Saudi Arabia reportedly threatened to cut aid to Palestinian refugees and to issue a fatwa against the United Nations if it was not removed from a UN blacklist of groups that kill children.
A campaign of threats and protests by the Saudis and a host of Muslim nations succeeded in pressuring Ban ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, to give into their demands.
A UN report released last week found that the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen was responsible for killing more than 500 children in its year-long campaign of airstrikes.
But within four days of the report’s release, Mr Ban had backtracked and agreed to remove the Saudi-led coalition from the list while a review was carried out.
Details of the Saudi lobbying campaign were revealed by Reuters and diplomats said the UN chief was subjected to “bullying, threats, and pressure” and “real blackmail”.
Saudi Arabia threatened to cut its funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which supports around 5 million Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank and neighbouring countries.
Saudi Arabia is the fourth largest donor to UNRWA and provided around $100 million (£69 million) towards education, healthcare and other services for refugees.
Other members of the Saudi-led coalition, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, are also major UNRWA donors.
If the Arab states cut funding it would be major blow to an agency already struggling to raise funds for Palestinians in Gaza and other areas.
Saudi Arabia reportedly also threatened to have a group of government-appointed Islamic clerics issue a fatwa, or a religious legal opinion, against the UN and warn Muslims not to deal with the global body.
One source said the threat was made to have “clerics in Riyadh meeting to issue a fatwa against the UN, declaring it anti-Muslim, which would mean no contacts of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, no relations, contributions, support, to any UN projects”.
Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, denied that his country head threatened Mr Ban and said Saudi Arabia was “very committed to the United Nations”.
He also denied that the Riyadh clerics had considered issuing a fatwa against the UN.
Mr Ban was widely criticised by human rights groups for backing away from the UN’s findings that the Saudi-led coalition had killed 510 children in Yemen and wounded another 667.
“As the UN list of shame gives way to political manipulation, it loses its credibility and taints the Secretary-General’s legacy on human rights,” said Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch.