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Performative Humanitarianism: Saudi’s Aid Diplomacy in Yemen

On June 2, Saudi Arabia co-hosted an international donors conference with the United Nations to raise funds for Yemen’s humanitarian crisis which has been exacerbated due to COVID-19. Government representatives attended the virtual event which raised $1.35 billion, with Saudi Arabia as the largest donor at $500 million. Several other countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and Russia gave smaller sums.

Though Yemen suffers what the UN calls the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” this fundraiser fell short of meeting the $2.4 billion target to address Yemen’s needs. Despite this, the event still boosts Saudi Arabia’s positioning of itself as a patron of Yemen, having previously utilized aid and reconstruction initiatives for its own ambitions to secure influence in the country. Saudi’s humanitarian aid serves as a PR move to cover up its own role in Yemen’s war and humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Aid as a Soft Power

Through these aid efforts, Saudi Arabia aims to present the international community with a more positive image of itself. Riyadh has faced pressure from Washington and European capitals regarding its role in Yemen, particularly after its offensive on the Hodeida governorate in June 2018. Many countries including Norway, Germany, Belgium, and Denmark even suspended weapons sales to Saudi Arabia following reports that the Saudi-led coalition was hitting civilian areas. The UN also repeatedly the country for its actions in Yemen’s war.

Given this context, humanitarian organizations, therefore, criticized the fundraiser conference as “throwing money” at Yemen without pushing for a peace solution and ending the war. Yet international policymakers, including those attending the conference, were receptive towards Riyadh’s gestures. Saudi Prince Faisal bin Farhan al Saud said he “supports the UN efforts to reach a political solution in Yemen to alleviate the suffering and support humanitarian, economic and developmental aspects”.

Meanwhile, the state-owned Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen (SDRPY), which has carried out various projects across the country throughout the last two years, has been a useful tool for Saudi Arabia to further bolster its international humanitarian credentials. On May 14, the organization attended a virtual meeting hosted by the World Bank, which reviewed the efforts of international institutions involved in Yemen’s aid and reconstruction while discussing ways to mitigate the pandemic’s impact in the country.

The World Bank’s praise of the SDRPY legitimizes its actions on an international scale. Meanwhile, it has also worked with other international agencies like the Islamic Development Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP). Rather than solving Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, the SDPRY helps Saudi Arabia secure greater political and economic influence over Yemen.

Last October SDPRY announced 70 new projects for “building and restoring critical infrastructure, increasing job opportunities, improving standards of living, empowering Yemenis, and ultimately paving the way toward peace and prosperity in Yemen.” The program says it focuses on “health, education, energy, agriculture, fish wealth, transportation, and government institutions.” Many of these projects might eventually make the war-torn country more dependent on Saudi support. These projects also impose Saudi cultural influence on Yemen, for instance with its building of the King Salman Education and Medical City project in Mahra.

Unable to defeat Iran-backed Houthis militarily, Saudi Arabia now aims to isolate the faction which controls much of northern Yemen, mostly focusing its projects on areas beyond Houthi control. As the Houthis control the Hodeida port, through which around 80% of Yemen’s aid and imports pass, Saudi Arabia previously tried to redirect aid towards southern ports under nominal Hadi control like Aden, Mukalla and Mokha. The International Rescue Committee described this move as a “war tactic”. Saudi Arabia still has not fully lifted its blockade on Hodeida, which restricts essential supplies from entering the country, despite highlighting its humanitarian efforts.

Contrasting Aid Strategies with the UAE

After Yemen’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution, Saudi Arabia supported the UN-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi from 2012, whose international legitimacy enables Saudi Arabia to carry out its aid projects and investment in Yemen. Yet in the last year, Hadi’s conflict with the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) has threatened Riyadh’s interests in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has hung onto Hadi, seeking to shore him up in the power sharing Riyadh agreement with the STC.

Despite its fragility and that it merely ensures Saudi political control in Yemen, the EU praised Saudi Arabia’s brokering of the Riyadh Agreement last November as “an important step towards de-escalation and peace.”  Meanwhile, Riyadh’s coalition ally, the United Arab Emirates, donated nothing to Yemen in the fundraising conference, despite its heavy involvement in the conflict and its backing of a Yemeni political party. It seeks control over Yemen’s southern ports in order to bring the country into its sphere of influence and establish itself as a maritime trade powerhouse across the Indian Ocean, while also pursuing control over the strategic Bab el Mandeb at the mouth of the Red Sea. Securing a friendly independent southern state would facilitate these goals.

The lack of UAE donations to the fundraiser may suggest declining interest in the country, as it faces obstacles in its goals, contesting with the Riyadh Agreement while the STC’s independence bid has almost no international support. It may be focusing more on Libya, seeking to contain Turkey’s influence after its ally Khalifa Haftar has faced numerous setbacks in the past month. Like other countries, Abu Dhabi may also be preoccupied with its own economic problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is certain, however, is that, unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE has not relied on aid for its strategy in Yemen. Rather, it has prioritized its pretext of counter-terrorism to justify exerting its influence. Moreover, as a younger actor in the country, it has focused more on acquiring Yemen’s ports, contrasting with Saudi Arabia’s traditional ideological motives and desires to influence its southern neighbour. As the UAE still retains influence in the south via separatist forces, it will likely seek to continue its goals despite both these recent upsets and various misleading claims that it plans to withdraw.

Despite this fundraising event and other Saudi moves under the guise of supporting Yemen, aid and limited reconstruction initiatives alone will not provide stability in Yemen. This is especially true while the conflict continues without a lasting political solution and the state faces widespread collapse.

Yet the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe grants Saudi Arabia a pretext to offer humanitarian hand and consolidate its influence over the country, which Riyadh’s strong relations with Western capitals and international organizations facilitate. However, as Saudi Arabia has previously not delivered on its humanitarian aid pledges, and with its purchasing of more military equipment in June, it is evident that its priorities are not genuinely aimed at improving Yemen’s crisis. It will require more than performative gestures of humanitarianism in order to support Yemen.


Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a researcher and journalist focusing on geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly related to the Gulf. He has worked with Al Sharq Forum, The New Arab, Middle East Eye, Al-Monitor, Carnegie Endowment’s Sada Journal, and many other outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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