The business of war: When starvation is cheaper than buying weapons

The business of war: When starvation is cheaper than buying weapons
Comment: The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is blocking fuel deliveries for UN aid planes, and Houthi profiteering from the black market is flourishing, writes Afrah Nasser.
4 min read
09 Aug, 2017
Aid planes must now fly through Djibouti to refuel, costing almost $120,000 more [AFP]
When Houthi forces militarily seized Yemen's capital, Sanaa in 2014, followed by the Saudi-led coalition military campaign in 2015, the kind of gross devastation about to hit the already poorest Arab nation was predictable. 

Less clear, however, was how the two warring sides would form an intentional plan to create and/or exploit, today's largest humanitarian crisis and the world's largest cholera outbreak since records began.

What we do know today, is that the humanitarian crisis is intentional, deliberately caused by all warring sides, and what international humanitarians call a "man-made disaster".

Almost three years into this long war, the Saudi-led coalition, in particular, is realising that military force is not yielding their intended victory, and instead, is using access to humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, blocking deliveries to those most in need.

Recently, a top UN officer pointed out how the coalition is blocking fuel for UN planes engaged in humanitarian work. "We face logistic hurdles when it comes to the facilitation of the workfare... on the question of jet fuel, at the moment we have two flights going to Sanaa, one from Amman and one from Djibouti," said Auke Lootsma, UNDP country director for Yemen.

Speaking via video-link at the United Nations office in New York, he stated that "at the moment there is no jet fuel available in Sanaa and jet fuel has to be imported through the port of Aden but we have difficulties obtaining permission from the coalition and the government of Yemen to transfer this jet fuel to Sanaa to facilitate these flights." 

Obstructing aid delivery in Yemen should have caused a global outrage

Lootsma was unable to explain why the coalition is denying permission if the fuel was for destined for humanitarian flights. Instead, he emphasised that the move is, "greatly extending the cost of the humanitarian operations because now we have to fly through Djibouti to refuel and then get into Sanaa and that on a monthly basis costs almost $120,000 extra to maintain those flights".

Obstructing aid delivery in Yemen should have caused a global outrage as the Saudi-led coalition is breaching international humanitarian law in armed conflicts by wilfully impeding relief supplies. 

Human Rights Watch says that "under international humanitarian law, parties to a conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartially distributed humanitarian aid to the population in need".

Read more: 'A catastrophe will hit whole country': Yemeni blood bank to close over lack of money

Lootsma's testimony clearly states that impeding relief supplies is one of the war tactics used in the conflict, and references the role of the Saudi-led coalition in turning the humanitarian relief delivery operation into a battlefield.

Yemen's economy was crumbling even before the war began. The country was importing 90 percent of its food supplies; a logistical weakness the coalition is well-aware of.

Now, humanitarian relief is being used as a pressure card to force the Houthis into submission. Notably, Saudi-led airstrikes are decreasing (in relative terms) after the three-year long war.

The coalition is now realising that starvation as a weapon of war is much less costly

While the Saudi-led coalition arms deals to enhance its military capacity used to cost billions of dollars, the coalition is now realising that starvation as a weapon of war is a much less costly and effective killing method than the airstrikes.

The Houthis, however, have also exploited the delays in the delivery of relief by contributing to a thriving black market in which food and medicine supplies are smuggled into the country and sold at soaring, sometimes exorbitant prices. They have devised economic tricks to exploit the deteriorating economic situation: Some civil servants have not received their salaries for almost a year now, and the food coupons they are issued with can only be used at Houthi-affiliated shops where prices are set well above the usual. Clearly, the Houthis have masterfully turned the humanitarian crisis into a business.

The latest statistics from the UN say that about 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen's war since it began in 2015. Many deaths were initially caused by starvation, but now disease, including cholera, is also responsible.

The warring sides' wilful actions to impede relief deliveries or lead war profiteering is, without doubt, drastically increasing fatalities. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is partially a consequence of the war, but in large part is due to the warring sides' desire to manipulate it to their best interests. International bodies must denounce these actions, and mount a serious and immediate effort to facilitate access for humanitarian operations.

Afrah Nasser is a multi-award winning Yemeni freelance writer and blogger focusing on human rights violations, based in Sweden since May 2011. 

She blogs at:

Follow her on Twitter:@Afrahnasser

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.