The Saudi Royals — Unchained

Exclusive: With President Obama afraid of upsetting the Saudis anymore after the Iran-nuclear deal, he has given them pretty much a free hand to bomb and blockade Yemen. Meanwhile, the Saudi royals are displaying their contempt for the United Nations and its Yemen peace efforts, Joe Lauria reports.

By Joe Lauria

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.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his entourage arrive to greet President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his entourage arrive to greet President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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 Impunity

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’

Following the failed Riyadh conference, Cheikh Ahmed thought he had the parties’ agreement to meet in Geneva without pre-conditions at the end of May. But the Saudis yanked the carpet from under Ban, insisting on the pre-condition of implementing an April Security Council resolution that called for Hadi’s restoration and Houthi withdrawal from its territorial gains.

The Secretary-General had to postpone the announced meeting four days before it was to begin. “He was humiliated by the Saudis when they did this,” a high-ranking U.N. official told me. “He was really furious.”

After the Americans applied pressure, meeting separately with Houthi leaders in Oman on May 31, the Saudis finally agreed to indirect Geneva talks. Ban flew to the Swiss city to open the conference on June 15, and met with the Saudi and Hadi delegations. But where were the Houthis?

Their plane was grounded in Djibouti for eight hours because Egypt refused to open its airspace. A senior diplomat familiar with Yemen, told me Egypt, dependent on Saudi money, kept the Houthis grounded “on instructions” from Riyadh, preventing them from meeting Ban.

The warring parties never met directly, with Cheikh Ahmed only seeing the Houthis in their hotel, where they later held a press conference on June 19 that was disrupted by protestors and devolved into a fistfight on camera.

“Geneva was a fiasco,” a U.N. official said.

A Ramadan Ceasefire?

In Geneva Ban called for a Ramadan ceasefire, backed by the U.S. and European Union, to allow aid into an increasingly desperate country.

On July 8, Hadi wrote a letter to Ban, that has never been released, but which I have seen, that clearly outlines the Hadi/Saudi conditions for such a cease-fire.

The Houthis had to withdraw from Aden, Taiz, Mareb and Shabwa provinces as an initial step. The truce would begin in those provinces once withdrawal was complete. The ceasefire would have gradually been extended to other Yemeni provinces after Houthi withdrawal from those areas. All political prisoners and “arbitrarily detained individuals” had to be released.

If the Houthis made any military move anywhere during the truce, the Saudis could “respond immediately and without prior notice.” The Saudi-led coalition would maintain its air and sea blockades to prevent weapons from getting to the Houthis.

But the U.N. wanted an unconditional truce. Despite these very clear conditions, U.N. headquarters was split on whether to announce an unconditional truce anyway. The faction that did won: A truce without conditions was announced by Ban’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric on July 9, who said Hadi had accepted the truce and that Ban had “received assurances” from all sides. Ban’s people say Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir promised Ban by telephone that the cease-fire would begin.

But a senior diplomat whom I spoke to was immensely skeptical. “The [U.N.] says [Hadi and the Saudis] accepted the truce, but they accepted with conditions,” he said. “So this whole thing is misleading. They are giving the impression that something is happening, but this will backfire.”

When the truce never happened, the Saudis incredibly said that Hadi, who is in exile in a Riyadh palace, never told them about it. That was the last straw for the Saudis and U.N. “ceasefires.”

U.N. Sidelined

On July 25, the Saudis tried calling for a unilateral truce bypassing the U.N. altogether. The Houthis didn’t agree because the U.N. wasn’t involved, and the whole thing again collapsed. The United Nations has been effectively sidelined and the fighting has intensified, especially around Aden, which pro-Hadi forces captured last month.

Saudi Arabia has shown contempt for the U.N. before. In 2013, the Kingdom was elected to a coveted, two-year, non-permanent seat on the Security Council after an expensive lobbying campaign. But when the U.S. failed to bomb Syria after the August 2013 chemical attack in Damascus and instead began talking a nuclear deal with the Iranians, the Saudis abruptly renounced the seat in a fit of pique that seemed only to spite itself. It was a sign of a new Saudi independence in international affairs.

“The Saudis are not even listening to the Americans anymore,” a U.N. official said, let alone the U.N. “The Americans don’t have access to [Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman, who is calling the shots. He’s young and doesn’t care about the Americans.” Prince Mohammed this summer visited St. Petersburg, and concluded a $10 billion Saudi investment with Russia, in spite of American-led sanctions against Moscow.

Saudi Arabia thinks it can win militarily in Yemen and ignore the U.N. until it’s time for the clean-up, but ultimately Riyadh “will need the U.N. to put together a power-sharing deal, that will have to include the Houthis,” as one U.N. official told me.

Clearly that day hasn’t arrived yet. And in the meantime 80 percent of Yemenis need help to survive and Ban Ki-moon privately stews about it.

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached at[email protected]  and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.


20 comments for “The Saudi Royals — Unchained

  1. Thomas SCHINKEL
    August 18, 2015 at 20:16

    Surprise anyone? The same Saudis that are responsible for 9/11!!! Hello . . .!

