Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the UN: A Case Study in Power


Rubble in the beautiful Old City. Image from timesofisrael.

In the civil war that rocked Yemen in the 1960s, regional and international powers choose sides, and used a local conflagration as a breeding ground for proxy battles, most notably between royalism, as led by Saudi Arabia, and republicanism, led by Egypt and Nasser. Needless to say, there were Cold War mechanisms as well, as there were in every conflict around then. The war in Yemen was considered not just a war for Yemen, but one where the right system could prevail. Nasser was beaten and battered. He lost 15,000 men in that conflict, about as many as in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel combined, and indeed, the drain of Yemen contributed mightily to the humiliating loss in the Six Day War.

That’s not to say Egypt was the big loser. The chaos and savagery of regional hatred made the war in Yemen bitter and more cruel than it had to be, with Egyptian forces using chemical weapons to try to gain back ground they had lost.  Looking at today’s overlapping civil wars in Yemen, where the Saudis, for both historical and immediate reasons, have pummeled the Yemeni people with a hellish barrage, not much has changed.

Saudi outrages against human rights, particularly the rights of children, in their indiscriminate campaign, led to the UN putting the Arab-led coalition on a child right’s blacklist. This was a big deal, a huge diplomatic strike against any moral ground the Saudis might have had. Needless to say, this provoked outrage, and this week the blacklist was lifted.

A damning investigation by Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy claimed that the Saudis threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in UN funding unless they were removed from the list, a blatant act of bribery (though, from the Saudi point of view, it was sheer interest). Needless to say, the Sauds deny this report, saying “We did not use threats or intimidation and we did not talk about funding,” and that the report was changed after the UN had a joint review with the Alliance.

Interestingly, the UN all but admits that this is what happened. Ban Ki Moon said yesterday that he stood by the report, and that this was the most difficult decision he’s ever had to make, but that he “had to consider the very real prospect that millions of other children would suffer grievously if, as was suggested to me, countries would de-fund many UN programmes.”

This, in a way, is correct, and show the tragedy of power. There isn’t much that the UN can do without money, which gives rich nations like Saudi Arabia, and powerful ones like the US and Russia, all the control. These are games played in air-conditioned rooms over millions of lives, over numbers on a spreadsheet. The UN backing down, almost understandably, demonstrates that blackmail works, and that the way the system is set up blackmail can always work, if you have the money to make it happen. Ban, and anyone else who is thinking globally, and not just about their own little corner, have to do a dreadful balancing act.

It’s the tragedy of Yemeni history writ large, but also strangely small. Decisions that impact it aren’t made in Yemen, and they are barely made with Yemen in mind. The battles that take place on its soil almost ignore local conditions, or rather only see local concerns through the prism of power. Saudi Arabia understands Yemen better than any other country in the world, and understands how to work with and manipulate the tribal system, but even they got sucked into the battle partly because of the idea that Iran was supporting the Houthis (who are, lineage-wise, the same people the Saudis supported in the 60s). And now Saudi Arabia, who has always wanted a Yemen that is divided and weak but still stable enough not to be chaotic, is helping to make sure that there is a vast and heavily-populated failed state on its southern border. That the Saudis, like the Egyptians, will suffer for their heavy-handedness is cold comfort to the people ground down, like so many mountains in the implacable progress of erosion, by powerful forces who see their lives worth pennies on the dollar.

6 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the UN: A Case Study in Power

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