UN Secretary-General Visits Saudi Arabia Amidst Regional Strife

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Saudi Arabia on February 12 as part of his “first major trip” in his new position, discussing regional instability with King Salman and senior Saudi officials. Prior to his trip to Saudi Arabia, Guterres met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 11 to cover issues in Iraq, Syria, and Cyprus.

In Saudi Arabia, Guterres aimed to discuss the civil wars raging in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, as well as counterterrorism efforts. The UN, however, has condemned Saudi Arabia’s air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has drawn criticism over its human rights record.

During his time in the Kingdom, Guterres held meetings with the King, Interior Minister, Deputy Crown Prince, and Foreign Minister. After meeting with Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmad Al-Jubeir, Guterres hailed Saudi Arabia as an “important pillar of stability in the region and in the world… [and] one of the pillars of multilateralism in today’s world.”

The secretary-general announced that the UN would “play an increasing role” in supporting state counterterrorism efforts, but also insisted that “an inclusive political solution” was necessary to fight terrorism in Syria and that Islamophobia around the world contributed towards increasing terrorism.

Guterres closed by praising the Saudi role in backing the fractious Syrian opposition and facilitating the Geneva Conference, which Foreign Minister Jubeir said he hoped would lead to the resolution of the Syrian crisis.

While Guterres insisted that the UN has “a very constructive and positive relationship” with Saudi Arabia, tensions over the Kingdom’s human rights record have complicated matters. The press conference illustrates the significance of the Yemeni Civil War in Saudi Arabia’s foreign relations.

Reacting to a call from the Houthis to not renew the term of the UN envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, Guterres pointedly responded that Ahmed was impartial and “has [his] full support.”

Supporting Ahmed - whom Jubeir also commended - was a major objective of the trip, added Guterres. The secretary-general also pushed for renewed peace talks in Yemen, saying that “see[ing] this people… suffering so much, is something that really breaks [his] heart.”

Two days before the press conference, the Saudi-led coalition conducted an airstrike near a school in the Yemeni village of Bani Mea’sar, killing three children and injuring two. The coalition, which has been conducting airstrikes in Yemen since March 2015, has received “intelligence and logistical support” as well as weaponry from the United States.

Over 4,000 Yemeni civilians have died in the civil war, and coalition airstrikes have been met with ire from humanitarian groups. In a June 2016 joint statement, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and four other human rights groups demanded that the UN “immediately suspend the membership rights of Saudi Arabia in the UN Human Rights Council,” citing the Yemen air campaign and Saudi domestic affairs. Saudi Arabia has pushed back, threatening to withdraw and cut funding from the UN unless the it removes the Kingdom from its list of parties “accused of harming children in armed conflict.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, pictured in 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons U.S. Mission Photo by Eric Bridiers