United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 28, 2018 // Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Commentary by Waleed Alhariri and Nickolas Ask
When the United Nations Security Council took a position on the Yemen war five years ago, it quite naturally supported the interests of some of its member states over the armed Houthi movement which had, after all, swept into Sana’a, chased out the internationally recognized government and marched on Aden. In early 2015, Saudi Arabia was confident it could quickly restore order, having – along with the United Arab Emirates – assembled an Arab military coalition to intervene and secured backing from the United States and Britain. The UN Security Council (UNSC) merely had to provide political and moral cover, which it did in April 2015 in the form of a strongly worded resolution that assumed all would go according to the Saudi plan.
In Resolution 2216, the council demanded the Houthis surrender all territory seized, including Sana’a, fully disarm and allow President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government to resume its responsibilities.  In essence, it insisted on surrender. That failed, but the same reasons that allowed the UNSC to make clear, forceful demands in 2015 have kept it from trying anything new in the five years since: The most powerful nations on the council hold common political, economic and security interests with Saudi Arabia, giving the state leading one warring side in the conflict a huge say in deciding when and how international diplomatic efforts are advanced to resolve it.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia had the full support of its key allies and arms suppliers, the US, the UK and France — three permanent, veto-wielding UNSC members. Even Russia, whose ability to veto often has historically acted as a counterbalance to US dominance in the council, had enough geostrategic interests that benefited from building on and improving its relations with the kingdom to merely abstain. Beyond Saudi Arabia’s influence with those permanent members, its Security Council clout has been bolstered throughout the war by rotating members of the council who are part of the Saudi-led military coalition.
Every resolution on Yemen in the past five years has been considered by a council overshadowed by Saudi Arabia’s influence and willingness to strategically spend money. The Saudis have in the past two decades purchased political buy-in from the US, UK and France in its regional affairs through intelligence exchanges, joint military training operations, billions of US dollars in arms purchases, oil deals and investments in each country’s economies and media. The US, UK and France are the largest defense suppliers to Saudi Arabia. The United States is Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner, with Riyadh supplying close to a million barrels per day of oil to the American market. The Saudis have also invested billions of dollars in tech companies, the steel industry, hotels and real estate and media organizations.
Saudi Arabia also has a growing economic relationship with China, the fifth and final veto-wielding member of the UNSC; Russia also has sought to do more business with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is wary of Russia and China, however, because both countries have stood against Western powers’ efforts to pressure the kingdom’s regional rival Iran, which supports the Houthi movement in Yemen. While Russia has threatened to use its veto power to oppose council resolutions that single out Iran, Moscow’s more traditional ally, or efforts to broaden past resolutions in ways reflecting US foreign policy interests, it has been willing to accept the status quo since 2015. Russia insists both sides in the war be criticized equally in what one diplomat at the UN describes as Moscow’s attempt to “not rock the boat” with Saudi Arabia. While the United Arab Emirates lobbies in various UN forums on the coalition’s behalf and has its own significant economic ties to the five key UNSC powers, UN member states need only look to what Saudi Arabia will accept, aware the Emirates will defer to Riyadh on Yemen issues.
Non-permanent members allied with Saudi Arabia have also shaped the council’s positions. Jordan (2014-2015), Egypt (2016-2017) and Kuwait (2018-2019) – all of which are members of the Saudi-led military coalition — have acted as proxies for Saudi Arabia during their rotations in the council. Each of these countries has advocated for coalition interests within the UNSC, and each has objected to any criticism raised of the coalition’s performance in Yemen, including condemnations of international human rights violations, obstruction of aid and commercial shipments to sea ports as well as the enforced closure of Sana’a International Airport to commercial and civilian traffic.
These coalition members and the permanent members of the UNSC have effectively shut down many impartial initiatives by other rotating members, generally those having minimal relations with Saudi Arabia and that regard human rights as essential components of their countries’ foreign policy. Such countries have proposed texts addressing many Yemeni issues, including a New Zealand attempt in 2016 to circulate points that could be included in a resolution to replace Resolution 2216; this initiative was quashed in a backlash from Saudi-allied council members. Similarly, in October 2019, when Peru, Germany and Belgium invited the UN-appointed Group of International and Regional Eminent Experts (GEE) tasked with investigating human rights violations in Yemen to brief the council, Saudi allies at the council prevented the briefing from going forward. Other initiatives proposed by rotating members and blocked by Saudi allies included joint calls for a halt on military moves toward Hudaydah port by Saudi and UAE-backed forces (Poland, Netherlands and Peru, 2018), condemnation of Saudi airstrikes that targeted civilians (Bolivia, Netherlands, Poland and Sweden, 2018), paying public sector workers’ salaries and opening Sana’a International Airport for humanitarian and commercial use (Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, Peru, 2018). These non-permanent members have also voiced concern about the lack of progress in UN-led peace efforts, and have strongly rebuked the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition and Hadi’s government as well as the Houthi rebels for humanitarian and human rights violations.
