Saudi crown prince’s ‘fit’ delays UN resolution on war in Yemen

Multiple sources tell CNN that a much-anticipated United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities in Yemen and for Saudi Arabia to allow humanitarian aid to reach millions of starving people was “stalled” this week after the resolution’s sponsor, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, met face-to-face with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Two sources said the crown prince “threw a fit” about the resolution. Two other sources with knowledge of the discussion didn’t go so far as to describe the crown prince as angry, though they didn’t deny he was annoyed.

Putting it into more carefully diplomatic terms, one said, “He didn’t like the idea.” According to the other source, the Saudis “have their reservations,” but the source said it remained a courteous discussion.

As part of a British effort to draft a Security Council resolution against the continued fighting and humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Hunt flew to Riyadh this week to sit down with bin Salman, who has faced intense criticism and scrutiny over the brazen killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in early October at the hands of officials in his inner circle.

‘What is your plan?’

Sources say Hunt took the draft with him and discussed it with the crown prince, who wanted changes or better yet, no resolution at all. Bin Salman, known in diplomatic circles by his initials, MBS, viewed the pending resolution as weakening the Saudi position in the conflict over Yemen and emboldening its Houthi rebel rivals.

“MBS didn’t like the resolution on principle,” said a source familiar with the Riyadh meeting.

But the message Hunt delivered was a strong one, a fourth source said, and came after he’d consulted with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “‘This is what Western powers think, and this is what you need to do. What is your plan to stop this?'” Hunt conveyed to the Saudi, according to this source, who added, “He heard what we said.”

In what’s seen as a positive move, the Saudis have now agreed to facilitate Houthi negotiators’ travel to Sweden for talks.

Hunt left with the understanding that he would work on changes to the resolution with his team, as well as with his counterparts in the US and elsewhere. These allies share concerns that a bad reaction from Saudi Arabia to a strongly worded UN resolution could set back the start of a process to resolve the war in Yemen.

Even so, one of the sources familiar with the Riyadh meeting said Western allies “are not inclined to act on all of MBS’s recommendations.”

At a Security Council meeting on Friday, British Ambassador Karen Pierce said the UK would introduce the new resolution on Monday.

The Department of State and Saudi Arabian Embassy in the US did not respond to requests for comment.

The encounter puts in stark light the efforts of the UK, US and other allies to hold the kingdom’s leadership accountable for serious alleged human rights violations, while still maintaining good working relationships with Saudi Arabia in the volatile region.

The US and UK were the top two arms sellers to Riyadh in 2017, with $5.2 billion and $1.2 billion in sales, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Babies like ghosts

Hunt’s meeting with the crown prince also underscores bin Salman’s resistance to pressure on Yemen, which has become the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster, as babies, children and adults slowly starve to death.

The three-year conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and its enemies, Iran-backed Houthis, has devastated the country and killed at least 10,000 people. UN experts say the Saudi coalition’s bombings of civilians are gtx_ads_conf.ads["ad-manager-75851"]= {"custom_css":[],"ad_details":[{"min_width":"","max_width":"","dfp_ad_sizes":[{"dfp_ad_width":"300","dfp_ad_height":"250"}]}],"ad_id":75851,"ad_container":"div-ad-manager-75851","ad_placement":"in-article","ad_name":"ad-manager-75851","position":"in_article","article_position":4,"out_of_page_ad":null,"lazyload":"global"};

‘Reality on the ground’

The fourth source familiar with Hunt’s meeting said the Saudis “have their reservations” about the resolution, “but it’s a tool to get both sides to come to the table. And it does need to reflect the reality on the ground.”

One source with knowledge of discussions says the US has not been shying away from supporting the resolution, and that US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has been enthusiastic about getting something done.

The source said others in the US administration don’t seem to be as willing as Haley to forcefully call out Saudi Arabia in this way.

But MBS’s serious pushback to a potential statement by the UN Security Council — merely a resolution calling for humanitarian aid and stopping the fighting — also shows that such moves have an impact at the highest level of Saudi government.

“The Saudis are hugely sensitive — ultra, ultra sensitive — to international perceptions,” a diplomatic source told CNN. “They hate criticism. And MBS brings a whole new level of paranoia about this.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that some of the men implicated in Khashoggi’s murder face the death penalty in Saudi Arabia if convicted.