Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Yemen are in further jeopardy following the evacuation of key Western embassies, analysts and aid workers warn, amid fears of a major food crisis in the import-dependent country.
The United States – which has averaged $200 million a year in aid to Yemen in recent years – the United Kingdom, France and the United Arab Emirates hurriedly withdrew their embassy staff this week, blaming the country’s “deteriorating security situation” following the resignation of the government last month.
Among the development aid that could be put on hold is crucial support to the Yemeni economy, its education systems and its military.
“When people look at the embassy closures they think it is just an embassy. In reality, [the closures] trigger various donor countries to put their funding on hold,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who studies Yemen. “In a country like Yemen, that is very dangerous.”
“Some of the big aid programs from European donors will be frozen in all likelihood,” a senior aid official told IRIN on condition of anonymity. “You have agreements with the government, but when there is no government they will be frozen.”
A fractured relationship
It was past 2am on Wednesday morning when cars carrying the American embassy staff wove through the capital Sana’a to the airport. The convoy was provided security by the same Houthi movement that was the main reason the Americans were fleeing.
The Houthi rebels – a predominantly Zaidi Shia Islam group from northern Yemen – have been gaining strength since September, creeping closer to full control of Sana’a. Last month, after days of clashes, the internationally-recognised government stepped down – leaving the Houthi in control.
Then on 6 February, in what some have called the final move in a coup, they unilaterally announced a new constitutional declaration establishing a 551-member parliament. This has prompted both peaceful protests against their rule and fresh threats from Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country – with the group already feared to have seized a military base.
The anti-American Houthis allegedly used the US withdrawal as an opportunity to ransack the embassy. “After dropping the staff [off at the airport], … the [Houthis] plundered all the weapons and armoured cars,” said a senior American diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
Aid under threat
Yemen’s economy has long depended on foreign aid for its survival. In the absence of a functioning government, much of its development aid is now expected to be either suspended or delayed.
Since 2011, the US has given Yemen more than $800 million in aid, while the European Union gave around $120 million in 2014. While short-term humanitarian aid is unlikely to be immediately affected, support to the economy, education, healthcare, and the military could be.
On 9 February, the EU strongly condemned the Houthi power play, saying it considered the constitutional declaration to have “no legitimacy.” Nabila Massrali, spokesperson for the EU, said that while development aid had not been formally suspended, “further implementation of programs is under review in light of current political developments.”
Yemen’s economy was already suffering after Saudi Arabia suspended its more than $1 billion annual aid late last year in protest at the Houthi takeover. The money was often used to prop up the Yemeni central bank's accounts.
“Yemen’s economy is going to be at risk of collapse if foreign aid is withdrawn,” Baron added.
Without support, the government may not be able to pay its civil
servants, while the value of the Yemeni rial could plummet. Such a fall would hugely
raise the price of importing food.
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, is already dangerously reliant on imports of staple foods and almost half of its citizens don’t have enough to eat, according to Oxfam.
Trond Jensen, head of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, said that while some emergency aid was continuing, he was “concerned about a potential economic crisis that would leave many Yemenis very vulnerable.”
Yemen already has some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world, comparable – in some parts of the country – to those in Somalia in the lead-up to the 2011 famine there.
Aid work under threat
For aid organisations trying to prevent a disaster, the embassy withdrawals and security situation also complicate their operations.
Hashem Awnallah, senior technical adviser at the US-based aid agency Pure Hand for Mankind, said he expected disruptions to his and other American-funded projects in the coming days now that his organisation’s focal points at the US embassy have left. “There will obviously be implications of the closures,” he said, “however the full impact may not be felt immediately.”
He said he hoped embassies would establish a system to allow them to manage aid remotely.
Other NGOs IRIN spoke to said they were monitoring the situation and would not rule out withdrawing their foreign staff if the situation continues to deteriorate.
Back from the brink
The crisis is already prompting residents to flee Sana’a for fear of being caught up in the violence. “I am very worried about my family. I can’t afford to wait until I lose any of my relatives,” said Naji Mohammed Saleh.
Baron said that for Yemen to avoid a nightmare scenario, the Houthis had to abandon their aggressive stance. In a speech on 10 February, Houthi leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi struck a slightly more conciliatory tone, speaking of dialogue with his rivals and foreign powers.
* The original version of this article implied that a decrease in the Yemeni rial would necessarily reduce the number of people aid agencies could help. This was an error.