Once Joe Biden was sworn in as president, the new US administration started to review various decisions made under Trump, especially those of them taken at the 11th hour. The US State Department announced it was reviewing the designation of the Houthis, aka Ansarullah, as a terrorist group.
“We will not publicly discuss or comment on internal deliberations regarding that review; however, with the humanitarian crisis in Yemen we are working as fast as we can to conduct the review and make a determination,” a spokesperson said.
They added that they “strongly believe” the militias “need to change their behaviour,” and that they bear “significant responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe and insecurity in Yemen.
“At the same time, we must also ensure that we are not impeding the provision of humanitarian assistance,” they said.
The UN has repeatedly announced Yemen is “on the precipice of famine”.
Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo designated the Houthis a terrorist organisation one day before the inauguration of Biden.
The internationally recognised government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi quickly welcomed the US decision, so did Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have been engaged in a war against the Houthis since March 2015.
On Tuesday, an explosion rocked the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, reported Reuters. Though the cause of the blast has not yet been confirmed, signs pointed to the Houthis who had launched several cross-border drone and missile attacks, targeting oil and civilian infrastructure, the latest of which was last week.
Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV cited videos on social media of a missile being intercepted over the city.
On Saturday, military officials from the Saudi-led coalition engaged in Yemen said they had destroyed an “enemy air target” fired towards Riyadh.
The Riyadh-led Arab Coalition had intervened in Yemen to halt what it described as “Iranian influence” in the form of military, political and financial backing of the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia extremist group. Both Tehran and Ansarullah denied those Saudi claims repeatedly.
The designation of Ansarullah as a terrorist organisation was decried by humanitarian groups, diplomats and Congress members who fear it might lead to deterioration in the military situation on the ground, hinder UN peace talks and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.
The conflict in Yemen has rendered thousands dead and tens of thousands wounded. More than eight million Yemenis had to leave their homes and 80 per cent of the population are in danger of famine, depending for their survival on international humanitarian aid.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly warned that, together with South Sudan, northern Nigeria and Somalia, Yemen is on the verge of famine.
“We’ve been warning since July that Yemen is on the brink of a catastrophic food security crisis,” said Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, in a report published on 27 October 2020. “If the war doesn’t end now, we are nearing an irreversible situation and risk losing an entire generation of Yemen’s young children. The data we are releasing today confirms that acute malnutrition among children is hitting the highest levels we have seen since the war started.”
Acute malnutrition rates among children under the age of five are the highest ever recorded in parts of Yemen, with more than half a million cases in southern districts, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) Acute Malnutrition analysis released by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and other organisations.
Grande’s report added that “the greatest increase is in cases of young children suffering from severe acute malnutrition with a 15.5 per cent rise during 2020,” stating that a quarter of a million pregnant and nursing women require treatment as a result of malnutrition.
The UN said that until mid-October it had received only $1.43 of the $3.2 billion needed for humanitarian aid in Yemen for 2020, and aid programmes have begun to close down. The UN said it urgently needs $50 million to support its food programmes.
Last week Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, tweeted that the number of hungry Yemenis is likely to increase in the next six months. He still believes, however, that world leaders can prevent this man-made catastrophe. “We are very close to the point of no return,” he said.
According to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the biggest challenges to humanitarian work and ending the suffering in Yemen are the obstruction of access to aid, denying doctors and teachers access to their salaries, and the escalation of violence.
There appears to be no comprehensive solution to the Yemeni crisis. The battle lines have been frozen since the start of the war supported by Barack Obama’s administration to curb Iran’s influence, after“he appeased Iran with the 2015 nuclear agreement,” according to many observers.
The Yemeni crisis will not be easy for Washington to handle despite US State Secretary Antony Blinken saying the Biden administration will review the terrorist designation of the Houthis and his announcement that the US has ceased its support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war.
Because the Middle East files have become more complex, the Yemeni crisis can’t be resolved in a manner that pleases all concerned parties without reaching a settlement on the Iranian nuclear and missile programmes and resolving the debacle of Iran’s presence in Syria and Lebanon.
Without involving the Gulf, this is a settlement that is hard to attain. Such are Riyadh’s demands in any new round of negotiations to reach a settlement reminiscent of the 2015 agreement forged by former US state secretary John Kerry.
Washington should take into account its “partners in Riyadh”, in the words of Blinken, who said before the Congress that the US should consult with Saudi Arabia to stop the war in Yemen and handle the Iranian military, nuclear and missile files.
Riyadh had earlier warned it would join in the nuclear race if its rival Tehran was to attain atomic capabilities. At that time, many observers anticipated Saudi Arabia may seek Pakistan’s expertise in the field, since the two countries have been strategic partners for more than 60 years.
If Saudi Arabia turns to Pakistan, the conflict in the Gulf will grow to rival the nuclear terror in Asia (China, India and Pakistan), which will make stopping it next to impossible.
This will also encourage other countries, such as Turkey and Egypt, which had maintained a distance from the nuclear armament race, to join the fray. Will tensions spread from East Asia to the Mediterranean Sea?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.