Saudi Arabia to co-host UN fundraising summit for Yemen

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic Editor
Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Saudi Arabia, one of the main belligerents in the five-year Yemen civil war, will for the first time act as the co-host of a United Nations humanitarian fund raising summit for Yemen. The virtual summit fund is hoping to raise $2.4bn (£1.9bn) in the second half of the year and stave off the twin threat of famine and coronavirus.

The virtual summit comes as the UN warns Yemen’s health system is buckling under the strain and major aid programs are being cut.

Saudi Arabia, repeatedly accused of war crimes in Yemen, has also been the main donor to the UN relief operation in Yemen, providing $15bn over the past five years.

The UN had been hoping that 2020 would start to see a decline in the need for aid as peace talks led to the conflict subsiding through the war torn country. 

Instead, aid agencies are now confronting the twin threat of continued fighting and a largely unmonitored spread of coronavirus. Nearly 30 of the 41 US aid agency programs are set to close without additional funding, an alliance of UN aid agencies warned in a joint statement on Thursday.

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said the United Nations received nearly $4bn last year for Yemen, but so far in 2020 it has only received $698m. Saudi Arabia pledged $525m nearly two months ago, but Lowcock said he hoped Riyadh would pay this sum in full soon. He has warned that “nowhere else on earth will coronavirus spread faster, more widely, with deadlier consequences”.

The UK announced ahead of the pledging summit that it will provide a further £160m for this year, taking its total aid to Yemen to £970m.

Related: 'People are very afraid': Yemen faces spectre of coronavirus amid aid cuts

Jon Cunliffe, regional director for Action against Hunger in the Middle East, said: “It is a bitter irony that some of the biggest donors at the event will be countries that continue to fuel this conflict either as a direct participant or as a supplier of arms. 

“It isn’t enough to just throw money at the problem, we need to see concrete evidence that governments are genuinely committed to a political solution. Saudi Arabia’s depth of influence will be far more important than the depth of its pockets if the goal is to ease the suffering of the Yemeni people.”

Yemen has been gripped by a war between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that have captured the country’s capital Sana’a and control most of the north, bordering Saudi Arabia. The UN-recognised, Saudi-backed government, already weakened by Houthi advances, has been undermined still further by a split in its own ranks leading to the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) taking control in the southern port of Aden, and some other parts of the south.

The delivery of aid – already difficult due to the growing restrictions imposed by the warring parties – has become even more complex with the spread of coronavirus, and the withdrawal of many aid workers.

Related: Crisis in Yemen as Aden separatists declare self-rule

Official figures indicate that Covid-19 cases have been confirmed in 10 of the country’s 22 governorates, even though the total number of recorded deaths is officially only 65. But the STC in a statement at the weekend said there were “dozens of civilian deaths daily”, and warned the crisis is likely to spread across the southern governorates.

David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, one of the main aid agencies said: “Yemen has the lowest testing ability of any country where we work, with a case fatality ratio of 24.7%, almost four times the global average. Covid-19 cases were likely spreading and misdiagnosed in February, and now, we are seeing the results of a war-torn country’s inability to stop a global pandemic from wreaking even more havoc on its people.”

Oxfam Yemen warned of a collapse in remittances back to Yemen due to the impact of coronavirus in the West. One in ten people in Yemen depend on remittances to survive.