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Saudi Arabia’s Yemen blockade is starving millions. Democrats want Biden to stop it.

The Biden administration faces relentless pressure from the left to push Saudi Arabia to lift its Yemen blockade.

A sick Yemeni child lies on her mother as they wait to give her medical treatment over a lack of health services and supplies due to the ongoing Yemen war and blockade at a hospital on March 31, 2018, in Sana’a.
Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is continuing its six-year air and sea blockade of Yemen, starving millions of Yemenis and deepening the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Anger from Democrats and progressives in the US isn’t just directed at Riyadh, though. It’s also aimed at the Biden administration for failing to fully pressure Saudi Arabia to lift the restrictions.

When Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a war against the Houthis in 2015 — with US support — Saudi used its military to block planes from landing and ships from docking in Yemen, saying such measures were necessary to stop the Houthis from smuggling in weapons, including from Iran.

The Saudi coalition is fighting to oust the Houthi rebels, who overthrew the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur al-Hadi in 2015, and return al-Hadi, who currently lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, to power.

But critics warned the blockade would keep much-needed food, fuel, medicine, and humanitarian aid from reaching desperate Yemenis, including millions of children, who are caught in the middle of the fighting.

That concern proved devastatingly prophetic.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, the world’s top authority on food security, said last year that 47,000 Yemenis were suffering from famine-like conditions and that more than 16 million — over half of Yemen’s population — couldn’t reliably and adequately feed themselves. Multiple United Nations agencies have said that at least 400,000 Yemeni children could die this year alone if conditions don’t improve.

In early February, President Joe Biden promised the US would stop supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in the war. But, he added, “We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”

Some analysts believe Riyadh took that as implicit support for the blockade, even as the Biden administration has consistently expressed the free flow of fuel and goods into Yemen is “critical.”

That may partly explain why Saudi Arabia has kept the restrictions in place. In March, for instance, CNN found that Saudi warships had kept all oil tankers from docking in the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah since the start of the year.

“The Saudi vessels that patrol the waters of Hodeidah have control over which commercial ships can dock and unload their cargo,” CNN reported. “Some goods are getting through — CNN witnessed aid being loaded on to trucks at the port after being delivered by ship — but not any fuel to deliver them.”

Now, Democrats want Biden to push Riyadh to end the blockade once and for all. Nearly 80 Democrats made that clear in a Tuesday letter to the president.

“We ask you to take additional steps to publicly pressure Saudi Arabia to lift this blockade immediately, unilaterally, and comprehensively,” wrote the lawmakers, including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the House Intelligence Committee chair. Among other things, they want the Saudis to “[guarantee] that humanitarian and commercial imports can freely enter Yemen” and “[ensure] that and crossings for commercial and civilian traffic are permanently opened.”

“Every day that we wait for these issues to be resolved in negotiations is another day that pushes more children to the brink of death,” the letter added.

It’s unclear if the White House will listen to their plea. The Biden administration’s current approach toward the conflict is to try to broker a peace deal between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis. Some progressive activists accuse the president and his team of wanting to keep the blockade in place to serve as a bargaining chip in negotiations.

“They support the blockade currently,” said Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, a progressive foreign policy group. “The administration would only want it lifted as part of a comprehensive agreement.”

Other analysts disagree. “That’s hyperbolic,” said Seth Binder, an advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in Washington, DC, noting that Biden’s team restarted humanitarian funding for northern Yemen cut by the Trump administration and repeated calls for open trade.

Still, Binder said the president and his aides “could and should be sharpening their rhetoric” toward Saudi Arabia about ending the blockade.

Biden will continue to face pressure over the Saudi blockade

Days after CNN’s March report exposing the disastrous effects of the blockade, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud proposed to reopen the airport in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and allow food and fuel imports at Hodeidah.

“The initiative will take effect as soon as the Houthis agree to it,” the minister said. It was the first time Riyadh openly acknowledged carrying out a deliberate blockade in Yemen.

Hodeidah is vitally important to Yemen’s economy. It’s the country’s largest and most important port, and it’s crucial to the nation’s trade and taxation efforts, said Shamiran Mako, an assistant professor at Boston University.

But the Houthis almost immediately rejected the Saudi plan, saying it didn’t fully lift the long-imposed restrictions. “Opening the airports and seaports is a humanitarian right and should not be used as a pressure tool,” said Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator. The Houthis, however, are also known to divert aid away from the population and to their own officials, supporters, and fighters.

Since then, the Saudi-led coalition has allowed at least four fuel ships in Hodeidah’s port, even as Riyadh has gone back to denying restrictions exist.

“There is no blockade,” the Saudi foreign minister told CNN in an interview this week, saying that 67 ships had docked in Hodeidah over the last three months and that the flow of goods continues at other crossings.

But experts say that’s still not enough to ease the humanitarian crisis. And they say Saudi Arabia won’t change its tune unless the Biden administration exerts significant pressure.

One way it could do that, POMED’s Binder said, is to threaten to further downgrade the US-Saudi relationship if such restrictions persist. “That gives the administration the most leverage” throughout the diplomatic process. For example, the US could further restrict arms sales to the kingdom or curtail economic ties.

Meanwhile, pressure from Democrats and activists has become more visible. Activists from Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, have been on a hunger strike for more than 10 days, calling for an end to the blockade. Their effort has the support of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who joined one of the striking activists, 26-year-old Iman Saleh, outside the White House for a press conference on Friday. It was Saleh’s 12th day without food.

Between the letter from lawmakers and increased activity from anti-blockade activists, it looks like Biden will continue to face criticism on the issue.

“Democrats are starting to get concerned and wanting to push the administration more,” Binder told me. “The honeymoon phase is coming to an end.”