Saudi Arabia’s powerful Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in the United States this week trying to repair ties with Washington and promoting a reform plan aimed at weaning the Middle East kingdom from its oil dependency.
The son of Saudi Arabia’s king conferred with US lawmakers and was expected to meet President Barack Obama yesterday to discuss the grand plan, known as Vision 2030. It calls for expanding private-sector involvement in the energy industry, selling shares in the state-owned oil firm and reducing government oil subsidies.
Bin Salman’s 10-day visit comes amid growing tensions with the US, whose Senate in May passed a bill enabling the families of 9/11 victims to sue Riyadh for damages. It has been alleged that Saudi officials at least partially financed the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, though both the Saudis and Washington refute the claim.
The Obama administration has threatened to veto the Senate bill and, like its predecessors, has absolved Saudi Arabia of any responsibility while at the same time refusing to declassify 28 pages of a US congressional report on 9/11 that some believe hold proof of Saudi involvement in the plot.
If the bill were to become law, there is the concern that Saudi Arabia could retaliate by selling off its $750 billion in US Treasury securities and other assets lest the funds be frozen amid legal proceedings.
The Saudi charm offensive in the US this week must also take into consideration the conduct of a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen that has been widely criticised. A coalition that also includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Senegal and Sudan is fighting on behalf of a president who was ousted in an armed uprising by Shiite rebels backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival in the region.
It has been reported that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is holding his tongue about the coalition’s intervention in Yemen after the Saudis threatened to cut off support for UN agencies.
The UN had prepared a report on children serving in armed conflicts that blamed the Saudi-led coalition for 60 per cent of the casualties in the Yemen fighting, including 510 children killed and 667 injured last year.
The report’s authors calculated that it represented “a six-fold increase in the number of children killed” over the previous year.
The findings would have immediately seen Saudi Arabia placed on a UN “blacklist”, but Ban ordered a review, saying that, if funding were cut off for aid programmes, “the very real prospect that millions of other children would suffer” had to be taken into consideration. Ban did not specify where the threat to programme financing was coming from, but he acknowledged that “it is unacceptable for member states to exert undue pressure”.
Some would argue that Ban is being pragmatic in weighing different threats to children. But the United Nations was created to foster world peace and cooperation among governments in resolving social, economic and humanitarian problems, and in this instance he is yielding to pressure from member countries that are violating those core principles. The precedent apparently being set is horrendous, and the additional damage done to UN credibility is incalculable.
Ban, now in the final year of his second term as head of the UN, ought to be thinking about his legacy. And Saudi Arabia, rather than demanding that the UN examine the methods used in preparing the report, should reconsider the conduct of the coalition it is leading. If there have been violations of universal humanitarian guidelines, the Saudis have even more explaining to do in Washington.