Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

United Arab Emirates Threatens Attack On Yemeni Port City Hodeida


We are following a very tense situation in Yemen. This is a country that has been in civil war for more than three years now. This is, in many ways, a proxy war between regional powers with Saudi Arabia and its allies taking on rebels who are backed by Iran. This morning, there are fears that the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally, is preparing an attack on the Yemeni city of Hodeida. There are hundreds of thousands of people there. This is a coastal town where humanitarian relief flows into Yemen. But now, the United Nations and Red Cross are both evacuating their employees. NPR's Jane Arraf covers this region. She's been following the story and joins us on Skype this morning from Jordan. Hi there, Jane.


GREENE: Can you tell me a little more about Hodeida and the situation there and why this city is - has come into focus?

ARRAF: Yeah. So Yemen already was one of the poorest countries in the world, and it has very few resources, so most of its food, its medicine, its fuel, is imported. And most of that is imported through Hodeida, which is a port on the Red Sea. So the fighting has been going on for three years. Now, this has been an incredibly bitter battle, largely played out of sight of Western minds because it is far away and it's very hard to get access. But in the past week or so, the fighting has intensified. And troops, pro-government troops backed by the United Arab Emirates, have been approaching and threatening to seize the port. And that's why everyone's so concerned because so much of that aid comes through it.

GREENE: Why now? And any reason that the Saudis and their allies from the Emirates would decide to attack the city at this moment? I mean, this has been going on for a few years, as you said.

ARRAF: Well, a lot of it is opportunity. They feel they've made gains. They have advanced closer to the port. And part of it is kind of the really interesting and complicated - political situation. So at the heart of this fight is Houthi rebels - are allied with Iran. And then on the other side, you have the Saudis, the Emirates, and they feel empowered, by the way, by the United States. So a lot of people in the Gulf, for instance, see this as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And this is another way to get at Iran. But it's the civilians here who are suffering and suffering even more lately with the intensified fighting and the pullout of the U.N. and other aid groups.

GREENE: Wasn't the risk always that there could be terrorist groups who could basically be setting up shop in Yemen if the country remained in civil war and there was no real resolution to this?

ARRAF: So that has been one argument. And, in fact, the Saudis accused the Houthis, for instance, of smuggling arms in through that port. But it's greatly overshadowed by the immense humanitarian crisis. The U.N. - and I spoke to the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen as she left for Sanaa last night, Lise Grande - warns that there could be 250,000 people at grave risk, for instance, if there is a prolonged shutdown of the port. It's a country that's basically held hostage by the fighting between these two powers and what a lot of people see as their proxies. So, again, it's considered the worst humanitarian disaster in the world, and that's because there are 22 million people who depend on aid. Cholera is rampant. It's a very vulnerable country, and it's getting even more and more vulnerable as these aid groups pull out of the port city to other areas.

GREENE: All right. Well, obviously, if a port where humanitarian relief comes through is potentially being attacked, that could be a bad sign that things are getting even worse in Yemen. NPR's Jane Arraf, thanks a lot. We appreciate it, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.