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Senate Democrats urge Biden to pressure Saudi Arabia over Yemen blockade tactics

The Senate letter called on President Joe Biden to use diplomatic and economic leverage to compel the Saudi-led coalition to lift restrictions on imports into Yemen.
Yemeni tribesmen attend a rally denouncing the United States and the outgoing Trump administration's decision to apply the "terrorist" designation to the Iran-backed movement, in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 4, 2021.

A group of Senate Democrats say the Biden administration should use the leverage that military cooperation and arms sales provide to pressure Saudi Arabia into ending its blockade tactics in war-torn Yemen. 

“The United States has diplomatic and economic leverage to compel Saudi Arabia to end its callous blockade of Yemen and we must use it before more lives are needlessly lost,” 16 US senators wrote to President Joe Biden in a letter provided to Al-Monitor. 

The letter, which was led by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, says the failure to allow the unfettered delivery of food, fuel and other humanitarian aid through the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah “should have a direct impact on our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

Sources of leverage with Riyadh, the senators wrote, include “pending weapons sales, military cooperation, the provision of maintenance for war planes and spare parts, as well as U.S.-Saudi ties more broadly."

Saudi Arabia, which intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 on behalf of the internationally recognized government, contends that its air, sea and land blockade on Houthi-controlled territory is needed to prevent arms from reaching the Iran-aligned rebels

But humanitarian organizations say the Saudi-led military coalition’s blockade tactics amount to collective punishment of Yemen’s already impoverished population. The price of food and the cost of the fuel needed to transport it have skyrocketed, compounding food insecurity for the estimated 80% of Yemen’s population that depends on humanitarian assistance to survive. 

The hunger crisis is particularly dire this year, with the United Nations estimating more than 16 million Yemenis will suffer from hunger and nearly 50,000 are experiencing famine-like conditions. 

Commercial imports into Houthi-held parts of Yemen are subject to layers of inspection and verification mechanisms that are carried out by the UN, the Saudi-led coalition and the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. 

Since June 2020, fuel tankers have been subjected to additional restrictions from the Saudi-backed government due to a dispute between the Houthis and the government over whether the rebels were using customs revenues to fund their war effort. 

In March, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said the Yemeni government hadn't allowed a single commercial fuel ship to dock at the Hodeidah port since January. The government ultimately approved the entry of four fuel tankers later in March, followed by three more in April, but aid agencies say far more fuel is needed to make a dent in the humanitarian crisis in northern Yemen. 

US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking urged Yemen’s warring parties on May 20 to ensure access for commercial goods and vital humanitarian supplies, telling reporters that the United States opposes “any restrictions placed on the flow of goods into Yemen.”

In March, Saudi Arabia put forward a cease-fire plan that included the reopening of Sanaa airport to select destinations and the resumption of food and fuel imports at the Hodeidah port. The Houthis, who expelled the government in Sanaa in 2014 and now control most of northern Yemen, claimed the proposal didn’t go far enough to lift what they describe as a siege. 

Many progressive activists and humanitarian organizations say the blockade issue should be decoupled from the cease-fire negotiations. 

“Yemen can’t wait,” said Aisha Jumaan, president of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. “Conditioning lifting the blockade to protracted negotiations between warring parties is unethical as it holds civilians hostage and risks their lives,” she told Al-Monitor. 

Meanwhile, the Houthis are trying to wrest control of Marib, the Saudi-backed government’s last stronghold in the north. The UN has warned of “unimaginable humanitarian consequences” and the potential for hundreds of thousands to be displaced if the group seizes the oil-rich city.

Peter Salisbury, senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi government likely view the import controls as among their only real sources of leverage against the Houthis. 

“From a government and Saudi perspective, if they do these things unilaterally without having a cease-fire as part of the process — even if they happen in parallel —  they will argue the chances the Houthis will enter into a truce before they’ve taken Marib are extremely slim,” Salisbury told Al-Monitor.

On May 20, the US State Department announced sanctions against two Houthi military leaders involved in the Marib offensive, a move Secretary of State Antony Blinken said was aimed at promoting accountability for actions that undermine peace efforts.

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