Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United Nations have hit rock bottom after a series of incidents that has left a humbled Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon furious with Riyadh, two U.N. officials close to the U.N. chief have told me.
The relationship matters because only the United Nations has the reputation of neutrality necessary to forge a power-sharing deal that can finally end the conflict in Yemen.
Ban was cool to the Saudi-led operation from the start. On the first day of bombing on March 26 he called on countries to “refrain from external interference” which seeks to “foment conflict and instability.” Since then the Saudis have shown near total disregard for Ban and the U.N.’s role in the conflict.
- Ban was upset that the Saudis’ military operation in Yemen derailed U.N.-brokered talks in March.
- He believes he was lied to by the Saudis when they didn’t deliver on a promise of aid money to the U.N.
- The Saudis have blockaded ports bringing the U.N. to the verge of declaring a famine in Yemen.
- Ban was apoplectic that Riyadh forced a postponement in June of U.N.-led talks in Geneva; and then later broke two promises to Ban of a humanitarian truce.
- The U.N. made matters worse by ignoring Saudi conditions and declaring an unconditional truce in early July anyway, which never took hold.
- The Saudis unilaterally announced a humanitarian pause at the end of July bypassing the U.N., which also quickly fell apart.
- The Saudi offensive in August aimed at advancing on the capital of Sana’a has pushed a UN-brokered negotiated settlement even further off the table.
Saudi leaders seem confident there are no consequences for repeatedly slighting Ban: he’ll just take it and not say a word publicly. Ban believes in “quiet diplomacy.” He’s not known for convincing displays of emotion. His attempts at outrage over atrocities and injustices fall flat.
He told me once in an interview he screams at his staff, as if to show he’s no pushover. But that’s taking it out on his inferiors. Unlike Dag Hammarskjöld, who took on both Cold War powers (and may have cost him his life), and Kofi Annan, who dared criticize Washington over Iraq, Ban mostly remains mute in the face of superior power.
Behind the scenes is a different matter. Ban is palpably “angry” with the Saudis, as one UN official, who’s met with him recently, put it, and “frustrated,” said another official close to Ban.
On the first day of the Saudi aerial assault, Ban declared: “Despite escalation, negotiations remain the only option.” He was echoing his then envoy Jamal Benomar, who maintains that the destruction and death will end only with a U.N.-brokered deal that includes the Houthis. Right now the Saudis are making a mockery of that notion, and Ban’s taking it hard.
Benomar had worked with the Yemeni parties for four years. He told me they were close to a power-sharing deal when the start of Saudi bombing ended the talks. The outstanding issue was the power of the presidency. The Saudis wouldn’t pressure Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to take a reduced role, which Benomar says the Houthis would have accepted. They were ready to pull their militia out of Sana’a, to be replaced by a national unity force the U.N. had prepared for deployment, he says.
Ban’s New Envoy
Saudi-owned media called Benomar the “Houthi envoy” because the deal he was brokering would’ve given 20 percent of cabinet and parliament seats to the Houthis even though they had taken over the capital and at the time were headed towards Aden.
Benomar quit on April16 and Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed took over. “The Secretary-General was not happy that he had to pull Cheikh Ahmed out of his position of head of the emergency ebola response,” a U.N. official told me.
Two days after Benomar resigned, the Saudis responded to a U.N. appeal for humanitarian aid, pledging $274 million. It’s been suggested this was a quid-pro-quo to dump Benomar for Cheikh Ahmed. That’s been denied by U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq.
But Ban understood the Saudi money would go directly to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA). He became apoplectic when he learned the Saudis are instead keeping it in the King Salman Foundation, a U.N. official told me.
“We want to make sure that aid goes to all people in need,” another U.N. official said, fearing the Saudis will only distribute it to pro-government areas. Talks are continuing with the Saudis to convince them to let the U.N. control the money, he said, as well as to open ports to humanitarian aid, but so far to no avail. The Saudi blockade, leading to a potentially massive human crisis, has riled Ban, an official said. OCHA says about 80 percent of Yemen’s 24 million people need aid.
On May 8, the Saudis snubbed the U.N. again, agreeing to a five-day humanitarian truce with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris without U.N. input. But the pause was marred by continued bombing and fighting by both sides.
The Saudis rebuffed their preferred man, Cheikh Ahmed, when he tried to revive the U.N.-led negotiations in a neutral site. They instead held talks on May 18-19 in Riyadh, where they knew the Houthis would never come. Perhaps that was the point.
Ban didn’t go either. He sent Cheikh Ahmed. Ban’s spokesman virtually ignored the ill-fated conference, merely “taking note” of it. He stressed that all parties must take part in a U.N.-brokered, Yemeni-led process.
Ban Was ‘Humiliated’