Yemen war: conflict between Saudi Arabia and Houthis explained and how much UK spends on humanitarian aid

Humanitarian groups have criticised the government for continuing ‘to shamelessly fuel the war in Yemen by selling arms to Saudi Arabia’

The Government has been accused of being “deeply complicit” in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen through the supply of weapons, after a minister announced a reduced aid contribution at an international summit on the conflict this week.

Amanda Milling, minister for Asia and the Middle East,  has also been criticised for failing to condemn airstrikes on civilian targets in Yemen carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, which has received billions worth of arms and technical support from the UK.

How much does the UK spend on aid in Yemen?

A Conservative MP told delegates from across the world at the Yemen Humanitarian Pledging Conference on Wednesday (16 March) that “we all have a responsibility” to help the people of Yemen.

Ms Milling, a foreign office minister and former Conservative Party chair, went on to highlight the UK’s aid contributions, totalling “more than one billion pounds… since the start of the conflict”.

She said: “We all have a responsibility to help the millions of people in Yemen who are desperately in need. Next week, the conflict enters its eighth year.

“The humanitarian situation - as we have heard - is incredibly bleak. It is the worst ever, and likely to get worse.

“We have provided more than one billion pounds in aid to Yemen since the start of the conflict. Over the course of our coming financial year, we will provide at least 88 million pounds more.”

The contribution mentioned by Milling of £88m for 2022/2023 represents a sizable reduction on the previous year, when the UK provided £214m.

Samuel Perlo-Freeman, Research Director at the Campaign Against Arms Trade, pointed to comments from former government ministers that the aid cut would “condemn Yemeni children to starvation”.

He said: “The Yemen aid pledging conference on Wednesday fell disastrously short of its target at a time when 5 million people in Yemen are facing imminent famine.

“The UK government boasts of its aid to Yemen, but its £88 million contribution in 2021/22 is well under half of the £214m donated in 2020/21 - a cut which former Conservative ministers said would condemn Yemeni children to starvation.”

The conference, held to secure further support in the face of a dire humanitarian crisis, went on to fall far short of the $4.3bn (£3.3bn) fundraising target, with just $1.3bn (£990m) raised in donor pledges.

The United States and the UK were among the highest contributors, although both nations have also been accused of fuelling the conflict by the supply of arms and technical support to the Saudi-led coalition.

Despite previously being top contributors to the fund, neither Saudi Arabia or the UAE pledged any amount at the conference.

Since 2015, the published value of UK arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia, for equipment including the aircraft and bombs used to attack Yemen, is £7 billion, or £8.4 billion including to other countries in the coalition such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

However, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade estimates that the real value of sales to the Coalition since the beginning of the war is over £22 billion.

This is partly because many arms export licences are published without financial information, and also because the ongoing costs of maintenance and training are not included in this figure.

In July, the UK government resumed issuing licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia, reversing a 2019 decision.

At the time, the Government said “there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”.

Despite widely reported incidents during the intervening period, speaking in Parliament in a debate on the Yemen crisis in February 2021, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said: "The United Kingdom takes its arms export licensing responsibilities very seriously.

“We will not issue any export licences for items where there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

He added: “Every licence application is rigorously assessed against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria.”

Human Rights organisations have criticised the Government’s “deadly double standards” and called for a halt on all arms sales and technical support to the Saudi-led coalition.

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch said: “Despite acknowledging that only a ceasefire and sustainable peace can end the humanitarian crisis, the UK Government continues to shamelessly fuel the war in Yemen by selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

“These arms have contributed to the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians and have wreaked devastation among those who remain.

“In one breath the Government is pledging millions to address the humanitarian crisis and in another it refuses to halt millions of pounds worth of arms sales that propel this crisis.

“If the UK is genuinely committed to the people and future of Yemen, it must end this deadly double standard immediately.”

What has been the reaction to UK’s role in Yemen conflict?

The Government has also been criticised for failing to condemn attacks on civilians carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, while at the same time condemning those by Houthi forces.

Speaking at the conference on Wednesday, Milling said that “ultimately, only a ceasefire and sustainable peace can end the humanitarian crisis”.

She said: “We condemn the continued Houthi cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and urge all sides to engage in serious dialogue to end the conflict.

