Saudi Arabia is disturbed by reports of Houthi aid interference in Yemen, but is nonetheless going ahead with assistance to the war-torn country, including to Houthi-controlled regions, a top adviser to the Saudi royal court told Al-Monitor today.
“We want to see that the Houthi militias will actually respect the international humanitarian law,” said Dr. Abdullah Al Rabeeah, the supervisor general of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief).
“We will continue to work with our key partners, donors and UN agencies and others to do the necessary monitoring to minimize any divergence, he added. “We believe that the Yemenis living in those regions deserve our attention.”
KSRelief, established in 2015, has provided over $4 billion in humanitarian assistance to 51 countries on four continents. Most of that, over $3 billion, has been provided to Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, which is leading a regional coalition in support of the southern-based government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against Houthi separatists, co-hosted with the United Nations a virtual pledging conference this week to drum up humanitarian support for Yemen on Tuesday.
The kingdom has been working closely with UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths to broker a political solution among Yemen’s warring parties. A cease-fire backed by the UN and the Saudi coalition announced in April has been challenged by separatists.
The much-touted pledge drive Tuesday secured $1.35 billion from more than two dozen donor governments, just over half of what the UN said was required to keep its work in Yemen afloat through the end of the year. Riyadh has promised $500 million in humanitarian assistance, more than a third of all donations and by far the largest contribution from the conference.
The situation in Yemen is desperate. Already, a shortage of funding has forced the World Food Program to scale back its aid deliveries in northern Yemen.
Al Rabeeah said he believes pledging will continue outside of the conference, and his agency “will try to move forward to minimize the closing of some of the important programs.”
“KSRelief as you probably have known in the past will continue to add also some programs on a bilateral basis,” he said. “Every year, we go above our pledge, over.”
Al Rabeeah dismissed reports by the UN and human rights groups of Saudi-led forces deliberately targeting hospitals and civilians in the past, and said his government had increased financial assistance to Yemen amid the conflict.
“There’s no question that the health care system prior to the conflict was weak, and maybe now it is much weaker,” Al Rabeeah said. “I can assure you Saudi Arabia did not direct any airstrikes on the health care system. If it has happened, it’s by mistake and we do not shy from making that public to the media. We coordinate with many UN and non-UN agencies to ensure that vital, important structures will not be targeted.”
Humanitarian aid flowing into Yemen, the poorest country in the region, has slowed during the past year amid concerns the Iran-aligned Houthi rebel group was obstructing aid deliveries.
Al Rabeeah said his government received reports that the Houthis are using World Health Organization ambulances on the front lines and that they recently took WHO-supplied COVID-19 materials from the Sana’a airport to one of their military hospitals. A spokesperson in WHO’s Yemen office confirmed to Al-Monitor that it was investigating both incidents and condemns the “use of any donations outside the remit of health system.”
In May, the Donald Trump administration announced $225 million in funding for food assistance in southern Yemen, but didn’t specify how the money would be allocated in the Houthi-held north. Al Rabeeah said he expects to see a substantial increase in American aid by the end of the year.
The fighting since 2014 has killed as many as 100,000 people, pushed millions more to the brink of famine and created what the United Nations describes as the world’s biggest humanitarian emergency. Adding to Yemen’s woes, more than 400 registered cases of COVID-19 have aid organizations warning that the virus is spreading undetected throughout the country.
“More than 80 organizations are working with us in Yemen,” Al Rabeeah said. “We will continue to do so based on strong bonding between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And I can assure you that Saudi Arabia will continue its support in all regions of Yemen, irrespective of who controls the region.”
The following is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, conducted by phone.
Al-Monitor: Let’s start with the total raised yesterday at the conference. It was just around half of what was pledged last year. What will this mean for the UN agencies who’ve already shuttered vital assistance programs, and have warned the cuts will continue without urgent funding?
Al Rabeeah: Thank you for the question. I think we raised, according to what we have received from the UN, is $1.35 billion, a little bit above half of last year. As I mentioned yesterday, we still haven’t closed the pledging. I think the pledging will continue outside the arena of the conference. I hope this available money will start helping the agencies to proceed with and continue the important and essential work in Yemen. We will work with the UN and the leading international NGOs working hard in Yemen to encourage other donors who haven’t pledged to pledge, and also we will try to move forward to minimize the closing of some of the important programs. KSRelief as you probably have known in the past will continue to add also so me programs on a bilateral basis. Every year, we go above our pledge, over.
Al-Monitor: Roughly 80% of Yemen is reliant on some form of humanitarian assistance. Do you believe that Saudi Arabia has an obligation to do more than others, given its role in the conflict?
