Aysha al-Daheri is standing on an airport runway a little after midnight. Behind her, a C-17 military aircraft is being loaded up with 15 tons’ worth of aid bundles.
Al-Daheri, the head of the United Arab Emirates Medical Support Team in Yemen, is wearing traditional garb instead of her usual military fatigues. She has led numerous, little-known Emirati medical missions around the world, from Bosnia to Afghanistan. Tonight, she is heading to Yemen.
“This sends a message that we can reach by air, we can reach by sea, we can reach by land,” al-Daheri told CNN. “It lifts the morale of the people, because it gives them the message that the coalition is doing its best and doubling down on the efforts to reach them and reach every single person, even the people in the villages, away from the cities.”
Hours later, the plane is 10,000 feet in the air – its doors flung open to drop food and water to people down below. It’s the crack of dawn in the province of Hodeidah, the latest flashpoint in Yemen’s three-year war, and aid parcels are falling from the sky.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are leading a military campaign in support of the internationally recognized government in Yemen and against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The United Nations says that coalition airstrikes have been the leading cause of the war’s 15,000 civilian casualties, and that the ongoing war has brought the country to the brink of catastrophe.
CNN was invited to join one of the UAE’s airdrops over Yemen – it went to an area recently captured by coalition-backed forces in southern Hodeidah.
Coalition aid is on the uptick as the ground offensive on Hodeidah has stalled. It’s the latest sign that the coalition is seeking to bolster the optics of its offensive amid ongoing UN-sponsored mediation efforts.
Negotiations or siege
The Hodeidah offensive was expected to exacerbate Yemen’s dire humanitarian situation. The UAE and Saudi-led coalition prepared to sweep through the province in June, with the aim of capturing the Houthi-held port city that serves as a lifeline for some 22.2 million Yemenis who are in need of assistance.
The lucrative Red Sea port is the gateway for 70% of the humanitarian needs of the country, according to the UN, which has warned the fighting could see up to 250,000 people lose their lives.
But as international pressure mounted – and as the UN intervened to encourage peace talks – the offensive slowed down.
“We will not engage in street battles,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani told CNN during a brief visit to Abu Dhabi. The tactic applies to Hodeidah city and the capital Sanaa, which the Houthis took over in 2014.
The plan to wrest control of Hodeidah from the rebels has since shifted to something close to a siege, although al-Yamani is careful not to use the word. The coalition-backed forces are slowly taking over villages surrounding the port city – the Houthis’ main gateway to the Red Sea – to isolate the rebels and pressure them to leave, he explains.
But al-Yamani is impatient. “Diplomatic efforts are not open-ended,” he said.
The Houthis have been defiant, accusing the coalition of meddling in Yemen’s domestic affairs.
“We will never allow foreign forces, whether Saudi or Emirati, to control Yemeni lands,” said Houthi minister of youth and former negotiator Hassan Zaid. “Unfortunately, that’s what coalition forces are seeking. That’s impossible and illogical. The same way it’s impossible for us to demand controlling Jeddah city and taking its port away from the Saudis.”
The optics of war
More than just parties to the conflict, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are also interlocutors that could make or break the UN-led peace process.
For this reason, the coalition pays close attention to the way that they project their power in the international arena. The Riyadh-based coalition spokesman made a habit of publicizing the flow of ships to the port facilitated by the coalition, and blames the Houthis for any obstruction or delay of aid.
There is no immediate need for the expensive air deliveries such as the ones that the UAE have conducted – aid and commercial ships still go through Hodeidah’s port and many communities in coalition-controlled areas are still accessible by road. But more than ever, the UAE feels it must manage the optics of its more muscular approach to regional politics.
Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash describes the UAE’s role as taking on “the burden” of security in the neighborhood. The campaign in Yemen has allowed the UAE to secure a presence in strategic Yemeni ports such as Aden and Socotra.
The UAE also has forces on the other side of the strategic maritime passage connecting the Indian Ocean with the Red Sea, and maintains significant leverage over key players in the Horn of Africa. In a speech in London last month, Gargash emphasized the “important role” the UAE played in sealing a peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea after a 20-year-long conflict.
UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths has been shuttling between Sanaa, Aden, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in search of a political solution for Yemen. The bone of contention remains Hodeidah, which the coalition demands that the Houthis hand over as a precondition for talks.
“If the Houthis don’t withdraw from Hodeidah, they will be buried there,” al-Yamani, the Yemeni foreign minister, said. His talk of a possible siege of the city is what aid agencies fear could worsen the humanitarian crisis.
The Houthis argue that the demands over Hodeidah are meant to “ensure that the peace deal fails.”
“Houthis are a big faction of Yemeni society, so you cannot tell millions of Yemenis to evacuate Hodeidah province and hand it over to occupiers,” Zaid, the Houthi youth minister, told CNN.
The Houthis say they are willing to hand over financial and administrative supervision of the port to the UN and are demanding an end to the military offensive.
UN envoy Griffiths was tight-lipped about the progress of the talks. In a statement to CNN, he said he was encouraged by the “expression of willingness from both sides to listen to the other side.”
“Our first priority is to stop the war which would mean most importantly that the humanitarian cost is reduced … and we will be able to move to the next step which is building peace,” Griffiths said. He added that current efforts were focused on sparing Hodeidah “a massive offensive.”
The parties involved could meet in Geneva next month for a round of talks initiated by Griffiths.
Meanwhile, with ongoing battles in other parts of Yemen, the humanitarian community has warned that more war is “unsustainable.”
The country could also be facing its third major cholera epidemic, especially around Hodeidah city, the World Health Organization warned Friday.
“By the end of the year, if the parties to the conflict do not find a way to the negotiating table and find a political solution to end this conflict, 18 million innocent civilians are at risk of serious hunger and malnutrition. That’s a fact. That’s why we’re saying enough is enough,” UN Resident Humanitarian Coordinator Lisa Grande told CNN’s Becky Anderson last week.
In the air over Hodeidah, 20 parachutes speckle the barely-lit sky. The bundles, each equipped with a guiding unit, hit the ground as dawn breaks. But these sophisticated aid deliveries are barely a drop in the bucket for a city – and a country – reeling from three years of war.
“What is absolutely clear is that the price of this war and civilians has been shocking and the price unsustainable. This is why humanitarians are asking, insisting, demanding, begging all the parties to stop the fighting so they can get back on their feet and the country can get rebuilt,” Grande said last week.
CNN’s Hakim Almasmari contributed to this report from Sanaa.