Photo: Karl Schembri/NRC

Donald Trump has a unique opportunity to help the Yemen crisis

Jan Egeland and David Miliband|Published 21. Mar 2018

This op-ed was first published exclusively by CNN. You can read it here.


The Middle East today is poised between multiple wars fueling extremism and a burgeoning younger generation looking for a new start.

The era of American hyper-power is ending, Russia is back, and China is gingerly stepping in. The attention accorded to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the US and European stage this month is testament to Saudi Arabia's centrality to this new order.

Prince Mohammed has presented himself as a voice of moderation at home. But abroad, the story is different.

When the White House rolls out the red carpet for the newly empowered crown prince this week, President Trump must prioritize holding him accountable for his country's conduct on the world stage, starting with Yemen.

Yemen presents a catastrophic case study of what can happen when the center cannot hold. The country is consumed by at least five "mini-sates" at varying degrees of conflict with one another. Their conduct is ruthless and feeds radicalism, but the main players are deaf to pleas from the outside world to end the killing.

Yemen has become synonymous with human suffering – over 22 million people need humanitarian aid, including almost every child in the country.

Saudi Arabia is not the only culprit in Yemen's descent into hell, but it is the most powerful player. While the Houthis are also guilty, nothing justifies the Saudi-led three-year bombing campaign that has destroyed hospitals and schools and killed countless civilians.

Since December's White House call to end the suffering, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out over 860 airstrikes in Yemen - one strike roughly every 100 minutes. More than one-third of these have struck civilians, including markets, farms and schools.

Riyadh has generously pledged almost $1 billion to the UN aid appeal for Yemen. But Saudi Arabia cannot play both arsonist and firefighter. Its behaviour is damaging Saudi and American reputations, without making the region more secure. Instead, Al-Qaeda exploits the chaos to expand its foothold in Yemen, and Iran gains clout.

Saudi Arabia's de facto and longstanding blockade of Yemen's main Hodeidah port is, in spite of recent modifications, still preventing large quantities of food, fuel and medicine from reaching millions of people. Commercial flights to the country's main Sana'a airport have been similarly blocked for over 18 months.

In a country that imports almost 90 per cent of its food and the majority of its medicine, the result has been 8.4 million people pushed to the brink of famine. The resurgence of deadly but preventable diseases, like a million suspected cases of cholera and a frightening diphtheria outbreak, have already reached 22 of Yemen's 23 governorates.

A UN panel of experts recently accused Saudi Arabia of using the threat of starvation as a weapon of war.

Our staff from the International Rescue Committee and the Norwegian Refugee Council work every day to navigate a byzantine set of inspections and impediments to assist communities in desperate need. Just to travel between the country's two main cities, Aden to Sana'a, humanitarian agencies have to pass through more than 70 checkpoints. And spiking fuel prices due to low supply make the drive more expensive than ever. Several major medical suppliers have already stopped direct deliveries to Yemen, forcing organizations like ours to find alternative and complicated arrangements.

President Trump needs to make Saudi conduct in Yemen a priority in his talks. Three concrete steps are essential.

First, Trump must bring Saudi Arabia to its senses: piling human suffering on the people of Yemen is not strategic or defensible. Instead, commercial, civilian and humanitarian supplies need to flow freely to all parts of Yemen. This includes granting visas to aid workers and letting UN inspectors do their jobs. It also means demanding a permanent opening all Red Sea ports to commercial imports. The White House's past efforts that resulted in the blockade's temporary lifting proved half measures at best.

Second, President Trump must publicly commit US support to international efforts to restart peace talks. This includes empowering the new UN Special Envoy, and a new UN Security Council resolution that reflects current conflict dynamics, offers a more realistic framework for negotiations without preconditions, and demands an immediate ceasefire. Without a political settlement, the human suffering will plummet to new depths and continue to overwhelm responders like IRC and NRC.

Finally, Yemen needs more than a war economy. Aid organizations cannot be a substitute. This means replenishing hard currency reserves in Yemen's Central Bank as promised, and paying essential civil servants.

The US has a unique ability to influence Riyadh's actions. There have been some good words, but so far no effect. This is the moment for Saudi Arabia's closest ally to save it from further destruction, and the chaos that follows in its wake.