In Yemen, zero hour is here. Yemeni forces, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have commenced operations to liberate Hodeidah, the country’s second-largest port city and lifeline to the outside world, from the Houthi militias that have occupied it since 2015. The operation is being accompanied by a legitimate chorus of concerns for the safety and well-being of Hodeidah’s captive civilian population, but also some great exaggeration, including a statement by the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator in Yemen expressing fear that the battle could claim 250,000 lives. Today, after years of domination by an Iranian-backed militia that has spurned offers for political compromise, the consequences of inaction far outweigh the costs of action.
Given Hodeidah’s role as a key point of entry for both commercial goods and humanitarian aid, the UN and other aid organizations are concerned that the coming battle could disrupt the distribution of desperately-needed food and medicine to Yemeni civilians, particularly those living under Houthi control (according to the United States Agency for International Development, nearly eighteen million Yemenis require emergency food assistance). While such concerns are warranted, they ignore the fact that Houthi control of Hodeidah has already created critical shortages of essential goods.
Under Houthi custodianship, Hodeidah’s port is in disrepair and incapable of operating at full capacity. Repeated Houthi attacks on shipping—in the last two months their militias fired missiles at both a Saudi ship carrying oil and a Turkish ship carrying wheat—and the consequent inflation in insurance premiums have deterred ships from docking. Cumbersome bureaucratic procedures, excessive paperwork, and Houthi taxes—amounting to as much as $100,000 per ship, according to a reliable source—are another major disincentive for would-be exporters. To prevent weapons smuggling into the port, incoming vessels also have to undergo rigorous screenings, which delays the arrival of essential goods. Liberating the port from Houthi control would eliminate these hindrances.
In addition, the Saudi-led coalition has every incentive to protect and, if necessary, rehabilitate the port as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Saudi Arabia already hosts tens of thousands of Yemeni refugees; new shortages in food and medicine would only increase that number. The coalition also knows that the costs of any reconstruction will fall on its shoulders and has drawn up contingency plans to ensure that aid continues to reach Yemen’s population in the event that the port is damaged during the fighting. The coalition is also acutely aware that the international community will hold it responsible for whatever happens in Hodeidah. Therefore, one can expect that they will make every effort to abate civilian suffering, if only to avoid a public relations disaster.
Victory in Hodeidah could mark a turning point in the Yemen conflict. The Houthis rebuffed the coalition’s offer not to attack in exchange for the withdrawal of their militias from the city and for turning port operations over to the UN, an offer that is still on the table even as the military offensive commences. And they have resisted every other coalition peace overture up until this point. They have no incentive to negotiate because they believe that they can outlast and eventually exhaust the coalition, without ever closing the door on future peace discussions. In other words, as long as the Houthis can field an army, they believe they can lose battles and cede territory without having to make concessions or risk their Iranian backing. Losing Hodeidah would directly undercut the Houthis’ ability to maintain a viable fighting force and would jeopardize this entire strategy.
Each month, the Houthis generate as much as $30 million in revenue from customs duties, taxes, and tariffs levied on ships and cargo docking at Hodeidah port. All of this income is then channeled to the Houthi leadership, which uses it to fund its war. Their militias seize humanitarian aid, sell it on the black market, or redistribute it to pay their soldiers and the families of martyrs. According to reliable estimates from Yemeni sources, the Houthis derive 27 percent of their income from Hodeidah port and sizable additional sums from black market sales and taxes on goods that come through Hodeidah port. If the port and the city fall, the Houthis forfeit a sizable chunk of this revenue and could start running out of money to pay their soldiers in as little as one to two months—unless they can make up the loss elsewhere.
It is important to remember that living conditions in areas liberated from Houthi control, although plagued by corruption and mismanagement, are far better than those in areas under Houthi occupation. In Houthi territory, food shortages and cholera outbreaks are regular occurrences. Medicine is sold on the black market at wildly inflated prices. There are few jobs available outside of the militias and the Houthis levy exorbitant war taxes on utilities, government services, and consumer goods. Reports of rapes and abductions of female children are also on the rise, as is the forced conscription of child soldiers who are being sent to fight on the front lines in ever greater numbers to compensate for Houthi battlefield losses.
The absence of economic opportunities and the sharp deterioration in living conditions as a result of Houthi control has prevented people from living normal lives. And the exploitation of the young and desperate who are forced to fight for the Houthi cause has destroyed people’s lives. The humanitarian organizations that sound the alarm on a military solution repeatedly fail to fathom the long-term costs of trading lives, freedom, opportunity, and dignity for aid.
At the same time, the international community has not advanced any actionable plan to protect civilians under Houthi occupation, rebuild Yemen’s infrastructure, or move the country off a crisis footing. In contrast, the Saudi-led coalition has put forward the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations, which is a plan for national economic recovery, a vision for the rehabilitation and expansion of Yemen’s ports, and a blueprint for securing sea, land, and air corridors to provide urgently needed relief to the entire country. The coalition has also taken it upon itself to purchase two additional cranes for Yemen’s port in Mokha, and a crane each for the ports in Aden and Mukalla, to help expedite aid delivery. While skeptics have repeatedly warned that Yemen’s Gulf Arab allies are unreliable, both the Saudis and Emiratis have already made good on a number of pledges, most recently transferring nearly one billion dollars to aid agencies following April’s Yemen donor conference.
It is entirely logical for humanitarian organizations, which are dedicated to alleviating suffering, to want to avoid violent conflict. It is even understandable that these same organizations, which had to contend with civilian casualties from errant coalition airstrikes in the early phases of the war, are mistrustful of the coalition and its local allies. But to propagate a media narrative that forewarns of a looming humanitarian catastrophe to the tune of a quarter million civilian lives—in a conflict that has, since 2015, claimed just four percent of that number (civilian and combatant) in total—is disingenuous, an irresponsible guess-estimate conjured up to provoke an emotional response.
This is not to say that the Saudi-led coalition is without fault, but it continues to offer the Houthis a reasonable diplomatic solution in Hodeidah to turn the port over to the UN, and the Houthis continue to refuse. It enjoys the support of most of the local population and is allowing Yemeni forces, including a sizable contingent from the Tihama region—of which Hodeidah is the capital—to take the lead in this offensive. The coalition has taken reasonable measures to protect civilian lives in advance of this military operation and has initiated concrete proposals to lead Yemen’s postwar reconstruction. And, while its overarching objective in this war may be to stop Iran’s incursion into and threats against the Arabian Peninsula, it has also demonstrated a clear and consistent commitment to helping Yemen through this crisis. Given this, it might pay greater dividends for the international community to hold the coalition accountable for its promises rather than cling to an increasingly unsustainable status quo.