“I call on all parties to engage constructively with the UN Special Envoy’s consultations.”

Mr Perlo-Freeman said that by failing to condemn Saudi air strikes the government is effectively giving the coalition forces a ‘green light’.

He said: “The UK government condemns Houthi attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but has not a word to say on Saudi air strikes which killed 139 Yemeni civilians in January and injured 287 more.

“This included an attack on a detention centre that killed 91 civilians, and another that completely cut Yemen off from the internet for four days.

“By failing to condemn these atrocities, the UK gives the green light to Saudi Arabia to continue them, as it continues to provide the bombs, missiles, and support and maintenance to the Saudi Air Force that make them possible.

He added: “The UK government is deeply complicit in the slaughter in Yemen and the resulting humanitarian catastrophe, and a paltry £88m in aid does not change this.”

Last month, the UK’s ambassador to the UN was criticised for describing the conflict in similar terms, and focusing solely on attacks carried out by the Houthis.

Addressing the UN general assembly, Barbara Woodward said: “The UK condemns in the strongest terms the Houthis’ repeated terror attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, against Yemenis and Yemen’s neighbours.”

Will the UK proscribe the Houthis as a terror group?

Humanitarian organisations have raised concerns about pressure being brought to bear on Western governments by Saudia Arabia and to proscribe the Houthis as a terror organisation, as they say this would have disastrous consequences for civilians on the ground.

There have been reports that the UK, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is considering proscribing the Houthis as a terror organisation.

As a major exporter in global energy markets, the UAE and other oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia could look to benefit from the Western nations’ move away from reliance on Russian gas, prompted by the war in Ukraine.

Boris Johnson met with the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates Mohammed bin Zayed al Nayhan, in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

According to a UK government press release, the pair discussed the need to bolster the “strong security, defence and intelligence cooperation” between the nations, in response to “growing global threats… including from the Houthis in Yemen”.

Donald Trump took the decision to proscribe the Houthis as one of his last foreign policy moves as US President in 2020.

Although the Biden administration overturned the decision not long after entering office, there have been reports that the US is now considering reverting back to a policy of proscription for the group.

Speaking to NationalWorld, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said it is “understandable” that Yemen’s neighbours are frustrated with the Houthis.

“But to take this frustration out on millions of civilians,” he said, “especially women and children who are the real victims of the war, is wrong, immoral and counter-productive.”

“Proscribing the Houthis - ie declaring them a terrorist group - risks pouring a great cold chill over the willingness of commercial food providers, shippers, insurers and bankers to bring food into the country.

“The vast majority of food comes in commercially – aid agencies then provide people with cash or vouchers so they can acquire it. No food coming in rapidly turns into mass starvation in the circumstances Yemen faces.

“What Yemen needs is more humanitarian assistance, not the collective punishment of the innocent".

Speaking to the international aid trade publication Devex, a source at the Foreign Office said: “We are clear that re-proscription [of the Houthis by the U.S. and U.K.] would be a disaster.

“[Her Majesty’s Government] as a whole understands the serious consequences of designation.”

A second FCDO source told Devex that the Home Office was “very unpredictable” but that it would ultimately be a ministerial decision.

“The government does not routinely comment on whether or not an organisation is being considered for proscription,” a Home Office spokesperson told Devex at the time.

What is happening in Yemen?

A coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a major bombing operation in Yemen since 2015.

The conflict began due to fears among Sunni Muslim states like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) about the influence of Iran, a Shia Muslim state, over a rebel group known as the Houthis, who were attempting to overthrow the then-regime.

Various aid agencies including Unicef have described the situation in Yemen as one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world.

Around 21 million people are thought to be in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 11 million children.

Unicef notes that more than 10,000 children have been killed or maimed since the beginning of the conflict.

The ongoing conflict has caused massive infrastructural problems in the country, resulting in food shortages and famine, plus economic devastation which has only been compounded by Covid.

There have been accusations of war crimes and reported incidents that breach human rights law on both sides of the conflict.

According to the Yemen Data Project, January 2022 was the most violent month in the air war in over five years.

They say 139 civilians were killed and 287 injured in airstrikes in January, taking the civilian casualty toll in Saudi-led bombings to over 19,000 since 2015.

The Saudi-led coalition is heavily reliant on equipment, training and ongoing support from both the United States and the UK.