Al Rabeeah: Saudi Arabia before the conflict, and after the conflict, has always cared for Yemen and has always been the number one donor to Yemen. If we go over the past four decades, we’ll find Saudi Arabia has been at the frontier of helping Yemen. Saudi Arabia did not go to Yemen to harm Yemen. Saudi Arabia went to Yemen to support the legally elected government, but tried to exhaust all of the political means to avoid the conflict. Now once the conflict is on, Saudi Arabia has escalated its support to Yemen. We have worked through the pledging conferences. We have worked outside the pledging conferences with supporting the economy, supporting the Central Bank of Yemen. Many projects as we speak are being implemented by KSRelief and partner organizations. More than 80 organizations are working with us in Yemen. We will continue to do so based on strong bonding between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And I can assure you that Saudi Arabia will continue its support in all regions of Yemen, irrespective of who controls the region.
Al-Monitor: Despite a low number of confirmed cases, the coronavirus is thought to be spreading undetected throughout Yemen. Hospitals in Aden are said to be overwhelmed with possible COVID patients. What is KSRelief doing during this time to support Yemen’s health infrastructure, much of which war monitors say has been badly damaged by years of fighting and coalition airstrikes?
Al Rabeeah: Let me confirm that the KSRelief has started from the beginning of the COVID-19 announcement in Yemen, we have communicated with the health authorities in Yemen. And we started immediately to move essential items like PPEs [personal protective equipment], like diagnostic tools, like ventilators and more, trying to build the capacity of the Yemeni health care system, government and private sector. We are continuing to do so. In addition to that, we have also pledged $25 million for the fight and control of COVID-19. $10 million of that is in the pipeline to be signed very soon with the WHO. We are also negotiating with UNICEF and other organizations for also a similar agreement.
Now, there’s no question that the health care system prior to the conflict was weak, and maybe now it is much weaker. And I can assure you Saudi Arabia did not direct any air strikes on the health care system. If it has happened, it’s by mistake and we do not shy from making that public to the media. We coordinate with many UN and non-UN agencies to ensure that vital, important structures will not be targeted. That’s why the coalition has more than 64,000 non-strike zones. We will continue to support the health system in Yemen directly, and with the help of our partner UN and non-UN agencies.
Al-Monitor: Many international donors, including the US, have cut funding over concerns that the Houthis are diverting and obstructing aid. The rebel group has offered some concessions, such as dropping the threat of a foreign aid tax. But what else do you need to see happen from the Houthis, so that donors can feel confident that their funding is reaching where it’s supposed to?
Al Rabeeah: This is a very important point. We, like the US and European countries, are concerned about the diversion and also the obstruction of aid in Houthi-controlled regions. We have been disturbed in the last several days about seeing WHO ambulances being used in the front line of the fight, and this violates any principles of humanity. We have received also information yesterday that the COVID-19 materials supplied from WHO have been taken from the Sanaa airport to the military hospital of the militias. We want to see that the Houthi militias will actually respect the international humanitarian law, will ease the passage of humanitarian supplies reaching those who are in need, and we will continue to work with our key partners, donors and UN agencies and others to do the necessary monitoring to minimize any divergence. However, Saudi Arabia did not and will not stop the supply of aid to Houthi-controlled regions. We believe that the Yemenis living in those regions deserve our attention.
Al-Monitor: The US did not announce new funding yesterday, but said it is working to provide additional aid. This comes as the Trump administration has said it will pull out of the World Health Organization, which of course does a lot of work supporting Yemen’s health care system. Are you satisfied with the US government’s current level of financial assistance?
Al Rabeeah: We have been negotiating with our friends in the US, and as you mentioned rightly, they have already pledged, as you know, $225 million, and they promised they will have additional funding. The US has been a very flexible and generous donor. We expect by the end of the year, a big number will increase. By all means, in the past we have seen very generous donations from the US. I think this will continue. With respect to WHO, we hope whatever limitations exist regarding the communications between the US government and WHO will be resolved so that this agency will continue to help those in need globally.
Al-Monitor: Is there anything you’d like to say that we didn’t ask?
Al Rabeeah: I saw one or two reports misunderstanding our pledge. I think I want to make it clear that the pledge of Saudi Arabia is 500 [million dollars]. All of the 500 is for the HRP 2020 [Humanitarian Response Plan 2020]. Two-thirds of it will be channeled through the UN system, and one-third will be channeled through the leading international NGOs who are working in Yemen. But all of the 500 is directed to Yemen HRP 2020.
Al-Monitor: When will the funding be fulfilled for the $500 million?
Al Rabeeah: We have already started negotiating with the UN and non-UN agencies. We want to hope that in the coming week or two, we will be able to sign the agreements that we sign regularly each year. And as soon as we sign them, we will be happy to move and transfer the money. There will be no limitations to move it, but we want to agree with them on the projects included in the HRP, so that we will move forward.
Andrew Parasiliti contributed to this article.