  2. August 15, 2015 at 23:06

    I think your article about the Saudis and the UN is very interesting and it confirms some of my suspicions about what is going on. However, I do have a question about your statement near the end of the article that the “Saudis aren’t even listening to the the Americans”. It would seem to me that the Americans have a lot invested in the Saudi war on Yemen. The Americans are providing intelligence and assisting with airborne refueling of their fighter jets and other technical issues. The Americans, along with the British and the French, have warships in the Gulf that are assisting with the blockade. So, what does it mean to say that the Saudis aren’t listening to the Americans?

    Since I do not want to assume that the Americans are enslaved by the Saudis, I have to assume they are in a partnership with them. That would indicate that Ban’s nose is out of joint because he disagrees with the behavior of his masters, but they just don’t care what he thinks as long as he only expresses his disagreement behind the scenes. In June, the US passed a resolution in the Security Council condemning the Houthis. I was very disappointed as it was the day before I had printed out my petition (described below) and the information on the signers for members of the Security Council. Just recently, the Russians vetoed an attempt in the Security Council to impose Chapter 7 on Yemen, which would further increase the mandate of the Saudis to destroy the country.

    I hold the Saudi Princes fully responsible for their abuse and I put a petition on back in June (Stop The Saudi Attack on Yemen) demanding that the Security Council take a stand against the Saudi war, and if the Saudis don’t stand down, then refer young prince Mohammed and his father King Salman to the ICC. However, the Americans must carry their share of responsibility because it isn’t a matter of whether the young Saudi Prince listens to them but rather a matter of fact that the Americans provide ongoing logistical support necessary to an operation they claim not to support. This is, at minimum, a serious instance of codependency, and most likely an indication that the Americans aren’t telling us the truth about their stance on the Saudi’s devastating war on Yemen. Ban’s frustration would confirm the latter.

  3. rosemerry
    August 15, 2015 at 15:58

    It is easy to blame the UN, but with the USA and Israel deciding on the agenda and the rules, and now with their democratic colleague Saudi Arabia, what chance has diplomacy or any decency got?
    Why is the USA always on the side of the criminals??

  4. OH
    August 15, 2015 at 10:16

    Regime change on the ISIS-backing, child slaving Saudis, all the way – and whoever defends them is a traitor to America.

  5. Mark
    August 15, 2015 at 07:06

    The UN, like any other political body consisting of humans, is just one more political body prone to be biased and partial because of political corruption — which we’re so far unable to escaped because it results from a combination of instincts and human nature.

    The same kind of politics the UN is supposed to govern and regulate, is at work inside the UN itself — making unjust political favors common practice within.

    The UN has Zero overall credibility especially when it comes to Middle East affairs. Another fault within the UN decision making process is veto power — which may have a valid purpose in certain circumstances but is not valid when one country can stand in the way of justice by denying the obvious. The US veto power has been used to shield Israel some 70 times or so, from facing the consequences of committing various war crimes and other violations.

    This reality that makes the UN a feckless organization in many, though maybe not all, instances. But if the UN and it’s decisions are so easily corrupted as to allow war crimes, then what purpose does it serve other than to help in “legitimizing” those crimes?

  6. Peter Loeb
    August 15, 2015 at 07:00


    “Anti-Semitism” has come to be a pejorative meaning not what
    it seems but anything and everything which questions the
    criminal state-terrorism of Israel. Of course, in its original sense.
    “Anti-Semitism” is not a good thing. However in the context in
    which it has come to be used by supporters of Israel uber alles,
    one can honestly say that MORE so-called “anti-Semitism” is needed,

    More and tougher criticism of Israel and its lawless, criminal
    behavior together with tough sanctions and embargoes are in order,

    I doubt seriously that the Obama Administration will pursue
    such much-needed policies. The US has given full support
    to Israel’s brutal and fatal oppression for years and years.
    So many years it has become “US policy”.

    Whether the Israeli lobby wins this particular battle on
    the Iran deal (it says here) both Israel and the US have
    lost big time. They have lost in the eyes of international
    opinion. Meanwhile this Administration gives billions
    of dollars to Israel in weaponry.

    It would be a pipe dream if more politicians on every
    level realized the evil they have been giving their full
    support to for decades. This will not happen.

    Instead, they will continue the extermination of
    others (they call it “retaliatory” actions after Israeli
    provocations) very much as the colonists exterminated
    Native Americans as divine works in God’s name and
    “honor” (North, Central, and South America).

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  7. onno
    August 15, 2015 at 06:00

    With lack of leadership in Washington and neocons preoccupied in attacking Russia in the hope they can hold on to their loosing battle for control of this planet. This American dream has ended and today many leaders of the world realize that USA has become a loser and take their own initiatives as we alos see with the Saudi’s who even intend to buy Russian weapons. US foreign policy with Kerry and Nuland is showing what’s wrong with the US political/capitalistic system of destabilization, aggression and bombing their opponents under the motive of establishing democracies.

