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Saudi Arabia Used the UN to Brag About Helping Yemen While Still Bombing Yemen

Saudi Arabia has been accused of war crimes in Yemen, but that didn’t stop the UN's humanitarian chief from appearing alongside Saudi officials at a strange press conference.
Photo by Yahya Arhab/EPA

Saudi Arabia has been accused of committing war crimes in Yemen, but that didn't stop the UN's humanitarian chief from appearing alongside Saudi government officials at a press conference on Monday to discuss the Kingdom's funding of relief operations in the war-torn country, a move that observers described as bizarre and perhaps unprecedented.

The press conference at UN headquarters in New York featured Stephen O'Brien, the UN's under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the UN, and the general supervisor of the Saudi agency overseeing humanitarian aid for Yemen.


The sparsely attended briefing was announced less than an hour beforehand, and it came minutes after O'Brien and one of the Saudi officials met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Reporters were provided with a 79-page pamphlet that extolled the work of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid & Relief Centre, which was founded earlier this year.

At the start of the press conference, Saudi UN Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi requested that O'Brien offer opening remarks. O'Brien welcomed Abdullah Al Rabeeah, the official responsible for overseeing humanitarian aid in Yemen, and said that the UN had been able "to establish a strong sense of relationship and partnership" with the King Salman Center. Before turning over the microphone, O'Brien spoke directly to Rabeeah, adding, "I'm sure you will want to reflect on" the earlier meeting with Ban.

Related: As Saudis Block a Human Rights Inquiry in Yemen, America Stays Quiet

On April 17, more than three weeks into the Saudi-led bombing campaign that has targeted Yemen's Houthi rebels and their allies, Riyadh announced it would contribute $274 million in aid to the country, which borders Saudi Arabia to the southwest. The aid, which met an emergency appeal made by the UN, was delayed for months, however, as Saudi officials insisted on obtaining memoranda of understanding with individual UN agencies. Human rights officials with knowledge of the negotiations said the Saudis insisted on certain stipulations, including that the aid not be distributed in Houthi-controlled areas.


Several UN officials expressed frustration with the Saudi government when speaking to VICE News. It was only in September that Riyadh reached agreements to distribute the bulk of the promised cash among nine UN agencies.

'It sends the message that we are validating and we are comfortable with the Saudi approach to this crisis.'

During the months that followed the aid pledge, the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen was implicated in a number of bombings that left hundreds of civilians dead. In an August briefing to the Security Council, O'Brien himself said the coalition violated international law when they bombed a major port at Hodeidah, along the Red Sea coast.

Since March, the Saudis have maintained an effective blockade of Yemen, where some 21 million residents are in need of humanitarian assistance. On Monday, O'Brien said the UN had developed a plan for inspections that would commercial cargo to pass through the blockade, but he noted that it still needs $8 million in funding to get off the ground.

Related: UN Says Deadly Saudi-Led Coalition Attack in Yemen Killed Mostly Women and Children

O'Brien, who seemed uneasy at times during the press conference, noted that the Saudi pledge was made prior to his arrival at the UN in May. He defended the UN's decision to accept the desperately needed support from Riyadh. Like the majority of current UN humanitarian appeals, the organization's $1.5 billion aid request for Yemen is still less than half funded.


"The first and best solution to humanitarian need is for the fighting to stop," O'Brien told reporters, before adding "that does not mean if you turn it on its head that we should decline securing the resources for humanitarian need, because that is existential."

O'Brien was also asked if he considered the Saudis offering humanitarian assistance to a country where they are actively involved in a conflict to be a new type of aid arrangement.

Watch the VICE News documentary Seeking Refuge in Djibouti: Escape From Yemen:

"The fact that in this ever more complex world, where we have more conflicts within states rather than between states, these kinds of situations are not going to be unusual or rare, so I don't think it's appropriate to regard it as a new form," the humanitarian chief said.

Both O'Brien and Rabeeah insisted that the aid that was being delivered to UN agencies was not restricted based on geography or other political motivations, but details of the arrangement are not public and and the UN's humanitarian office has not offered clarification.

At least 2,355 civilians have been killed in Yemen since late March. The Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh have been accused of gross human rights violations. However, the majority of civilian deaths have resulted from airstrikes, according to the UN. The secretary general has called explicitly for a halt to the bombing.


Related: 'All We Could Find Were Body Parts': America's Role in Yemen's Civilian Carnage

Joel Charny, humanitarian vice president at InterAction, an umbrella group of American relief and development NGOs, said humanitarian support by countries to others in which they are engaged militarily is not new, and pointed to American aid in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he added that he could not recall a similar press conference taking place at the UN.

"This is the most senior humanitarian official in the entire UN system basically saying that we are happy with the way the Saudis are supporting us and carrying out the humanitarian response," said Charny. "It sends the message that we are validating and we are comfortable with the Saudi approach to this crisis."

Mouallimi, the Saudi ambassador, said he did not want to distract from the focus of the press conference and closed the event without answering a question about whether the Saudis are investigating civilian casualties in Yemen.

VICE News repeated the question to Mouallimi after the press conference, but the inquiry was redirected to a Saudi attaché who said he would arrange to send the question through official channels.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford