United Nations Warns of Yemen's Next Disaster

As President Biden attempts to reset relations with Riyadh, the U.N. details the limits of the ceasefire in Yemen—and says it's "about to get much worse."

United Nations Warns of Yemen's Next Disaster
Yemenis shop for food and sweets before Eid. Via Getty

Edited by Sam Thielman

BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, President Biden may already be wheels-up on a highly anticipated trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia. His goals are to tell first an apartheid state and then a psychotic fossil-fuel giant that he wants absolutely zero smoke with either of them; and, in the case of Riyadh, would they mind flooding the oil market to maybe mitigate a coming electoral wipeout for the Democratic Party?

Anyway, I really don't want to write another foreign-trip-curtainraiser—like, ever again, ideally—so that's not what we're doing here. The day before Biden left, two senior United Nations officials responsible for mitigating that war—a seven-year war initiated by Saudi Arabia's Mohammad bin Salman and extensively, materially supported by the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations—warned that despite the renewal of a three-month ceasefire between the combatants, Yemen is on the precipice of another disaster.

On Tuesday, Joyce Msuya, the U.N. assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs and deputy emergency relief coordinator, led with that warning when updating the U.N. Security Council. "Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe is about to get much worse," she said in her assessment.

Whatever the positive material benefits of the ceasefire—more on those in a second—the needs of a ravaged country dwarf them. There is a risk of "famine in some areas," Msuya said, one of the consequences of an unmet and "urgent" need to compensate for the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the U.S.-European Union response to the invasion. As FOREVER WARS warned in March, however you want to distribute moral blame for the war and the Western reaction, Yemen is not just a casualty but an afterthought, and its people are suffering from a distant geopolitical conflict they have nothing to do with.

According to Msuya, nearly half of Yemen's wheat came from Russia and Ukraine, part of Yemen's overwhelming dependence on food imports. Though fuel deliveries into the crucial port of Hudaydah, critical to food distribution inside Yemen, "have increased considerably" per her colleague Hans Grundberg, the U.N.'s Yemen envoy—more on him in a second—there's vastly less to distribute. When Yemenis manage to find food, they are less and less able to afford it. Msuya:

The exchange rate, which is a key factor in how much food people can afford to eat, is still collapsing. It’s now trading at about 1,120 rial to the dollar in Aden.

Most of the currency’s gains since the truce have now been wiped out. That means many more families are going hungry again.

Grundberg assessed that while post-ceasefire fuel imports are better than none—meaning a return to the Saudi port closure that Biden's envoy pretended last year didn't exist—"[h]igh fuel prices have chipped away at the benefit for Yemeni citizens."

Msuya holds out hope for a pledge of $3 billion in "economic support," announced in April by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It’s a brazen case of firefighting by arsonists, but whatever.

Against this coming wave of suffering are some very understaffed aid workers. Msuya said international donors have contributed only 27 percent of what the U.N. response plan for Yemen needs. "This is the sharpest year-on-year decrease of any U.N.-coordinated plan in the world," she told the Security Council.

SO HOW ABOUT THAT CEASEFIRE? That was the subject of an update from U.N. envoy Grundberg, a key figure in brokering it.

Anyone who has been in a warzone can tell you that ceasefires matter, and they're fragile things. Grundberg credits the ceasefire with reducing civilian deaths in Yemen "by two thirds compared to the three months before the truce began," although it's worth noting that those prior three months marked a period of escalation in the governorate of Marib, a theater of conflict that's rich in oil and gas.

I want to clarify that I'm not disparaging the ceasefire by reporting the weaknesses Grundberg goes on to describe. Weaknesses are part of every ceasefire—this is not the Yemen war's first—and that's why they're ceasefires, not peace.

The goal of the Biden administration, which continues to back Riyadh materially and diplomatically, is "​​to move expeditiously towards a comprehensive and inclusive peace process," as Biden put it in June when commending the extension of the ceasefire. Grundberg doesn't give much reason to expect a peace process resulting from the ceasefire. Roads in Taiz remain closed; each side accuses the other of opportunistically rearming and consolidating forces during the pause ("...direct and indirect fire, drone attacks, reconnaissance overflights, and the establishment of new fortifications and trenches"); and there is what Grundberg calls "worrisome escalatory rhetoric by the parties questioning the benefits of the truce."

Again, there are weaknesses in every ceasefire. But this is Grundberg's broader strategic assessment:

Three and a half months into the truce, we still find ourselves immersed in the details of the truce implementation. This is important. But it has meant we have not been able to invest as much in the task of consolidating and expanding the truce in order to deliver more benefits to the population and set Yemen on the path toward a durable political settlement.

Grundberg said that, over the next several weeks, he intends to push the Saudi coalition and the Houthis to expand the ceasefire. Meanwhile, Reuters reported last week that part of Biden's attempt at getting Mohammed bin Salman to increase oil production may be a return to the extravagant arms sales of the Trump era and before. I don't like short-handing such sales as providing either "offensive" or "defensive" weapons because the line blurs so easily, as with November's air-to-air-missile sale. But the point is that the U.S. may open the weapon spigot to Saudi Arabia right as Grundberg is laboring to expand on a ceasefire.

We'll see what gifts Biden takes to Riyadh later this week. But weapons, those most American of products—the U.S. accounted for 79 percent of the global arms trade between 2009 and 2019, per the State Department in December—have been Biden's go-to balm for his criticisms of the Saudi crown prince. His much-hyped end to U.S. aid to the Saudi war effort was bullshit, as a Washington Post investigation last month confirmed:

The Biden administration in 2021 announced an end to U.S. military support for “offensive operations” carried out by the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen’s Houthi rebels and suspended some munition sales. But maintenance contracts fulfilled by both the U.S. military and U.S. companies to coalition squadrons carrying out offensive missions have continued, The Post’s analysis shows.

"Our friends can rely on the United States as the security partner of choice," Biden said when the Yemen ceasefire was extended. The targets of those friends, from Yemen to Palestine, can rely on something quite different from the United States.

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