Al-Hodeida, western Yemen, is the most important sea port serving the areas of Yemen held by rebel forces, including the capital Sanaa. Many commercial imports and relief supplies enter Yemen through the port, which is home to some 600,000 people.

The UN says that more than 22 million Yemenis are dependent on humanitarian aid; around 8.4 million of them at risk of starvation. Because of the destruction of water and sanitation facilities, a huge health crisis is unfolding, with more than a million cases of cholera, according to the World Health Organisation. Aid agencies warn that many Yemenis’ welfare hangs by a thread and with the attack on al-Hodeida that thread could break.

The Yemeni Government and its Saudi-led backers say that the port of al-Hodeida is a lifeline for the Houthis rebels. According to the Government side, the Houthis are receiving arms from Iran, including ballistic missiles and drones; the Saudi Government claims to have intercepted five ballistic missiles and downed two drones in Saudi airspace between 13 and 15 June. The Yemeni Government says that the Houthis are diverting aid to support their war effort.

The airport falls to the Government

In spite of international efforts at the UN and elsewhere to dissuade the Government from attacking al-Hodeida, an assault began on 12 June. Backed by Saudi air strikes, government forces and other anti-Houthi groups besieged the airport, and on 19 June troops stormed the airport to the sound of artillery and machine-gun fire. On 20 June, the coalition announced that Government forces were in full control of the airport.

The foreign minister of the UAE, a member of the Saudi-led coalition, said the coalition wants to minimise damage by only taking the airport and the port, to avoid street-by-street fighting in the city. The coalition is leaving an escape route open so that rebel fighters can leave al-Hodeida for the capital Sanaa.

It is the fate of the port itself that worries aid agencies. If the attack goes according to plan and Hodeida falls quickly, the naval blockade that has been in place in varying degrees of intensity since 2015 could be lifted, and a Saudi relief plan could go into operation.

Critics argue, however, that the Houthi rebels are unlikely to surrender, even if al-Hodeida falls, and that the intensification of the conflict could bring mass starvation. They say that the fighting could go on for weeks or months, and damage to the port’s facilities would endanger aid supplies for some time.

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Using aid as a weapon?

Some agencies have criticised the Saudi-led coalition’s aid plan as being used to gain advantage in the war. The International Rescue Committee says that the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operation “politicises aid by attempting to consolidate control over access and transit points”.

Both sides are accused by rights organisations of violations of international humanitarian law – bombing and shelling civilian targets, detaining people illegally and employing torture. The Houthis’ practice of firing missiles and shelling indiscriminately over the Saudi border, killing and injuring civilians, has also been denounced as illegal.

UN action

The United Nations appointed a new special envoy to Yemen in 2018: Martin Griffiths, a British diplomat specialising in mediation. Griffiths has tried to negotiate a ceasefire and proposed that the Houthis turn al-Hodeida over to a neutral international body overseen by the UN.

That attempt appeared doomed when the UAE’s foreign minister said on 18 June that the Saudi-led coalition would only accept an unconditional surrender.

Some commentators have argued that both the UN envoy and the UN itself are viewed with suspicion by the Houthi side, who think the UN is biased in favour of the Saudis. President Trump’s apparent close relationship with the Saudi leadership has exacerbated that view.

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UK Government position

The situation in Yemen, and particularly the assault on al-Hodeida backed by Saudi air power, has drawn attention to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In June, the UK Government answered a Parliamentary Question on UK arms sales in the light of the planned attack on al-Hodeida.

Middle East Minister Alistair Burt said the Government does not issue export licences where arms might be used in contravention of international law:

Export licences for all countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU & National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. We keep our assessments under careful and continual review, in light of events. The Criteria state, among other things, that the Government will not grant a licence where there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

The UK Government has called for restraint and for all sides to start negotiations in good faith to find a political solution.

Ben Smith is a Senior Library Clerk specialising in International Affairs and Defence in the House of Commons Library.