The U.N. has warned for more than two years that Yemen is a step away from famine. The World Food Programme estimates that the number of people needing aid has risen to 20 million this year, or more than two-thirds of the population, compared with 17 million in 2016. Yemen is starving because it is a battleground in a political struggle in the Middle East and a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and its allies entered the war in Yemen to counter Houthi fighters, a Shi'ite group backed by Iran. The U.N. Security Council effectively supported Saudi Arabia by imposing an arms embargo on the Houthi fighters; it said Yemen-bound vessels could be inspected if there were "reasonable grounds" to suspect they were carrying arms. International aid groups grew concerned about the effects of the Saudi blockade in early 2015, shortly after the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Senegal, entered Yemen's civil war. Container shipments to Hodeida in 2015 fell to about 40 percent of their pre-war volume. Even after the U.N. grants clearances, all commercial ships have to get approval from a Saudi-managed warship stationed 61 km west of Hodeida port.
The Kota Nazar, a Singaporean ship with 636 containers of steel, paper, medicine and other goods, set sail to Hodeida, the largest cargo port in Yemen. It never got there. Like dozens of other ships carrying food and supplies to Yemen over the past 30 months, the
Kota Nazar was stopped by a Saudi Arabian warship blocking Yemen's ports. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have been stationing naval forces in and around Yemeni waters since 2015. Western governments approved the show of military force as a way to stop arms reaching Houthi fighters trying to overthrow Yemen's internationally recognized government. The Kota Nazar had obtained U.N. clearance to sail to Hodeida in late December. But naval officers from the Saudi warship stopped and boarded it. The officers suspected that the ship carried concealed Iranian arms destined for the Houthi fighters. They ordered the Kota Nazar back to Djibouti, its previous stop. There, the vessel's crew offloaded 62 containers the coalition deemed suspicious, allowing the ship to set sail again for Hodeida in January. Then the Saudi-led coalition insisted on another inspection. Three days later, the U.N. ordered the vessel to sail to Jizan, Saudi Arabia. In Jizan, local authorities and two U.N. inspectors offloaded every container aboard the vessel and X-rayed them. They held back 27 containers with cargo they said could be used in the Yemeni military conflict. The contents included bullet-cartridge belts, as well as iron pipes, welding electrodes, motorcycle parts and other manufactured goods. In Djibouti, U.N. and local officials searched the containers the ship had left behind. They found rolled steel in nearly half of the containers and printing paper in others. Two containers carried refrigerated medicine.
In the end, the Kota Nazar could not obtain clearance to sail to Hodeida. It sailed instead to Aden, a southern port under the government's control. Aid and commercial cargo that land in Aden must cross hundreds of checkpoints on the road north to Houthi-held regions, a dangerous and expensive journey. After that incident, PIL cancelled all future voyages to Hodeida and other Houthi-held ports in the Red Sea. The world's second-biggest container shipping line, Swiss-based MSC, has also faced challenges with its journeys. One of MSC's vessels, the Himanshi, was delayed for two months in summer 2016 when it attempted to sail to Hodeida, according to the WFP and the unpublished U.N. report. The Himanshi was carrying 722 containers of goods, of which 93 held food and other aid cargo. The coalition held back the vessel in the Red Sea for 13 days until the U.N. directed it to the King Abdullah Port in Saudi Arabia. A lot of the cargo we carry in this region has a limited shelf life. For example, foodstuffs and chilled or frozen food," an MSC spokesperson said.
Other shipments have been blocked, although they contained no arms. Earlier this year, the coalition turned back four cranes the United States donated to the World Food Programme to boost aid operations at Hodeida port. The cranes would have replaced parts of the port's infrastructure destroyed by coalition airstrikes in August 2015. In January, the WFP sent the cranes on a ship to Hodeida. But the Saudi-led coalition revoked the clearance it had issued earlier that month and blocked the vessel. The ship waited at sea for 10 days before eventually sailing back to Dubai, where the cranes remain.
The blockade is exacting a dire humanitarian toll. The Saudi-led coalition's ships are preventing essential supplies from entering Yemen, even in cases where vessels are carrying no weapons, according to a confidential United Nations report and interviews with humanitarian agencies and shipping lines. A U.N. system set up in May 2016 to ease delivery of commercial goods through the blockade has failed to ensure the Yemeni people get the supplies they need.
The result is the effective isolation of Yemen, a nation of 28 million people where a quarter of the population is starving, according to the United Nations. Yemen imports more than 85 percent of its food and medicine, and commercial shipments have plunged. In the first eight months of this year, only 21 container ships sailed to Hodeida. By comparison, 54 container ships delivered twice the volume of goods in the same period last year. Before the war, 129 container ships reached the port in the first eight months of 2014. Food and medicine are being choked off. No commercial shipment of pharmaceuticals has made its way to Hodeida since a Saudi-led airstrike destroyed the port's industrial cranes in August 2015.
In the cases of the Kota Nazar and 12 other ships examined in detail by Reuters, the Saudi-led blockade turned away or severely delayed vessels carrying aid and commercial goods before they reached Yemeni ports even though the United Nations had cleared the cargo and there were no arms aboard. Seven of those vessels were carrying medicine and food in addition to other supplies. One of the seven vessels was carrying antibiotics, surgical equipment and medication for cholera and malaria for 300,000 people. The shipment was held up for three months, during which $20,000 worth of medicine was damaged or expired, according to U.K.-based aid group Save the Children.
In July, four oil tankers carrying 71,000 tonnes of fuel, equivalent to 10 percent of Yemen's monthly fuel needs, were denied entry. Two were allowed in after five weeks. Yemen's internationally recognized government notified the United Nations that it had closed a rebel-held oil port due to its "illegal status" and "damage to the marine environment." The government is also diverting all vessels carrying cement and iron to the Yemeni port of Aden, which is under its control,
Human Rights Watch said that the Saudi-led coalition "arbitrarily diverted or delayed" seven fuel tankers headed to Houthi-controlled ports between May and September this year. In one case, a vessel was held in a Saudi port for more than five months.
As a result of the blockade, there have been no commercial flights to Sanaa, Yemen's capital, since last summer. And two of the world's biggest container shipping lines — Swiss-based MSC and Singapore-based PIL — stopped sailing to Houthi-held ports in early 2017, because of the delays and dangers involved. PIL has not yet resumed services.
In a confidential report submitted to the Security Council in April, U.N. investigators detailed many of the delays ships have faced getting through the blockade. In one case, a shipping company's vessels waited 396 days to dock at Hodeida, incurring $5.5 million in fuel and refrigeration costs. The U.N. report also said that the coalition of Saudi Arabia and its allies takes an average of 10 days to grant vessels permission to dock at Hodeida even when the vessels are not delayed. The U.N. Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) in at least two private correspondences with U.N. member states and aid agencies this year, voiced frustration that the Saudi-led coalition stopped or delayed vessels they had cleared. One internal UNVIM report from March said the coalition had delayed six vessels, which were later granted access "after continuous liaison and effort."
Saudi Arabia has never formally drawn a line beyond which ships are not allowed to sail. It has not published a list of goods and materials covered by its restrictions. But it says it has the right "to take all appropriate measures to counter the threats" from Iran-supported rebels.
"Yemen is a catastrophic case. It is the man-made conflict that is driving hunger and driving the conditions for famine. Simple as that," said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme. "If we end the war, we will end the starvation."