    Washington doesn’t realize that 100 years of wars and invading sovereign nations killing and removing head of states because they became too socialistic or communistic in the eyes of power hungry and materialistic Washington neocons. Case in point is that today Washington is openly endorsing a neo-Nazi government in Kiev, Ukraine causing the murder of 7000 mostly women and children.
    When are the American people waking up and realize what Washington is doing with their hard-earned tax dollars

  8. incontinent reader
    August 15, 2015 at 04:40

    It is not only the Houthis who need a place at the table, but also Saleh, Hadi’s predecessor, who still enjoys strong popular support in Yemen and the loyalty of officers in Yemen’s army- and with whom the Houthis are presently allied.

  9. dahoit
    August 14, 2015 at 18:18

    The Saudis are now(01?) in the Zionist shotgun seat.They are protected,by the Zionist media,and our vassal govt.Ban won’t get any back dues from US if he keeps squeaking.
    Think about the teflon treatment of SA after the day that changed everything.Not one followup of anything related to them,or their new buddies,Israel,for that matter.

  10. Joe Lauria
    August 14, 2015 at 17:20

    Thank you Ahmed

  11. Ahmed
    August 14, 2015 at 15:43

    Fantastic article, thanks a lot Joe Lauria.. bless,

    • Anonymous
      August 14, 2015 at 17:18

      Thank you Ahmed.

  12. Abe
    August 14, 2015 at 11:59

    Washington has completely lost its strategic leverage over Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom that had been considered a Washington vassal ever since FDR’s deal to bring US oil majors in on an exclusive basis in 1945.

    That breakdown in US-Saudi communication adds a new dimension to the recent June 18 high-level visit to St. Petersburg by Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister and son of King Salman, to meet President Vladimir Putin. The meeting was carefully prepared by both sides as the two discussed up to $10 billion of trade deals including Russian construction of peaceful nuclear power reactors in the Kingdom and supplying of advanced Russian military equipment and Saudi investment in Russia in agriculture, medicine, logistics, retail and real estate. Saudi Arabia today is the world’s largest oil producer and Russia a close second. A Saudi-Russian alliance on whatever level was hardly in the strategy book of the Washington State Department planners.…Oh shit!

    Now that OPEC oil glut the Saudis have created has cracked the shaky US effort to push oil prices back up. The price fall is being further fueled by fears that the Iran deal will add even more to the glut, and that the world’s second largest oil importer, China, may cut back imports or at least not increase them as their economy slows down.

    US’s Saudi Oil Deal from Win-Win to Mega-Loose
    By F. William Engdahl

  13. david
    August 14, 2015 at 10:53

    I believe that this is a consequence of US fracking finally moving into the reworked ME into a new paradigm. Saudi and Israel as partners are recognizing that the US (UK) is strategically pulling back from having its ground forces in the middle east and NATO will stay out also. So they are deciding to become the regional police themselves. The US MIC’s support is being offered the chance to keep revenue up by increasing arms sales to Saudi and Israel, likely with US acting as the wholesaler.
    The question is how Eygpt & Iran will accommodate this new open alliance. Will a cold war now ensue between these middle power players, or will the local hot wars meld into a larger one as Turkey also flexes it muscles to protect its patch? Could go either way I fear.

  14. Anonymous
    August 14, 2015 at 04:35

    Ban ki moon is weak. Therefore the UN is weak.

    • OH
      August 15, 2015 at 10:22

      If they are weak, it is only because they are unable to control the robe and tiara wearing Saudi-ISIS gang.

      • Joseph Zrnchik
        August 18, 2015 at 07:08

        Send Hezbollah and they will wipe out the entire cowardly Saudi military.

    • imad elabed
      August 16, 2015 at 15:12

      Nothing to do with Ban Ki Moon. The U.N is just a tools to get the superpower agenda in place. Its toothless. Palestinians been living in refugee camps & under occupation for 70 years, what did the U.N do?,beside creating more refugees

    • Anonymous
      August 18, 2015 at 01:22

      It is not about Ben Ki Moon, the present USG no longer wants to be involved in other nation business, they have chosen to do it the drones way. At a time every one thought that the world is entering the Third World War, but we are not yet have entered the time zone. The world has become free for all, if Saudis attacking Yemen is because USG is been giving the Saudis green light to create the war, so as the Iranian trying to get the Shiite majority rights in Qatar, Yemen and Iraq or in Syria. In last 6 years the political developments been about liberalism, Neo fascism and barbarism which is the result of any of these system protecting their existence, from the Saudis barbarians ISIS to Neo fascism in Europe and USA, the religious wars is the result of the west political system being collapsed, imperialism is no longer, in practical terms, there to implement its hegemonic ideas, capitalism is on the edge to be destroyed by itself, which is the reason for left overs of dictatorship, the militarism and Neo liberals using ISIS and other fanatics hoping for these wars continue. Otherwise Ben Ki Moon is just a manager of a facility which no longer have a saying.

      • Mhmdzain
        August 21, 2015 at 10:59

        Everybody is always ignoring the hidden strong role of the Jewish Cliques in the US and the Saudi family . Al Saud are stalling in Yemen under the direction of Tel Abib whose aim is to destroy Yemen as much as they can . They are practically the real secret political and millitary managers of the dirty war in Yemen .

Comments are closed.