Saudi Arabia Wins Battle With UN Over Human Rights in Yemen but Loses Its Wars

Riyadh threatened to cut ties with United Nations if it was blacklisted for violations against children in Yemen.

People stand by part of a Saudi fighter jet found in Bani Harith district north of Yemen's capital Sanaa, May 24, 2015.
Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Saudi Arabia threatened to break ties with the United Nations this week after the organization dared to assert that the Saudi-led military coalition was responsible for the deaths of at least 510 of the 785 children who were killed in the war in Yemen war last year and the injury of more than half of the 1,168 children who were wounded.

Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the UN, Abdallah Al-Muallimi, was furious. Terming the numbers “exaggerated and ridiculous,” he demanded that the “Arab coalition” be immediately removed from the UN’s annual blacklist of countries and organizations that harmed children during military conflicts.

According to the journal Foreign Policy, this was no mere polite protest: Riyadh threatened to stop its annual contributions to the UN, which total millions of dollars. On Wednesday, Riyadh denied making any such threat, but meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon decided to remove the Arab coalition from the list until the data is rechecked.

Perhaps Saudi Arabia copied a page from Israel, which last year mobilized American support to reverse a decision to include it alongside Hamas on the same blacklist. For the sake of balance, Ban decided to remove both Israel and Hamas.

It was the second time this year Riyadh has threatened all-out war against its Western “enemies.” Last month, it was furious over a bill approved in the U.S. Senate that would have allowed victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families to sue the Saudis.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir warned that if the bill were passed, Riyadh would sell all its U.S. assets, worth an estimated $750 billion. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chuck Schumer, promptly introduced an amendment allowing the justice and state departments to stay court action if the administration were holding negotiations with the Saudis to settle the suit. The amendment passed, the Saudis were pacified and their holdings remained unsold.

But Riyadh’s diplomatic victories over the UN and the United States don’t compensate for its failures, both military and political, in the theaters that really matter, like Yemen.

Since March 2015, a Saudi-led force from the Gulf states has been fighting in Yemen, with Riyadh supplying the airstrikes and the United Arab Emirates most of the ground troops. According to the Saudi media, this coalition has already ousted the Houthi rebels from about 45 percent of the territory they had captured in southern Yemen.

Several cease-fires over the last 15 months have broken down, and Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are now trying unsuccessfully to enforce the latest agreement. Riyadh wants to implement a UN resolution calling for the Houthis, who are allied with troops loyal to Yemen’s ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to withdraw from all conquered territory, after which Yemen would hold elections and draft a constitution guaranteeing minority rights.

Riyadh has spent billions on the Yemen war, in which more than 7,000 people have been killed, thousands wounded and some 2.8 million displaced. Yet even so, it considers this war a secondary issue.

Its primary goal is to blunt Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East — in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Yemen. But so far, it hasn’t succeeded on any of these fronts.

In Syria, Washington and Moscow are setting the strategy. In Afghanistan, Iran recently did an about-face and began developing close ties with a former enemy, the Taliban, in an effort to counter the Islamic State. In Iraq, Riyadh’s influence is limited to the Sunni tribes; the Iraqi government coordinates with Tehran. In Lebanon, the dominant power is Iran’s ally Hezbollah, which continues to block the election of a new president. And in Yemen, the Saudis’ involvement has revealed how weak they are militarily, despite being armed to the teeth.

The blogger known as Mujtahid, who has become a fount of information about the Saudi government’s inner workings, published a document earlier this month, purportedly written by a senior Saudi officer, which detailed the military failures in Yemen. The document said that even though the Saudis command the Arab coalition, not everyone obeys its orders — and especially not UAE soldiers, who are the principal ground troops. Moreover, morale is low, training is inadequate and intelligence is insufficient to prepare an effective target bank; the airstrikes began before any ground troops were mobilized; Yemenite tribes that were lavishly paid to join the fighting haven’t kept their promises; and coalition casualties are much higher than reported.

The pro-Hezbollah Lebanese paper Al-Ahed even termed the document “Saudi Arabia’s Winograd,” referring to the Winograd Commission, which investigated Israel’s failures in the Second Lebanon War of 2006.

Riyadh’s military failures in Yemen also raise doubts about its ability to stage military interventions elsewhere if needed. In February, it said it was willing to send air and ground forces to Syria to help fight the Islamic State and defend Aleppo from the Syrian government’s onslaught. It did send planes to an airbase in Turkey, but neither those planes nor any Saudi group troops are known to have done any fighting in Syria.

Washington evidently isn’t thrilled by the prospect of Riyadh entering the already crowded Syrian battlefield, and the decision was also controversial within Saudi Arabia itself. Opponents feared it would be very expensive, and also worried that Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son, has zero military experience.

All this has undermined Saudi Arabia’s previously omnipotent image. Even in the diplomatic field, its main strength, it is having trouble dictating the rules of the game, even to its friends. For instance, it couldn’t persuade Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi to change his policy toward Turkey, despite his unarguable dependence on Riyadh.

Fourteen years ago, Riyadh managed to force the entire Arab League to accept its peace proposal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today, similar success would be unlikely — due not only to its own weakness, but also to Iran’s increasing influence, America’s retreat from the Mideast and the weakness of its Arab allies.

True, Saudi Arabia can still successfully make financial threats against the UN and Washington. But it can do so only on minor issues, like being removed from a UN blacklist or preventing lawsuits — not to achieve strategic goals.