Four months after Saudi Arabia pledged to donate $274 million to the United Nations to fully cover an emergency humanitarian appeal for Yemeni civilians desperately hungry for food, medicine and water, the money has not materialized, the UN has said. The country is under siege by a local rebel group, the Houthis, who are being counterattacked by a Saudi-led air coalition to stop the revolt.
But on Aug. 24, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, said in an interview with PassBlue that his country was “ready to disperse a large portion” of the $274 million pledge — “I don’t know exactly how much” — as part of an arrangement in which his country would sign several agreements with the various UN organizations involved, “and we simply await for them to be as forthcoming as we are.”
“We’re ready, whenever the UN is ready,” he added, noting that “no strings were attached.”
In response, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), the agency that was to receive the money for distribution, said through a spokeswoman, “We welcome any funding to meet the very serious humanitarian needs in Yemen.”
Last week, Stephen O’Brien, the new head of Ocha, emphasized to the UN Security Council that “UN agencies have still not received the funding from Saudi Arabia of $274 million pledged in April.”
“I have just returned from Yemen, where the scale of human suffering is almost incomprehensible,” O’Brien added on Aug. 19. “I was shocked by what I saw. The civilian population is bearing the brunt of the conflict. . . . “
Saudi Arabia has been leading an aerial assault since late March against the Houthis, an indigenous rebel group based in northern Yemen. The Saudis began their bombardment to help Yemen’s government forces restore President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi, in exile in Saudi Arabia, to power. Repeated calls for cease-fires by the UN, apparently agreed-upon by Saudi Arabia, have failed.
Saudi Arabia contends that an offer for a 15-day cease-fire is “on the table,” Mouallimi said, as long as the Houthis “immediately implement” a UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to the violence in Yemen, particularly acts perpetrated by the Houthis. Their leader, Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, is not only young, born in 1982, but has never been out of the country, a UN official noted.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East; its direct neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, is one of the richest in the world. Even before the war, nearly 16 million Yemenis — 61 percent of the country — were estimated to require humanitarian aid, according to the UN.
Since the Saudis’ bombing of Yemen, 4,300 people — at least half of them civilians — have been killed, 19,000 have been injured and 1.3 million displaced. The United States has been providing logistical and informational support to the Saudi campaign.
Children are suffering considerably from the violence. The UN estimates that 850,000 children in Yemen, a country of 26 million, face acute malnutrition, and that eight children have been killed daily since the bombardment. Almost seven million people have received assistance from the UN since April.
The pledge of $274 million by the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, was announced in April, when he said that his country would “stand fully by the brotherly people of Yemen.”
The money never arrived. Instead in May, a new Saudi government entity was created, the King Salman Foundation Center for Relief and Humanitarian Works, to receive and disperse pledges. So far, a separate pledge of $266 million for Yemen has been donated to the center by the Saudis. The Saudi ambassador to the UN said that the money was being distributed by the center to pay for supplies, food and medical equipment for Yemenis. “That started many weeks ago.”
“We have made two separate pledges, one for $274 million, which is to be channeled via UN and its various organizations, and the other is about $266 million, channeled to the center,” Mouallimi said.
Of the $274 million, he said, it had been originally agreed on with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that the money would be fed through the King Salman center to the UN, entailing that the Saudis sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Ocha that would “spell out the details of how this money would be made available, what kind reporting was required, what kind of information would be needed.”
But Ocha then apparently told the Saudis that MoUs needed to be signed with various UN agencies individually, such as the World Food Program, Mouallimi said, adding “that was their decision; and it was for administrative and bureaucratic reasons — namely these organizations felt they were independent organizations and not represented by Ocha, even though Ocha takes a supervisory role and coordinating role.”
“You can imagine getting to sign multiple MoUs is more complex and time consuming than signing a single MoU, which had already been discussed and agreed with Ocha,” Mouallimi added. “And some of the organizations wanted to include additional conditions and demands in their MoUs, which go beyond the basic understanding that had already been reached with Ocha,” causing delay to the disbursements.
“We are prepared to sign numerous MoUs, guided by the UN,” he reiterated. “Our preference was to sign, but the UN insisted on multiple MoUs.”
Mouallimi added that no conditions were attached to the pledges: “I want to assure you that nothing in the discussions that we are having is related to any restrictions on our part as to where the aid would go or who would benefit from this aid. We want this aid to go anywhere it is needed in Yemen.”
Donations from a range of parties, including governments, to the UN’s humanitarian agency network for Yemen stand at about $534 million as of Aug. 24, with about $450 million outstanding. Of those pledges by governments, among others, about $96 million is due from Kuwait and $274 million from Saudi Arabia.
The lack of a cease-fire in Yemen combined with the missing pledged money from Saudi Arabia have infuriated Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, a UN official close to the topic said. The US appears to have thrown up its arms in frustration over the determination of Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi defense minister (a son of the Saudi king, born in 1985) to “win” the war and ignore US advice on resolving the conflict peacefully, the UN official added.
This official noted that three of the permanent-five members of the UN Security Council — France, Russia and the US — are selling or planning to sell weapons to the Saudi kingdom. American-made weapons are being used by Saudi Arabia in its attacks on Yemen. Given that the permanent-five members are called on to decide the fate of Yemeni people through Security Council mandates (or lack of mandates), their objectivity could be compromised, the official suggested.
Saudi Arabia jumped to fourth place (after the US, China and Russia) among the 15-biggest spenders on weapons in the world in 2014, having increased its military spending by 17 percent last year, said the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), investing $81 billion.
A recent report in Reuters said that possible Saudi purchases of Russian arms were discussed at a meeting of the countries’ foreign ministers, before a planned visit by the Saudi king to Moscow.
Saudi Arabia is also part of a U.S.-led regional coalition conducting airstrikes on the Islamic State insurgency in Syria and in Iraq.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.