Foreign Policy reported Wednesday that the UN has been warning the Biden administration against redesignating the Houthis as a “foreign terrorist organization” due to the impact it will have on Yemen’s starving civilian population.
The report said that Brett McGurk, the top Middle East official on the National Security Council, led the drive to redesignate the Houthis as terrorists after the Yemeni group launched attacks on the UAE. But McGurk encountered pushback from other US officials during a meeting on February 4th.
The report said top UN envoys, some officials from the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and private importers that deliver goods to Yemen are all pressuring President Biden not to redesignate the Houthis. On the other side is the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, all pushing for the Yemeni group to be relisted. On February 8th, McGurk told UN envoy Martin Griffiths that the plan was on hold for now.
The designation essentially criminalizes delivering food to Yemenis living in Houthi-controlled territories, which is about 60 percent of the country’s population. It means anyone that does business with the Houthis could be hit with US sanctions. The Biden administration said it would issue exemptions for aid groups, but the UN has pointed out that about 85 percent of Yemen’s food supplies come from commercial importers.
“Yemenis need commercial imports to survive. Aid agencies cannot replace commercial imports,” the UN said in an internal memo that was obtained by Foreign Policy. “If the supply chain dries up, many more Yemenis will go hungry.”
The Trump administration designated the Houthis as terrorists in January 2021. The move was quickly reversed by Biden, but even in that short time, many suppliers canceled orders to Yemeni importers. “There are already signs that food and other essential imports will fall if a new designation proceeds,” the memo reads.
The Fahem Group, a large Yemeni importer, sent a letter to the UN warning of the consequences the designation could have. “The inevitable and immediate consequence of any designation will be that they will cease all trade with ourselves,” the Fahem Group said. “Cutting commercial imports to Yemen risks bringing famine and death to the Yemeni people who are already facing a grave humanitarian crisis.”
The Fahem Group also said they were surprised that they were not consulted about the possible designation, signaling that the US has not bothered to really understand the impact the move would have. “To our knowledge, no consultations have occurred with any Yemeni importers (or the global businesses we work with) on the potential impact of a renewed designation,” the importer said.
Biden quickly reversed the designation when he first came to office due to the warnings from aid groups that it would push more Yemenis into starvation. Over the past year, conditions have only gotten worse in the country as the US-backed Saudi-led coalition has escalated its air campaign.
The recent Houthi attacks on the UAE are a clear response to the Emirate’s role in the coalition that has been waging war on Yemen since 2015. In response to the Houthi attacks, the US is helping the UAE intercept missiles and deployed a warship and warplanes to the Gulf country, marking an escalation in Washington’s role in the war.