Saudi Arabia also managed to pressure UNSC members who were seen not to be toeing the line. For example, Malaysia was more outspoken about the Arab military coalition intervention in Yemen during the first year of its UNSC rotation. However, pressure from Riyadh ensued, including letters of complaint to the Malaysian foreign minister at the time, leading Malaysia to be far more restrained for the rest of its term. Meanwhile, perhaps the most successful country pushing for independent actions during its UNSC rotation was Sweden, which was able to push for the Stockholm Agreement in 2018, aided by the UN’s special envoy to Yemen and global pressure on Riyadh following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Notably irrelevant to Security Council decisions on Yemen is the position of the Hadi government. Yemen is considerably less strategically important to the permanent members’ individual regional interests than Saudi Arabia, and the Yemeni government is widely viewed as incompetent and weak. The UNSC also tends to leave diplomatic initiatives for Yemen to the UN envoy, currently Martin Griffiths, and then offer its support through council statements of endorsement. Two sources who have been involved with Yemen issues at the UN said Griffiths, a former British diplomat, had received suggestions for a fresh course from member state representatives following his appointment, including one to strengthen his efforts with a new UN Security Council mandate to supersede resolution 2216; they said the envoy turned them down, citing a lack of need.
Since its direct military involvement in the Yemen War, Saudi Arabia generally has been quite effective in ensuring the UNSC views the Yemen file through its interests. This has limited the council’s output to what the five permanent members can agree on that would not upset their individual interests with Riyadh. Combined with a UNSC desire not to “rock the boat,” this has led to a great deal of consensus, but very little movement.
Waleed Alhariri heads the New York office of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, from where he frequently focuses on Yemen issues at the United Nations. He is also a fellow-in-residence at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute.
This commentary appeared in Five Years Since Decisive Storm – The Yemen Review, March 2020.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.
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- Pieter D. Wezeman, Aude Fleurant, Alexandra Kuimova, Nan Tian and Siemon T. Wezeman, “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2018,” SIPRI Fact Sheet, March 2019, p. 6, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-03/fs_1903_at_2018.pdf
- “U.S. Relations With Saudi Arabia, Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet,” Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs of the US State Department, November 26, 2019, https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-saudi-arabia/
- See, for example, Ivana Kottasova, “Here’s where Saudi Arabia has invested around the world,” CNN Business, October 17, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/15/investing/saudi-arabia-global-investments/index.html; Scott Lanman, “Saudi Arabia Held $52.4 Billion of U.S. Stocks as of June 2015,” Bloomberg Business, May 31, 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-31/saudi-arabia-held-52-4-billion-of-u-s-stocks-as-of-june-2015; Jim Waterson, “Saudi state part-owns Evening Standard and Independent, court told,” The Guardian, July 23, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/jul/23/evening-standard-and-independent-unable-to-rebut-concerns-over-saudi-ownership; “UK Companies to Benefit from UK-Saudi Trade,” HM Treasury July 8, 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-companies-to-benefit-from-uk-saudi-trade; “Visit of Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Concludes,” Foreign & Commonwealth Office, March 10, 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/visit-of-crown-prince-of-saudi-arabia-concludes; and Sam Bridge, “Middle East Investors Target $5.3 bn London Commercial Property Spend in 2020,” Arabian Business, February 5, 2020, https://www.arabianbusiness.com/banking-finance/439383-middle-east-investors-target-53bn-london-commercial-property-spend-in-2020
- Muyu Xu & Chen Aizhu, “China oil imports from top supplier Saudi Arabia rise 47% in 2019: customs,” Reuters, January 31, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-economy-trade-oil/china-oil-imports-from-top-supplier-saudi-arabia-rise-47-in-2019-customs-idUSKBN1ZU0EH
- Mustafa Naji, “Yemen’s Role in Moscow’s Mideast Comeback,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, June 28, 2019, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/7576
- Sana’a Center diplomatic source in New York, August 18, 2016.
- Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE were closely involved in drafting Resolution 2216, with Jordan leading Council negotiations on the draft. See, “The Rule of Law: Retreat from Accountability,” Security Council Report, December 23, 2019, p. 21, https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/research_report_3_rule_of_law_2019.pdf
- Sana’a Center interview with a diplomatic source in New York, November 21, 2016.
- “November 2019 Monthly Forecast: Middle East – Yemen,” Security Council Report, October 31, 2019,
- Julian Borger, “Yemen ceasefire resolution blocked at UN after Saudi and UAE ‘blackmail’,” The Guardian, November 29, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/29/un-yemen-ceasefire-resolution-blocked-saudi-uae-blackmail
- “September 2018 Monthly Forecast: Status Update,” Security Council Report, August 31, 2018,
- UN Security Council Press Release, “Security Council Press Statement on Yemen,” March 28, 2018, https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13270.doc.htm
- Sana’a Center interviews with diplomatic sources in New York, November 6, 2015
- Sana’a Center interviews on March 18, 2018, and July 25, 2018.