The Saudi ambassador to the United Nations was not pleased. On Friday, with barely any notice, he'd called a press conference in the UN briefing room, and was fielding questions on his own. The diplomat, Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, wanted to set the record straight on Yemen.
A day earlier, the Security Council had met on the humanitarian situation in the country, where upwards of 21 million people require assistance, including more than 14 million who are food insecure — and where Saudi-led forces have bombed military and, with some frequency, civilian sites, for nearly a year. The goal of the session, said diplomats, was to discuss a possible Security Council resolution aimed specifically at aid access and safeguarding civilians. Opening the session, the UN's humanitarian coordinator, Stephen O'Brien, told delegates by video-link that "by far the most pressing concern today is protection of civilians," before listing several recent attacks, including a Saudi-led coalition strike in late February that killed at least 39 civilians, including nine children, in a Sanaa marketplace.
But on Friday, in the briefing room, Mouallimi was striking a different tune. "Senior" officials at the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), he said, had relayed to the Saudis that such a resolution was unnecessary.
"We asked OCHA about whether they feel that there was any need for further involvement on the part of the Security Council or any new product out of the Security Council to help facilitate the humanitarian situation," said Mouallimi. "The answer from the OCHA senior leadership was that they did not feel that there was a need for any such intervention. They said that they have not requested, neither directly nor indirectly, for the Security Council to issue any new product."
"You can quote them on that," he later added.
The ambassador's remarks put OCHA in a difficult position — and not for the first time. Not only was Mouallimi probably breaking diplomatic protocol by divulging and articulating the alleged private remarks of a UN agency, but he perhaps knew that OCHA would not directly contradict his account, even if it was false or exaggerated. Indeed, reached for comment, spokesperson Jens Laerke later responded that it was up to the Security Council to decide on resolutions, and said that "OCHA cannot comment on what a diplomat may say he has heard." As things stood, the ambassador's words were the only account of OCHA's internal stance.
But an added wrinkle, which Mouallimi pointed out himself, is that the UN's operations in Yemen are largely funded by Saudi Arabia — the same country the UN has cited for contributing to the humanitarian calamity it's trying to staunch. "With all due respect," said Mouallimi, "very little has come from other sources."
Last April, nearly a month into the deadly Saudi-led intervention against Houthi rebels and their allies loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saudi Arabia announced it would meet the UN's emergency humanitarian appeal of $274 million for Yemen in its entirety. What followed was five months of negotiations between Riyadh and the UN, as Saudi officials angled for conditions on where and how aid could be distributed. That money has now reportedly been delivered —and largely spent — but the individual memoranda of understanding that Riyadh reached with nine UN agencies remain unpublished.
In October, after a meeting with Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, which O'Brien also attended, Mouallimi dragged the humanitarian coordinator to the same press briefing room. There, at the request of Mouallimi, O'Brien sullenly offered opening remarks, before the ambassador and a Saudi aid official broke into a rosy account of their humanitarian operations in Yemen. It later emerged that at almost the same time, Saudi coalition jets were bombing a hospital supported by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders in Yemen's Saada province — a fact that Mouallimi would admit that week to VICE News, before backtracking the following day.
The Houthis and their allies have been cited for indiscriminately firing shells in civilian areas, obstructing aid convoys, and laying mines as they retreated. But according to the UN's human rights office, Saudi-led strikes are responsible for the majority of some 3,000 civilian deaths in the country since last March. A blockade imposed by the coalition led to severe scarcity of food, fuel, medicine and other basic supplies that has only recently begun to ease. At his press conference, Mouallimi said, implausibly, that "there is no shortage of supply of fuel or food product in the country."
The ambassador also told reporters, "we do not use cluster bombs in Yemen, period," despite multiple reports from groups including Human Rights Watch that the Saudi coalition is deploying banned American-supplied cluster munitions in Yemen, and an admission from the coalition's spokesperson of their use in at least one incident.
In February, VICE News revealed that Saudi diplomats in several cities had sent letters to the UN and humanitarian organizations, warning them to vacate areas under Houthi control, ostensibly to prevent them from being hit by Saudi coalition bombs. The move, which UN officials privately described as bizarre and dangerous — or simply feckless — would have relegated aid workers to areas outside of where most Yemenis live. Among the locations not under Houthi and allied control is Aden, where the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi is now tentatively based, but where extremists groups including the Islamic State routinely launch deadly attacks, and where the UN says it is simply too dangerous to deploy staff.
Diplomats present at the closed portion of Thursday's Security Council meeting said there was a broad consensus that a humanitarian focused resolution would be a positives step as the war drags on in Yemen. Similar resolutions have already been passed twice on Syria since 2014. Saudi officials in New York insist that an existing resolution, passed last April, is sufficient. That text, which tacitly endorsed the Saudi intervention, does reference humanitarian access and "the need for all parties to ensure the safety of civilians," but was largely aimed at the Houthis, who had by then seized most of Yemen's populated areas.
Diplomats also said that deputy emergency relief coordinator Kyung-wha Kang, who was present during closed consultations in the chamber, gave no indication that OCHA felt a new resolution would be superfluous or a negative development. O'Brien also publicly called on the Security Council to "request all parties – in no uncertain terms – to stop any denial of access and facilitate life-saving needs immediately." Several diplomats that VICE News spoke with said they expected a "product" could be voted on sometime this month.
After the session, Security Council president Ismael Gaspar Martins of Angola told the press that "a resolution might be a necessity… because the situation is evolving towards a very drastic one, with the bombings continuing on hospitals, killing children in schools." Mouillimi took issue with Martins' remarks, which he said should have been made in his national capacity, and not speaking for the council. Some diplomats said he had skirted that line, but after the session it was clear that several of the non-permanent members of the council, including Angola, New Zealand, Uruguay and Spain, have identified Yemen as an area that needs to be addressed with a humanitarian-specific resolution. Russia, which called the meeting last month, during the height of its own deadly bombing campaign in Syria, said the Council should focus more on Yemen.
So, Mouallimi turned to some of his traditional allies on the council. On Friday afternoon, after the press conference, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members make up the bulk of the coalition in Yemen, met with diplomats from the so-called western "Permanent 3", France, the US and the United Kingdom. Diplomats from the countries present confirmed the meeting but did not share the content of their discussion. Others told VICE News that it was clearly about Yemen and the possibility of a humanitarian resolution.