian bad guys,” said retired CIA officer Bruce Riedel to Foreign Policy.

Although the State Department urged Saudi to ease the blockade on humanitarian grounds, under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has increased its refueling support, according to Al-Monitor.

Without refueling and other logistical aid, Saudi-led airstrikes would not be possible. The U.S. has also sold weapons to Saudi, but there are increasing calls within the U.S. to limit its cooperation in the conflict to counter-terrorism efforts. The House passed a resolution calling for an end to U.S. military involvement in the war in Yemen, calling it unconstitutional.