Pope Francis became the first pontiff to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula on Monday, as he received a pompous welcome in the United Arab Emirates, just after he slammed the bloody Yemen war they help to spearhead.
The Emirates have rolled out the welcome mat for Francis, who was greeted by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and his entourage on Monday. The pontiff arrived with a delegation of clerics and was presented a bouquet of flowers. The papal visit, a first of its kind to the Islam-dominated Arabian Peninsula, will continue on Tuesday with a much-awaited mess for about 135,000 Catholics. Top UAE officials and Muslim religious leaders are expected to attend it.
Speaking ahead of the visit, Francis said that he hopes to use an opportunity to write “a new page in the history of relations between religious.”
The visit is overshadowed by the Yemen war, in which the UAE plays a significant part. The brutal conflict has put the war-ravaged country on the brink of total devastation, with over 60,000 reported killed as result of the hostilities and further 85,000 perished due to famine, epidemics and lack of basic medical care.
While the UAE’s involvement in the conflict has not been so high-profile as that of Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition of Arab states against the Houthi rebels and in support of the ousted president Mansur Hadi, it has contributed both troops and warplanes. The kingdom’s role in the almost a four-year-war was highlighted in the recent report that the American military have been training Emirati fighter pilots to be dispatched in Yemen.
Before his departure for Abu Dhabi, Francis condemned the war, calling on all sides to stick to a shaky truce deal struck up in December. The truce has been repeatedly violated since. The UN this weekend hosted a meeting between the warring parties on a sheep in the Red Sea in an attempt to preserve it.
“The cry of these children and their parents rises up to God,” Francis said during his customary Sunday address in Vatican. He urged to pray for the children “who are hungry, who are thirsty,” lack medicine and tread on a brink of death.
Francis said he follows the humanitarian crisis in the country with “great concern,” pointing out, in particular, that despite acute food shortage, “no access to food supplies is enabled.” He was referring to the Arab coalition naval and air blockade of the country, which relied heavily on food import to feed itself even before the war broke out in 2015.
“I call on the concerned parties and the international community to assure the distribution of food and work for the well-bring of Yemeni people.”
The pontiff has often invoked the sufferings of civilians in Yemen in his public addresses, using his Christmas mess in December to endorse peace talks and express hopes that a UN-brokered ceasefire “can finally bring relief to all those children and people exhausted by war and famine.”
The hopes that the truce agreement signed in Sweden would pave the way for a lasting peace were trumpeted after violence broke out again mid-January. Following a Houthi drone attack on a government military parade that killed six, the Saudi-led coalition carried massive airstrikes on the Yemeni capital, engaging both military and civilian targets. The Houthis called the bombing “very violent,” and said many civilians were targeted.
The flare-up in tensions is feared to derail the talks. On Saturday, Jordan said it would host further negotiations, but fell short of announcing the date. The talks are expected to focus on a prisoner swap deal.