UN officials unhappy with Saudi Arabia’s plans for Yemen aid

Smoke billows from a Saudi-led airstrike, in Sanaa, Yemen, April 8, 2015.
Smoke billows from a Saudi-led airstrike, in Sanaa, Yemen, April 8, 2015. AP

The United Nations and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are locked in a bitter dispute over Riyadh’s insistence that humanitarian aid for Yemen be coordinated through Saudi authorities.

Senior diplomats in Geneva say that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was taken aback when Saudi King Salman scheduled a May 17 conference in Riyadh to discuss aid to Yemen. Ban had planned to hold such a conference in Geneva on Monday, at which he hoped to restart the failed U.N. peace process.

The scheduled Saudi conference and a proposal that the Saudi capital be the coordinating point for aid also violate the U.N.’s principle that aid delivered to a war zone should not be controlled by one of the belligerents in the conflict.

“The active engagement of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is appreciated,” Johannes Van Der Klaauw, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said Friday. “However, in all crises, the emergency relief coordinator is mandated to lead the coordination of international relief activities and emergency response.”

He said U.N. regulations require that “all actors engaged in relief and aid operations” must work “through the neutral and impartial leadership of a humanitarian coordinator – in this case me – based in the country.”

Diplomats in Geneva from several countries, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, agreed with Van Der Klaauw that Saudi Arabia should drop its plans to coordinate relief work. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir outlined the Saudi plans on Thursday after meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry.

A senior Middle East diplomat, from one of the countries in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen coalition country, said, “The king pledged a lot of money for Yemen relief and wants it done (in Saudi Arabia), but that does not mean it’s a good idea.”

Saudi Arabia has pledged to finance the total $274 million the U.N. has said it needs to fund humanitarian assistance in Yemen.

Van Der Kleeuw called the Saudi plans “very difficult in view of the continuous war operations.”

Kerry said the U.S. supported both the May 17 conference and a five-day cease-fire that Saudi Arabia has proposed to allow humanitarian aid shipments. That proposal has not been accepted by the Houthi rebels who are battling the Saudi-backed government of exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

After heavy airstrikes Friday in Yemen’s northern Saada province, the Saudi coalition said the cease-fire would begin Tuesday, if the Houthis agreed.

Meanwhile, Kerry also has been acting as a go-between for Ban and the Saudi king, diplomats said, in an effort to resolve the aid disagreement.

According to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 737 civilians have been killed since Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March. The U.N. estimates that more than 300,000 people have fled their homes as a result of the airstrikes and the violence between forces loyal to Hadi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia, and those affiliated with the Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran.

U.N. officials are particularly critical of a Saudi-led blockade of Yemeni ports, ostensibly to prevent weapons from reaching the Houthis in conformance with a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last month.

But the search of ships attempting to deliver food and fuel to Yemen has created delays and serious shortages in Yemen, the officials charge.

“We urgently need a resumption of commercial imports of critical goods, such as fuel, medical supplies and food,” Van Der Klaauw said. “Without resumption of commercial imports, all basic services and markets will close down shortly.”

“A blockade is always wrong,” said Jan Egeland, a former U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council. “It’s a collective punishment on the civilian population.”

Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.