Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday about the Trump administration’s budget that would massively slash funding to US diplomacy and development initiatives around the world. Much of the hearing focused on budgetary matters, but Republican Todd Young of Indiana wanted to learn more about the current state of humanitarian aid to Yemen.

Yemen is in the midst of a deep humanitarian crisis. Cholera is spreading like wildfire and famine is looming over much of the country. The international community–including the United States– is being hindered in its ability to get aid into the country, in part because of a Saudi-led blockade. Meanwhile, the Trump administration wants to sell hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment to Saudi Arabia–a move that Young and many other senators from both parties are trying to block.

When questioning Secretary of State Tillerson, Senator Young wanted to learn the status of US-supplied cranes that were supposed to be delivered to Yemen’s port of Hodeidah to facilitate the offloading of aid. These cranes are key because about 80% of all food and humanitarian supplies comes through this port, which is controlled by the Houthi rebels. The Saudi-led coalition, though, has not permitted their delivery. They consider the Houthis to be backed by Iran and have launched a military campaign to oust them from the country and re-install the internationally recognized president of Yemen.

When asked about the situation at the port, Rex Tillerson said he was well aware of the crane situation. But he contended that the main problem with aid delivery is the theft of aid by the Houthi rebels, which UAE and Saudi Arabia contend to be backed by Iran.

“I’ve been in discussions with the Crown Price of the Emirates, I had a fulsome meeting with him and with the and Saudis. The issue in the port of Hodeidah today is that it is controlled by the Houthi rebels. We are evaluating how do you get the aid delivered and then not have it stolen, which is what’s happening. And so we are working on setting up a secure delivery mechanism as well. (emphasis added)

I am very familiar with the situation with the cranes. We are very familiar with the situation of turning the operation of the port over to perhaps the United Nations. We are working through all of these in a very specific way to ensure if we deliver aid, it sends up to the people who need it.”

This made my ears perk up. I’ve done some reporting on this issue and aid theft at the port of Hodeidah is not something I have seen discussed by the United Nations or the broader global humanitarian community. Apparently, I am not alone.

Here is a top official at the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the larger Non-governmental organizations involved in the delivery of aid to Yemen.

And here is the former top US humanitarian aid official, who directed US emergency assistance to Yemen until Trump took office.

 

I also reached out to a spokesperson for the World Food Program who said that WFP was not aware of any aid theft at the Port. “There were some news reports about a year ago that accused Houthi authorities of delaying release of aid supplies from the port,” the spokesperson said. “But that’s quite different from theft, and I can’t even confirm that that took place.”

The UN has been warning Saudi Arabia against attacking Yemen’s main port

For several months, the international humanitarian community has been issuing dire warnings that an attack on the port of Hodeidah could plunge the country into a famine.”If you get conflict in Hodeida the port is going to be closed down for a period of time,” Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group told me in a podcast interview last month. “And even after that is is not clear that the food supply coming through Hodeidah will reach the capitol, and that would lead to a disaster.”

The head of the World Food Program, a former governor of South Carolina, agrees:

“Ninety percent of the imports into Yemen come in through the port of Hodeida. Something like 80 percent of all the World Food Programme food comes through that port,” David Beasley told AFP.

“So if that port is shut down for whatever reason, it would bring disaster to Yemen.”

Aid to some 5 million yemenis would be cut off with an assault on the port, according to the WFP.

Tillerson’s comments could make an attack on the Port more likely.

The Trump administration has shown extreme deference to Saudi Arabia, approving a massive arms sale to the country and actively siding with the Saudi government in its dispute with Qatar. It appears that the Trump administration views the Middle East through a very similar lens as the Saudis. There is now deep concern that Tillerson’s accusation of aid theft and his floating the idea that the port be put under UN control could give the Saudi’s a green light to mount a long-planned assault on the port.

When I spoke with Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group last month, he told me that one of the factors mitigating against a possible assault on the port was international outcry over the potential humanitarian fallout. If the former top US humanitarian relief official is correct, the United States just signaled that it might not be terribly swayed by this outcry.

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