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

A group of Senate Democrats said the Biden administration should use the influence of military cooperation and arms sales to pressure Saudi Arabia to end its blockade tactics in ravaged Yemen by war.

“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 the United States. President Joe Biden in a letter provided to Al-Monitor.

The letter, which was chaired by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, said that failure to allow the unhindered delivery of food, fuel and other humanitarian aid through the Hodeidah-controlled port of Houthi “should have a direct impact on our relations with Saudi Arabia. “

Sources of leverage with Riyadh, senators wrote, include “pending arms sales, military cooperation, maintenance of warplanes and spare parts, as well as US-Saudi relations more broadly.”

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

But aid organizations say the blockade tactics of the Saudi-led military coalition 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, exacerbating food insecurity for the estimated 80% of Yemen’s population who depend on humanitarian aid for their survival.

The hunger crisis is particularly severe this year, with the United Nations estimating that more than 16 million Yemenis will go hungry and nearly 50,000 live in famine conditions.

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

Since June 2020, tankers have been subject to further restrictions by 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, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said the Yemeni government had not allowed a single commercial fuel vessel to dock at the port of Hodeidah since January. The government finally approved the entry of four tankers later in March, followed by three more in April, but aid agencies say much more fuel is needed to breach the humanitarian crisis in the north. from Yemen.

U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking on May 20 urged warring parties in Yemen to ensure access to commercial goods and vital humanitarian supplies, telling reporters that the United States opposes “any restriction on the movement of goods in Yemen ”.

In March, Saudi Arabia presented a ceasefire plan that included reopening Sana’a airport to some destinations and resuming food and fuel imports at the port of Hodeidah. The Houthis, who ousted the government from Sana’a in 2014 and now control most of northern Yemen, have claimed the proposal does not go far enough to lift what they describe as a siege.

Many progressive activists and humanitarian organizations say that the issue of the blockade should be dissociated from the ceasefire negotiations.

“Yemen cannot wait,” said Aisha Jumaan, president of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. “To condition the lifting of the blockade on long negotiations between the warring parties is unethical because it holds civilians hostage and risks their lives,” she told Al-Monitor.

Meanwhile, the Houthis are trying to take control of Marib, the last stronghold of the Saudi-backed government in the north. The UN has warned of “unimaginable humanitarian consequences” and the risk that hundreds of thousands of people will 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 the Hadi government likely view import controls as one of their only real sources of leverage against the Houthis.

“From the point of view of the government and Saudi Arabia, if they do these things unilaterally without having a ceasefire as part of the process – even if it happens in parallel – they will discuss the chances of the Houthis make a truce before they have taken. Marib is extremely thin, ”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 by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to promote accountability for actions that undermine peace efforts. .

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