OVERSHADOWED by its geopolitical dimensions, the conflict in Yemen has created a humanitarian catastrophe the world seems not to have taken notice of. Millions in the Arab world’s poorest country are unable to get relief from international agencies because of the Saudi blockade and widespread fighting. Since Riyadh has partially lifted the blockade, some aid does indeed enter Yemen, but it is a trickle. By a rough estimate, close to three-fourths of Yemenis are in need of help, with 8.4m people on the verge of starvation. Overall, by UN estimates, 22m people are desperately in need of some kind of help. Even worse is the condition of the sick, especially children, since all Yemeni ports are not open to commercial ships or even to UN aid organisations, thus denying food, medical supplies and fuel to the distressed. The non-availability of medicines has led to an outbreak of cholera, considered the worst in modern times, with over 2, 000 dead since it broke out in April this year. Diphtheria, too, has been detected in 18 of Yemen’s 22 administrative districts, and doctors fear a rapid rise in fatalities if lifesaving drugs remain out of the reach of the medical community. Unicef has airlifted 6m vaccines for children, but this is peanuts compared to the enormity of the challenge.

An end to the Yemeni people’s misery doesn’t seem to be in sight because the peace dialogue remains deadlocked. Seven agreements on ceasefire have failed, and there is no indication yet that either side is willing to show flexibility. All that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres did at a recent news conference in Riyadh was to express cynicism and called for the talks to be “resurrected”. Last month, three UN relief organisations declared that the partial lifting of the blockade was not enough and that unless Riyadh ended it completely, 150,000 malnourished children could face death. Oman, which is not part of the Saudi-led coalition, is trying to make the Saudis and Houthis agree on demilitarising the port of Hodeida, but there is no word yet on when the negotiators will meet. Riyadh suspects that ending the blockade will enable the Iran-backed Houthis to import arms. Unless Riyadh and Tehran subordinate their geopolitical aims to the interests of the Yemeni people there is little possibility of peace in the region.

Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2017

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