Saudi aid chief rejects halting deliveries to Houthi areas in Yemen

US has threatened to suspend humanitarian assistance in rebel-controlled areas to bring Iran-backed militia into line

In this Sept. 23, 2018 file photo, men deliver aid donations from donors, in Aslam, Hajjah, Yemen. Houthi rebels in Yemen have blocked half of the United Nations’ aid delivery programs in the war-torn country — a strong-arm tactic to force the agency to give them greater control over the massive humanitarian campaign, along with a cut of billions of dollars in foreign assistance, according to aid officials and internal documents obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Hammadi Issa, File)

The head of Saudi Arabia’s main aid agency has rejected the idea of halting aid to Yemen to bring Houthi rebels into line.

The Iran-backed rebels were blocking half of the UN’s aid deliveries to the war-torn country to try to force the UN to give them more control over foreign assistance, AP reported in February.

In response, the US last week threatened to suspend aid to Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen unless the rebels stopped blocking operations.

But Dr Abdullah Al Rabeeah, adviser to the Saudi royal court and supervisor general of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief fund, told The National that halting aid was not a solution to the problem.

“We still believe that the Houthis are going to hinder aid and we condemn what they do, but at the same time we're saying that, yes, they should be penalised, but not the people of Yemen,” Dr Al Rabeeah said.

“We should put pressure them on them but we should not do it to the extent that we harm poor children, women or people at risk.”

Dr Al Rabeeah, a paediatric surgeon who specialises in separating conjoined twins, said his organisation had been blowing the whistle on the Houthis halting aid provisions for more than two years.

“The problem of Yemen is not access from borders, it’s internal access,” he said at the Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum.

The first day of the two-day forum was attended by leaders from the UN and charities, and representatives from governments including the UAE, US and UK.

“People didn't believe us and the media was against us," Dr Al Rabeeah said. "So we were tolerant.”

An Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Houthi rebels removed the internationally recognised government from Sanaa in late 2014.

The conflict has created the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, according to Unicef, with more than 80 per cent of the population, including 12 million children, requiring humanitarian assistance.

The Saudi fund, founded in 2015 by King Salman, has sponsored 430 projects in Yemen, giving almost 3 billion riyals to causes including food security, sanitation and health.

At the forum, it signed a new agreement with the World Health Organisation, committing $10.5 million to help end Malaria in Yemen.

The group has faced accusations that it is not independent of politics in Saudi Arabia, a claim Dr Al Rabeeah strongly denied.

“Saudi Arabia has proven its objectivity as it does not link humanitarian aid to political stances of states, race, nor religion,” he said last year.

Dr Al Rabeeah said that perhaps a more effective method of punishment for the Houthis would be ending their control of Yemen’s income, which outstrips the aid given to the country.

“We should probably find ways to control how they use the income of Yemen by a neutral monitoring mechanism,” he said.

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