Saudi Arabia needs to take on a greater humanitarian burden in the Yemen crisis

Yemen, an unloved country, is one of the largest global humanitarian emergencies in the world, with over 22 million in need of immediate humanitarian assistance while 8.5 million face famine. The situation is getting worse, with the number of people facing famine expected to rise to 10 million. Yemen, where the population has a median age of 19 years, could turn into an Afghan-sized security problem for the United States if the conflict drags on because its population could radicalize.

The United States and its allies need to burden share on the immediate humanitarian challenges. Saudi Arabia, which has been generous, should bear an even greater share in meeting the cost of humanitarian aid. Additionally, given the emergency and the risks of radicalization, the United States should consider if supporting this war is in our interest.

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With a predominantly Arab population of over 28 million, the society has two major ethnic groups: the Sunnis (65 percent of the population, concentrated mainly in the south and southeast) and the Shias (35 percent of the population, who dominate the politics of the north and northwest). The major ethnic groups have had a history of long-drawn-out tribal-political tensions. Beginning in 1962, Yemen existed as North and South Yemen. In 1990, it was reunified and led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Vice President Ali Salim al-Baid. Saleh’s roots were in North Yemen, and al-Baid had strong ties to South Yemen – so a 1994 presidential election between the two quickly became a contest between the ethnic factions. The result was the 1994 Yemeni Civil War, which ended in a decisive victory for the northern camp and gave the presidency to Saleh.

Since the 2000s, the northern areas of Yemen witnessed the spread of Salafism, a revivalist movement within Sunni Islam. The spread of this movement has been a driving force for the emergence of the Houthis – a militant Shiite Muslim group that is opposed to the Yemeni government. The Houthis, who have targeted U.S. citizens in the past, are led by several individuals who have been designated as terrorists by the United States.

Houthis enjoy the political support of Iran and receive weapons from Iran.

As the Houthi movement escalated (and with increased militancy in the country), Saudi Arabia led an intervention in 2014. It is this intervention that has exacerbated the protracted humanitarian crisis in the region. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has received limited military support from the United States in the form of aerial refueling, intelligence sharing, and weapons supply. U.S. allies such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK have also provided logistical support to the Saudi-led forces, facilitating their fight against the Houthis.

The Yemen civil war has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Currently, Yemen is sealed off from the world as Saudi-led forces have put blockades in place at major ports. Air travel has been severely restricted since 2010, as Saudi Arabia controls the Yemeni airspace. The Houthis, in the meantime, control the capital, Sana’a, and key provinces.

Billions in humanitarian and other assistance have been spent. Recently, the World Bank provided immediate economic assistance to the tune of $900 million, to address famine, public health, and food security concerns.

The conflict and the suffering do not get the attention they deserve because of a virtual media blackout. Saudi Arabia controls all flights in and out and keeps a close eye on who is traveling, making it very difficult for journalists to operate.

Meanwhile, senior officials in the United States government are reconsidering their handling of the crisis, particularly since the Saudi-forces bombed a school bus killing 40 Yemeni children. The Pentagon has already withdrawn its support for aerial refueling. That said, the United States does not want Yemen to become an Iranian satellite state as the result of a possible Houthi victory. With 61 percent of its population under the age of 25, there is a concern that a widespread famine in a highly militarized society could result in the long-term radicalization of portions of Yemen’s population.

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Last year, the United States covered a significant portion of the humanitarian funding and paid $612 million in response to a $2 billion humanitarian appeal for Yemen from the United Nations.

Saudi Arabia and UAE pledged $1 billion. Given Saudi Arabia’s interests and stakes and the fact their actions are making the crisis worse, leaving millions of people in famine conditions and many more displaced, the Kingdom should pay a much more significant portion of the humanitarian expenses.

With the cost of humanitarian aid expected to rise to as much as $4 billion, the Saudis should be covering at least half and perhaps even more through contributions to independent international NGOs, the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, and various UN aid agencies.

Moreover, the oil-rich kingdom, which is working on resolving its ongoing public-relations challenges since the death of well-known journalist Jamal Khashoggi, should see the upcoming UN humanitarian appeal for Yemen as a down-payment to help clean up its image.

Daniel Runde is a Senior Vice President and William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.