The UN has named and shamed Saudi Arabia and two other Gulf kingdoms for not fulfilling funding pledges to help Yemen, where the impact of the devastating Saudi-backed war has now led to one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world.
Saudi Arabia, which supports Yemen's government against the country’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, hosted a high-level UN donor pledging conference in June to help Yemen deal with its humanitarian crisis, pledging $500 million of a total $3.4 billion in funds.
This week, however, both UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the UN’s humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, publicly noted that Riyadh has not yet sent a single cent to the relief effort. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, which also pledged significant amounts of money, have not delivered either.
"More than 9 million people have been affected by deepening cuts to aid programmes, including food, water and healthcare. Continuing to hold back money from the humanitarian response now will be a death sentence for many families," Lowcock told the UN Security Council Tuesday.
"It is particularly reprehensible to promise money, which gives people hope that help may be on the way, and then to dash those hopes by simply failing to fulfil the promise."
Lowcock highlighted that UN-led efforts to finance the humanitarian response to the Yemen war in 2018 prevented famine in the country, but with the huge gap in the funds this year, he said, “the spectre of famine has returned”.
Lowcock's comments were echoed by Guterres Thursday, while addressing a UN ministerial meeting on Yemen.
"It is very worrying that meaningful sums still remain unpaid. Fulfilling all pledges to date, and increasing them wherever possible, is vital to prevent a devastating famine," Guterres said.
Already the poorest country in the Arab world, 80 percent of Yemen’s 28 million population is now under the poverty line, and the war has resulted in what the UN says is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world. Malnutrition and preventable diseases such as cholera and typhoid are rampant.
The coronavirus pandemic has also hit the country hard. Beset by an already paralysed healthcare system, Yemen has the highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the world, at 30 percent.
The UN's humanitarian office spokesperson, Jens Laerke, told VICE News that while other countries have supported Yemen and already paid their pledged amounts, the three Gulf countries have created an unforeseen obstacle in the 2020 humanitarian response.
“The funding gap this year is mostly attributable to gaps in support from the Gulf," he said.
As well as struggling with COVID-19, in recent weeks the conflict in Yemen has escalated again: August saw the highest casualty rate for civilians across the country so far this year, according to the UN.
Oxfam and dozens of local Yemeni humanitarian aid organisations released a statement this week calling on the international community to "exert more pressure on conflicting parties and their backers to immediately halt military operations across the country”.