Saudi Arabia's challenge to the United Nations

When Saudi Arabia refuses a seat on the powerful UN Security Council, does it say more about the UN or the royal House of Saud?

AP Photo
The United Nations Security Council votes on a resolution last month. Saudi Arabia, after being elected to a seat on the body, reject the offer Friday, citing the body's inability to punish Syria or otherwise keep world peace.

For nearly seven decades, much of humanity has projected its inherent idealism onto the United Nations, or at least the values it stands for. So when one country, Saudi Arabia, is elected to be a member of the powerful Security Council – and then rejects it – is the UN itself to blame?

That was the question Friday after the Middle East kingdom refused a seat on the 15-member Council for a two-year term. The surprise move sent shock waves among diplomats. Council seats are coveted for their prestige and ability to influence global events. If a wealthy and pivotal country like Saudi Arabia declines to wield greater power at the UN, what might become of the hope to create a stable and useful “international community”?

The Saudi Foreign Ministry gave plenty of reasons for its rebuff of the UN offer. Its most immediate concern is the lack of UN punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Another one is the failure to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute and to create a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. But the general complaint was that the Security Council’s “double standards” and its tilted power structure favoring five permanent members have prevented the UN “from keeping world peace.”

Few would deny that last and obvious point. Dozens of wars have been waged since the UN’s creation in 1945. Yet an untold number may have also been prevented. And there hasn’t been another war on the scale of the two World Wars – the main reason that the UN was formed.

The UN has really had only the past 22 years to be truly tested on its promise of peace. The cold war that ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet empire had largely sidelined the body’s peacemaking work. A post-cold-war United States, too, has yet to decide how much to rely on UN permission to project power overseas in solving problems. Even President Obama, who prefers UN approval for military action, has retained the right to unilaterally strike Syria and Iran over their weapon threats to other nations.

The Saudi move may really be a signal of how vulnerable it now feels. The kingdom sees the US, its main security guarantor, drawing inward. Its regional rival, Iran, could be finally making peace with the US. Iran has also gained influence in Iraq and may retain its hold over Syria. Al Qaeda also remains a threat.

The Saudi royal family that rules the country also faces rising dissent at home, fueled by the Arab Spring, as well as declining international clout as its oil wealth diminishes. It has seen three Arab dictators fall, nudged by the US. The royal family also faces a delicate and uncertain succession to a new ruler in the near future.

The UN has a past record of addressing specific Saudi interests, such as removing Syrian forces from Lebanon and imposing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. The Saudi rejection of the Council seat may be more a cry for help than a serious challenge to the UN. Saudi pique has often been directed at the US over certain actions it didn’t like. Now the country’s displeasure is aimed at the UN.

The path to fulfill the promise of the UN will be a long and frustrating one. Its predecessor, the League of Nations, failed. If it is to succeed, the UN needs to keep true to the values inscribed in its charter. And when one country complains, the UN must see it as an affirmation of the need for a global body that works toward peace.

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