A Middle Eastern country unleashes a powerful aerial assault on a neighboring territory held by Islamists, and imposes a total blockade in response to missile fire directed toward its cities, creating the world’s largest open-air prison.
Israel and the Gaza Strip? No, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The Saudi-led coalition tightened its blockade of Yemen after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile toward Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport on November 4, 2017; they had fired rockets at the Kingdom before, and not all were intercepted. (Saudi Arabia has just announced, three weeks on, that it will reopen Sanaa airport to humanitarian flights.) The Saudi offensive against the Houthis, who overran much of Yemen in 2015, has to date killed more than 10,000 people—Saudi-led air strikes, according to the UN, being the “leading cause.” The war has also facilitated the world’s largest cholera epidemic in many decades, infecting more than 900,000 people. The lives of 17 million Yemenis now depend on humanitarian aid.
This is the context in which the Saudi-led war coalition has closed all land, sea, and air ports in Yemen, including to international assistance. The World Health Organization warns that seven million people, including two million severely malnourished children, are on the brink of famine. Indeed, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs warned recently that Yemen would suffer “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims” if the blockade is not lifted immediately.
The tragedy in Yemen has starkly exposed the bottomless cynicism of Saudi statecraft, which claims the mantle of humanitarianism at international institutions to advance anti-humanitarian policies.
Note first that during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict Saudi authorities dismissed Israel’s arguments of self-defense against Hamas rocket fire, accusing it of “shameful war crimes” in the Gaza Strip. “Don’t be fooled when Israel says that it is defending itself against rocket attacks being launched by Palestinians against it,” Saudi Arabia’s UN envoy told the Security Council. “The reality is that Israel has a defense system against these rockets and has efficiently repelled most of the rockets directed at it.”
Fast-forward to 2017: Saudi Arabian leaders escalated the war against the Houthi rebels despite possessing a missile-defense system that efficiently repelled the attack on its airport. Its earlier arguments that missile-defense capacities mitigate the right of self-defence did not seem to have troubled its conscience.
For an even starker demonstration of Saudi Arabia’s duplicity, consider the latest UN General Assembly resolution it sponsored and introduced condemning the Assad regime in Syria. The country that cites the Quran as its constitution calls for a political transition for Syria toward a “democratic and pluralistic state”; the country that is only now planning to allow women to drive urges the “full and effective participation of women” in the Syrian leadership; and the country whose military coalition was blacklisted by the UN Secretariat for wartime violations against children expresses its “profound indignation” at the deaths of children in Syria. Riyadh is leveraging key norms of the Western international order to advance geopolitical interests in its backyard while subverting those selfsame values.
Saudi Arabia, indeed, has a track record of working through institutions of the liberal world order to advance its own highly illiberal interests. This past year, Riyadh compel the UN Secretariat—allegedly by threatening to cut off funding—to remove the Saudi-led coalition from the Children and Armed Conflict report blacklist. As Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon accused Riyadh of exerting “unacceptable” pressure, describing the omission as “one of the most painful and difficult decisions” he had ever made. Two years ago, Saudi pressure killed off plans for an independent commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in Yemen. That idea is back on the agenda, but Riyadh is warning nations that opposing an alternative Saudi resolution “would not be considered a friendly gesture.”
It is unsurprising that Saudi Arabia, while systematically flouting the norms of international institutions, uses those institutions to advance its national interests. What is perhaps surprising is that well-meaning people, aware that that unsavory regimes use moral authority of the United Nations to advance unsavory interests, do not allow that fact to dent the moral esteem with which they hold the United Nations.
The UN is an international body, not a supranational one. It is a creature of the member-states that make it up, and its rhetorical output vividly reflects the fact that a significant majority of those states are not law-governed democracies. To the extent the UN reaches decisions owing to diplomatic pressure from states that do not practice what they preach, the moral authority of that body should never be taken for granted. A sober look at the hypocrisy of states that claim to speak for certain values should encourage skepticism when it comes to ceding the benefit of the doubt to UN’s word for anything. If the example of Saudi diplomacy doesn’t underscore the point even for the relatively dull-witted, it may be that nothing can.