Hodeida and al-Salif will process substantially more food imports after the Houthis are evicted, so the United States should back some form of demilitarization of the ports or help liberate them.
This PolicyWatch is the first in a three-part series on the Red Sea campaign in Yemen. part2 looks at the operational challenges facing the two sides around Hodeida.part examines the Houthis' options for broadening the war if their sea access is threatened.
On May 1, the Permanent Representative of Yemen to the United Nations, Khaled Hussein Alyemany, called on the United Nations to seek the handover of the Hodeida port to international supervision. The call came as Yemeni armed forces began new offensive operations to advance 140 km to Hodeida from the north, with Saudi Arabian assistance, and 100 km from the south, with United Arab Emirates support.
The parts of Yemen held by the Houthi rebels—also the country's most populous area—are gripped by a severe humanitarian crisis. Even before the war began in 2015, Yemen was on the brink of a humanitarian meltdown, but an analysis of 2017 World Food Programme (WFP) statistics suggests the war has more than doubled the number of food-insecure Yemenis to 17.8 million (64% of the population vs. 31.5% in 2010), including 7 million (25.1% vs. 11.8% in 2010) who are assessed to be severely food insecure.
Key reasons for the crisis include the collapse of the government payroll inside Houthi-held areas since 2015; Houthi taxation of food entering its areas, as documented by the UN Panel of Experts; and a shortfall of food reaching Yemen via Hodeida, the port closest to the Houthi areas. (As recently as May 2016, Hodeida imported 543,782 metric tons [MT] per month, and in Q1 2018 the monthly average was just 151,917 MT). As a battle for Hodeida looms, the key question for U.S. policymakers is whether the port's liberation will make the humanitarian situation better or worse.
In an effort to improve data-led understanding of this issue, the author undertook a survey of Gulf coalition, U.S., and British government as well as NGO metrics on imports via Houthi-held ports, government-held ports, government-held land borders, and airports. The coverage period focused on the first quarter of 2018, including detailed records of 428 vessels unloaded at six ports (Hodeida, Aden, al-Mukalla, al-Salif, Nishtun, and al-Shihr); land border inflows via al-Wadiah and al-Khadra (on the Saudi border) and Shahan and Serfit (on the Omani border); plus aerial deliveries via Marib.
Food and fuel deliveries to Yemen rely almost entirely on seaports. The Gulf coalition's Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operation (YCHO) Support Center data seen by the author suggests that 4,757,797 MT were delivered to Yemen in Q1 2018, but only 158,870 MT (3.3%) came in through land crossings and a negligible 292 MT entered via the civilian air bridge to Marib. (Ship manifests describing the metric tonnage of inbound ships are often erroneous, in part because a fraction of food is diverted through corruption before it reaches Yemen. However, assuming such loss is roughly equivalent across ships heading to all ports, the proportional balance between the ports should still be meaningful.) The breakdown of food imports by sea provided by the YCHO underlines the critical role of the Houthi-held ports.
What this all means is that the YCHO is not yet, as billed, a viable way to replace Hodeida and al-Salif as a food-import hub. If anything, the strengthening of government-held ports has benefited fuel imports (751,173 MT in Q1 2018 vs. 540,964 MT unloaded at Houthi ports) and especially consumer goods (1,377,501 MT in Q1 2018, according to YCHO, an order of magnitude higher than the 9,474 MT imported at Houthi-held ports).
At present, therefore, no real prospect exists for replacing food inflows from Hodeida and al-Salif: other ports like Aden are too distant from Houthi-held population centers, are importing too little food owing to corruption and inefficiency, and are themselves vulnerable to local instability. When Red Sea ports were temporarily closed in November 2017, the WFP recorded a sharp 10% rise in food prices in December and a subsequent 6% rise the following month due to price gouging and hoarding, even though the ports were quickly reopened to shipping. The local food supply in Hodeida itself, a densely populated city that probably tops 700,000, might fail disastrously during a battle.
However, inaction at Hodeida carries steep costs. As long as the port is under Houthi control, food merchants and shippers will not return because they fear onerous paperwork, slow turnarounds, war risks, and Houthi taxes. If liberated, the port's capacity could quickly be expanded, especially if the liberation is achieved quickly and carefully. People in government-controlled areas are better off than people in Houthi-controlled areas precisely because they are reconnected to functioning ports and, partially, to the government payroll system. Thus, the people in Hodeida would benefit from being liberated. They also want to be liberated because the Houthis are not local to their area, whereas advancing Yemeni forces include large numbers of Red Sea troops. Finally, the Yemeni government and Gulf coalition are more likely to engage in good-faith peace talks if they do not fear a Houthi ministate connected to Iran by sea.
As well as reducing the likelihood of famine, the United States must focus on ending the war in Yemen, which is a costly and damaging distraction for U.S. allies in the Gulf. But neither the Yemen-Saudi-UAE alliance nor the Houthis are likely to abandon their intensifying competition over the ports. The war is inexorably creeping closer to Hodeida every day. Washington has three options.
*Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, recently returned from a visit to Yemen and the Gulf coalition states, where he received detailed data on Yemeni food, fuel, and other imports.