Yemen is highly dependent on imported food given that only 2.2% of their land is arable:

Imported food constitutes 83% of the daily calories’ intake of Yemenis. While stability of imports is vital to food security in Yemen, these high percentages mean Yemen remains highly vulnerable to external shocks and global dynamics, compounded by domestic challenges.

But despite this glaring vulnerability, it seems like countries are not using it as leverage against the Houthis:

Despite disruptions to shipping in the Red Sea due to the targeting of commercial vessels by the SBA, import flows into Yemen have remained stable. In January 2024, a total 365,961 MT of basic food commodities (wheat grain, wheat flour, rice, sugar, and cooking oil) entered via Yemen’s Red Sea ports. This is 10 percent higher than the 2021-2023 average for January and 16 percent higher than the monthly average of 2023. The trend of stability is likely to continue, with key informants reporting that at least 170,000 MT of food will arrive within the coming months.

But... why? Wouldn't this be the fastest way to force the Houthis to back off and stop the attacks? Losing 83% of your food overnight would be a huge incentive to back off and stop attacking foreign ships.

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    Beside being highly illegal, this act would be one of the most effective ways of turning the surviving (and some would survive) non-Houthi Yemenis into Houthis. The same goes for Gaza, where Israel is creating a new generation of Hamas terrorists. Feb 17 at 13:30
  • @DavidHammen see politics.stackexchange.com/questions/81706/…. Anyone can be crushed if you’re willing to be ruthless about it. The Houthis rely on the Western world fighting with one hand behind their back, otherwise they’d never dare attack a single western ship. Hamas hoped Israel will fight with one hand behind their back too but they thought wrong. Feb 17 at 13:52
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    @DavidHammen why it's illegal? Can't countries decide not to export food to Yemen? Feb 19 at 11:08

2 Answers 2


Why not? Well, how about ethically dubious and would not work?

  • Been tried before, by Saudi and UAE, with the helps of the Houthis *. Heck, I even had a question about that, years ago. Far as I recall, Saudi and UAE have pretty much slinked off that war so it was nowhere as effective as posited here.

  • Western nations, at least in modern times, take their obligations towards IHL and the Geneva Conventions, which forbid starving civilians, somewhat seriously. Doesn't mean that have to sell wheat to them, but "disrupt" in the title implies they'd also stop others from delivering it.

  • The Houthis, weren't, and wouldn't be, bothered all that much. As they have the guns, they'd make sure they commandeer what food is available. Invite the international press to witness starving children, blame it on Western politicians. Great stuff for elections.

* The Houthis were generally co-blamed, along with Saudi and UAE, for participating in the food blockages that plagued the country at the time. I suppose a big part of this would be who controls the shipping ports controls the grain. They don't have to feed everyone, just their own people.

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    I can think of a counterexample to Western nations taking obligations seriously, and that is Palestine. Feb 16 at 20:50
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    @ReasonablyAgainstGenocide Western nations are generally not that impressed with the Gaza food blockade, have criticized it, would not operate their military in the same fashion and would get punished by their electorates for doing so. I happen to think they should push back more, but for various reasons haven't. Now, how does your comment relate to the Q at hand, which is how Western military forces should operate wrt Yemen, besides an opportunity for you to grandstand a bit? Feb 16 at 20:56
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    And it would turn disrupter into external enemy to fuel internal propaganda. According to some tests earlier this century, even five years of hunger and carpet bombing does not work at toppling the regime unless you can boost its effects with two nukes and a demigod.
    – PTwr
    Feb 16 at 21:34
  • @PTwr Perhaps, but don't read too much into that. WW1's Allied blockade on Germany's food supply arguably had a fair bit of effect on German military and politics (I get the sense the population jumped on the idea when negotiations were opened when Ludendorff had his breakdown after failed offensive #3 and it was a factor in the general collapse in November). And while Japan did collapse due to nukes, stating that its resistance would have continued indefinitely despite starvation is reading way too much into things, IMHO. Those were horrible circumstances tho, not to be emulated lightly Feb 17 at 2:16

Countries that have been attacked by Houthis would be well within their rights to stop all trades with Yemen. However, unilaterally attempting other countries to forcefully end economic ties with Yemen would violate international laws.

Importantly, disrupting food imports to starve a whole population can be considered a war crime called "collective punishment" that is prohibited by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention:

Article 33 - Individual responsibility, collective penalties, pillage, reprisals

  • No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.
  • Pillage is prohibited.
  • Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.

and Article 4 of Additional Protocol II

Article 4 - Fundamental guarantees

  1. All persons who do not take a direct part or who have ceased to take part in hostilities, whether or not their liberty has been restricted, are entitled to respect for their person, honour and convictions and religious practices. They shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction. It is prohibited to order that there shall be no survivors.

  2. Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, the following acts against the persons referred to in paragraph 1 are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever:

(a) violence to the life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular murder as well as cruel treatment such as torture, mutilation or any form of corporal punishment;

(b) collective punishments; ....

Note also that even the most sanctioned country in the world - North Korea - hasn't been barred from importing agricultural produce (or even farm equipments) to feed its population.

Apart from the violation of international treaties and International Humanitarian Laws, countries that export food and have economic ties with Yemen have an economic incentive to do so and will obviously resist disruption of their trade activities unless offered suitable compensation or better economic deals.

Another important thing to note here is that good democracies are always vary of exercising their powers judiciously. Doing so creates a precedent that others can then call upon to exercise these powers. In international politics, what can be done to one country, can be done to your country too.

A proper consideration of your suggestion also highlights a major flaw in your suggestion - the assumption that you are dealing with rational actors. Stopping food imports, and the prospects of starvation can allow those in power to whip up even more pro-war hysteria and mobilise a whole nation to war. In such a case, the fear of the Israeli - Palestine conflict expanding to engulf even more regions are a very real possibility, and something that the international community doesn't want. (It also doesn't help that Iranian officials have been publicly claiming that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister is deliberately and actively seeking to expand the war in the region).

If blocking food imports would mean that we are back to square one - to find a suitable military solution to defeat the Houthis - then it is more prudent to consider a proper military solution that won't add to humanitarian cost that a deliberate starving of a whole population would entail.


  1. Article 33 - Individual responsibility, collective penalties, pillage, reprisals

  2. Article 4 - Fundamental guarantees

  3. Former foreign minister urges Iran not to get lured into war with Israel

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