Yemenis fear a U.S. decision to blacklist the Houthi movement could further isolate them from the global financial system, depriving the war-battered country of vital remittances and hampering the flow of imports.
Yemen’s war and the ensuing economic collapse has left 80% of the population reliant on aid. On Thursday, the United Nations’ aid chief warned that U.S. sanctions would push the country into a famine on a scale not seen for nearly 40 years.
The World Bank estimates one in 10 Yemenis rely on remittances, already down sharply due to the coronavirus pandemic. Severe inflation has put many basic goods out of reach, foreign reserves have dwindled and a divided central bank has struggled to pay public-sector salaries.
“I live in a state of fear. I heard if the American decision is implemented, my brother won’t be able to send money. I will lose my family’s only source of food,” said government employee Ahmed Hassan, 43, who has not received wages for four years.
Yosra Abdullah’s family, who also live in Houthi-controlled northern Yemen, rely on relatives living in Saudi Arabia and the United States to survive.
“If the decision is enacted, it will hit remittances, the family situation will deteriorate,” she told Reuters while shopping at a supermarket in the capital Sanaa.
There was no sign of people rushing to stock up on goods at markets and shops in Sanaa visited by Reuters on Thursday ahead of the designation of the Iran-aligned Houthi group as a foreign terrorist organisation going into effect on Jan. 19.
But many fear trade and commercial operations will be paralysed in a country that imports 90% of its food.
Foreign banks were wary of dealing with Yemen before this designation, which will penalise institutions with links to the United States should they deal with Houthi entities.
“The biggest problem since the conflict began is money transfers into Yemen … We try to get it from some Arab countries, but from Europe it is largely banned,” said Adnan Shiban, who runs a charity kitchen supported by foreign donations. “It will get worse.”
Washington sees the Houthis, who ousted the internationally recognised government from power in Sana in late 2014 and now hold Yemen’s most populated areas, as an extension of Iranian influence in the region. The Houthis deny being puppets of Tehran and say they are fighting a corrupt system.
“IN THE DARK”
The U.N. and NGOs are lobbying Washington to reverse the designation. Neither aid groups nor importers have been informed officially about details of the sanctions or planned measures to ensure essential imports and aid flows.
“We are feeling in the dark,” said a humanitarian worker who declined to be named.
The flow of imports is already painfully slow: once funds and ships are secured, vessels entering Houthi-run Hodeidah port must be cleared by a Djibouti-based U.N. inspection mechanism, and then by the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition that has been battling the Houthis since 2015.
Yemen’s humanitarian response plan for 2020 received half of the $3.38 billion needed and aid agencies fear the designation may further discourage donors.
The head of the World Food Programme warned on Thursday that the Houthi designation “is going to be a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of innocent people in Yemen”.
In a similar vein three three top United Nations officials all called on the United States on Thursday to revoke its decision to designate Yemen’s Houthis a foreign terrorist organization, warning it would push the country into a large-scale famine and chill peace efforts.
U.N. Yemen mediator Martin Griffiths, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock and U.N. food chief David Beasley issued their warnings during a U.N. Security Council meeting on Yemen. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres backed the call by his officials for Washington to reverse the designation, a U.N. spokesman said.
“We fear that there will be inevitably a chilling effect on my efforts to bring the parties together,” Griffiths told the 15-member body. “The decision will contribute to the prospect of famine in Yemen and should be revoked based on humanitarian grounds at the earliest opportunity.”
The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of the people in need of aid. Yemenis fear the U.S. decision could further isolate them from the global financial system.
A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthis. U.N. officials are trying to revive peace talks to end the war as the country’s suffering is also worsened by an economic and currency collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The chief Houthi negotiator told Reuters on Thursday that the group will not walk away from peace talks with the United Nations and Saudi Arabia.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move against the Iran-aligned Houthis on Sunday. It will come into effect on Jan. 19, the last full day in office of President Donald Trump’s administration.
Yemen’s Foreign Minister Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak told the Security Council his government welcomed the U.S. decision.
President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20. The designation could be revoked by Biden’s administration.
“We are struggling now without the designation. With the designation, it’s going to be catastrophic. It literally is going to be a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of innocent people in Yemen,” said Beasley, a former governor of South Carolina.
“This designation – it needs to be reassessed; it needs to be re-evaluated. And quite frankly, it needs to be reversed,” he said.
A Biden transition official said they took note of the Trump administration to designate the Houthis and that “the transition team is reviewing each one, and the incoming administration will render a verdict based exclusively on one criterion: the national interest.”
While the United Nations and aid groups help about a third of Yemen’s 28 million people, Lowcock stressed commercial imports are key to ensuring millions more have access to food.
He said a U.S. plan to issue licenses and exemptions to allow aid agencies to continue working will not prevent a famine in Yemen, which relies almost solely on imports.
“Aid agencies cannot – they simply cannot – replace the commercial import system,” said Lowcock, warning the U.S. decision would push Yemen into a “famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years.”
“What would prevent it? A reversal of the (U.S.) decision,” he said.
Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Mills told the Security Council and the U.N. officials that Washington was listening and the concerns raised “are informing how we approach the designation implementation.”
“But we do believe that this step is the right move forward to send the right signal if we want the political process to move forward,” Mills said.
Several council members raised concerns. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia urged the United States to review its decision.
“This risks not only seriously exacerbating the humanitarian situation in the country, but also undermining U.N. efforts whose aim is to launch negotiations between the warring sides,” Nebenzia told the council.
The designation freezes any U.S.-related assets of the Houthis, bans Americans from doing business with them and makes it a crime to provide support or resources to the movement.
Beasley also raised the alarm on a massive shortfall in aid funding for Yemen. He called on “the Gulf states, the Saudis to pick up the financial tab for the needs inside Yemen because the needs in other parts of the world are so great.”