Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s possible unification of power risks provoking an already catastrophic humanitarian change in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting a rebellious group with ties to Iran for more than two years.
On Sunday, soon after bringing out a purge of royal relative and other high-ranking officials, an invigorated crown prince announced that the coalition would effectively close all of Yemen’s ground, air and sea seaport.
The move came after the Houthi militia fired a ballistic missile at the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The Saudi-led coalition had already barred access to Yemen’s ports, but a complete closure has long been formidable as a potential trigger for widespread famine.
A Saudi-led coalition arbitrated in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 after the Houthis took control of the capital city of Sanaa. Since then, the coalition has broken much of Yemen’s economy and infrastructure. Mohammed is broadly seen as the architect of the coalition’s rude in Yemen.
Around 7 million Yemenis are now on the verge of famine, according to aid agencies, and 10 million more do not know where they will obtain their next meal. Cholera is growing uncontrollably, with more than 800,000 cases reported and scares that the number will cross a million by year’s end. More than 10,000 civilians have been killed, many by coalition airstrikes.
“The idea of even more restrictions in Yemen is a cause for leading concern,” said Scott Paul, a senior humanitarian policy adviser at Oxfam who has worked in Yemen. “This could be a glitch, but it could also be a sea change.”
Saudi Arabia says its newest controls are aimed at securing its archrival Iran from supplying the Houthis with weapons. Iran has categorically denied arming the Houthis, who say their Volcano-variant ballistic missiles are produced in Yemen. The Saudis brought down the missile fired toward Riyadh on Sunday, and no disasters were reported.
Saudi Arabia’s move might easily be a public admonition to Iran after Sunday’s tried rocket attack. But some humanitarian officials defined it as the latest example of Riyadh imposing a unified punishment on Yemenis while attempting to break the Houthis. Despite having an arsenal of weaponry purchased mostly from the United States, the Saudis are essentially fighting a war of erosion against the Houthis.
Aid organizations say the port closings could be a way to pit Houthi fighters against civilians in fields they control, forcing a fight over limited food supplies. Higher food prices would also force the Houthis to spend more money on food than weapons. It could also conceivably be a way to clear traffic from Yemen’s most basic seaport, Hodeida, before a military rude to wrest it from the Houthis. Hodeida is the entry point for most humanitarian aid headed to the Houthi-controlled north.
Food is available in most Yemeni markets, but the Saudi barricade has made supplying it costly for importers. As a result, most Yemenis cannot manage the food that is available. Humanitarian aid is a lifeline for at least three-quarters of the nations’s population.
Yemen’s main airport, in Sanaa, has been closed for more than a year by the Saudi-led coalition. Aid organizations say more people have died because of those curbs than have been killed by coalition airstrikes.
“Denial of access to travel has convicted thousands of Yemenis with survivable illnesses to death,” Mutasim Hamdan, the country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Yemen, said in a statement last month. “Beyond airstrikes and cholera, the war in Yemen is destructive Yemeni lives on all fronts.”