Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become more and more assertive since King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ascended to the throne in early 2015. Under its new ruler, and perhaps more importantly his son, the deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom has entered the fray of Yemen’s civil war and has taken a much more visible role in pushing its agenda at an international level. The new king has reputedly used Saudi Arabia’s financial heft as leverage to pressure the UN into limiting its criticisms of the conservative monarchy’s actions at home and abroad and used its trade and political ties with Western allies, particularly the UK, to convince them to push for its agenda at the UN and elsewhere.
The most recent example of the kingdom’s newfound assertiveness is the extraordinary maneuver that saw UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announce that he was temporarily removing Saudi Arabia from a list of countries accused of violating the rights of children during war in a new report on the conflict in Yemen. This is an ‘irreversible and unconditional’ decision, according to the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdullah al-Mouallimi. The UN has, oddly, said that it stands by the content of the report, but the fact the secretary general has also agreed that the UN will review its reporting with Yemen’s government in exile in Riyadh and Saudi military leaders is a clear signal that the push is working insofar as Salman is getting his way.
But the long-term effects of the decision, for the UN and Saudi Arabia, will likely come with other, unintended consequences.
Riyadh was listed as having violated the rights of children in armed conflict, joining a so-called ‘rogues’ gallery’ of states and armed groups, for its part in the Yemen war. The UN report, released on 3 June, describes the Saudi-led campaign of aerial bombardment in Yemen, ongoing since 26 March 2015, as having caused some 60 per cent of all casualties among children since the conflict began. In total, the report attributes the death of 510 children and 667 more injuries to the Saudis.
The kingdom, which is deeply sensitive to criticisms of its rights record at home and abroad, was furious at the report and apparently spent much of the following weekend furiously lobbying the UN to remove its name from the list. According to Foreign Policy‘s Colum Lynch, Riyadh threatened to pull funds and aid for UN humanitarian work and other projects, and convinced its regional allies to pile further pressure on to the organization. Ban is said to have been contacted by officials from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Bangladesh as part of a ‘full court press’ aimed at getting him to revoke the designation.
Naming and shaming
Saudi officials told Ban that the report was biased and based on false reports provided by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, also listed as violators of children’s rights in conflict in the report, according to Al Arabiya. No mention was made of the US military, whose role in the bombing of a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Afghanistan was referenced in the UN report but attributed to ‘international forces’. In effect, if other powerful countries aren’t named and shamed for political reasons, the argument seems to be, Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be either.
Whatever was said, it worked – to an extent at least. Ban announced that Saudi Arabia’s listing would be suspended on 7 June, just four days after he personally launched the report.
But contradicting al-Mouallimi, the UN has said that it stands by its methodology, and that the kingdom’s removal is temporary; it will last only until the data used in the report has been reviewed by the kingdom and the government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. That may be the case, but the damage has already been done, both to the UN’s reputation and to Saudi Arabia’s already battered image.
The decision to list the kingdom and then suspend its designation is terrible for the credibility of the UN, especially given that the report had been in circulation since at least April. If the Saudis do win the argument and have themselves removed from the list permanently by arguing that the methodology was flawed, the UN’s ability to pressure others to improve protections for children in conflict will be irrevocably broken.
Pressure on Western governments
If Saudi Arabia can undermine the credibility of the UN reporting on such a crucial issue, then why should other countries pay attention to the norms they are meant to uphold? By caving in to Saudi pressure, Ban has hurt the UN’s ability to speak definitively on the protection of children in conflict, and undermined his own efforts to bring human rights into the mainstream – a core tenet of his early platform as secretary general.
That a UN member state has been able to so nakedly use its influence and financial firepower to influence reporting on such an important issue signals that, for the UN and the international community, humanitarian law and the rights of children come second to political and financial expediency.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has done little to improve its international standing. Most human rights groups are incandescent with rage over the move, and are likely to redouble already fierce criticism of the Saudis’ conduct in Yemen – and of Western indifference to the actions of a major oil producer and weapons market. The suspension of the designation is hardly likely to convince anyone that the contents of the report are wrong; if anything, the opposite is true.
This move puts more pressure on Western governments – the US, UK and France in particular – to justify their close ties with, and defence of the reputation of, the kingdom to voters. That is probably the exact opposite of what the kingdom hoped to achieve. Salman would be well advised to take a more nuanced approach next time around; and Ban to stand up for the values he claims to promote.
Peter Salisbury joined Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme as an associate fellow in September 2015.