Saudis reject Security Council seat: what led to the shocking snub

Saudi Arabia was elected to a coveted seat on the Security Council, but the Saudis, dismayed by UN and US positions on Syria and Iran, turned it down. Some experts question the wisdom of the snub.

Craig Ruttle/AP/File
The United Nations Security Council votes on a resolution that will require Syria to give up its chemical weapon, at UN Headquarters, Sept. 27, 2013. Saudi Arabia is rejecting its seat on the UN Security Council, suggesting the depths of the Saudi government's displeasure with the world body's actions in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s rejection of a United Nations Security Council seat it was just elected to Thursday with great fanfare – even from some of its own officials – suggests the depths of the Saudi government’s displeasure with the world body’s actions in the Middle East, from Syria to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But it also underscores Saudi alarm at the direction of US Middle East policy under President Obama.

The Saudis were dismayed when Mr. Obama pulled back from punitive military strikes in Syria over the use of chemical weapons – an intervention they had been led to believe was virtually certain.

Their concerns extend to two other fronts. One is Egypt, where the US is reducing military assistance over the slow pace of the military rulers’ return to democracy. The other is Iran, the Saudi kingdom’s chief regional rival and the beneficiary of a recent American diplomatic opening.

Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the Security Council seat was as surprising as it was swift. Shortly after Thursday’s vote, Saudi UN Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi praised his country’s first-time election to a two-year council term as “a reflection of [our] longstanding policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes by peaceful means.”

But Friday morning Riyadh had something very different to say, blasting the council as ineffective, rife with “double standards,” and a failure at everything from “finding a solution to the Palestinian cause for 65 years” to keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the Middle East.

A Foreign Ministry statement said Saudi Arabia “is refraining from taking membership on the UN Security Council until it has reformed so it can effectively and practically perform its duties and discharge its responsibilities in maintaining international security and peace.”

Some UN experts nevertheless say they consider the Saudis’ action counterproductive, since they have now lost an opportunity to change the very institution they are criticizing.

“You can’t win if you don’t play, and now they aren’t going to be playing,” says Edward Luck, a Security Council expert and dean of the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego.

Dr. Luck, who served as a special adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, says he finds it “strange” that a founding member of the UN would “wait 68 years for this opportunity, run to get elected – and then turn it down.”

The unprecedented snubbing of a coveted position on the 15-member Security Council is the culmination of a two-month period during which Saudi Arabia shifted from UN activist – a new role for the normally discreet kingdom – to UN rejectionist.

In late August, shortly after the Aug. 21chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs, Saudi diplomats at the UN began circulating a draft General Assembly resolution that called for authorizing member states to “take all necessary measures” in Syria to hold the perpetrators of massive human-rights abuses accountable for their actions. The resolution, clearly aimed at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, reflected Saudi frustration over the paralysis in the Security Council, where Russia had to that point vetoed any resolutions on the Syria crisis.

But Western powers including the US urged Saudi Arabia to hold off on formally presenting the resolution. Then the US and Russia reached a surprise deal on ridding Syria of chemical weapons. US military strikes against the Assad regime were off – and the Saudi resolution died.

By the time of the annual General Assembly meeting in late September, Saudi disenchantment with the UN was so strong that Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal canceled the speech he was scheduled to deliver to the 193-nation body.

Saudi Arabia is not alone in its frustration over the Security Council’s inability to act on the Syrian conflict – the US has expressed similar concerns, at time vehemently. But some experts find the Saudis’ timing “odd,” as Luck says, since the council freeze on Syria appears to be over.

“As we move towards an endgame on Syria, the council is going to be more important than ever,” Luck says. “This would have been an opportunity for [the Saudis] to make a difference on Syria.” 

Underlying the Saudis’ disenchantment with the UN is even greater dismay at the direction of US Middle East policy, many regional experts say.

Foreign Minister Faisal’s no-show at the UN podium reflected not just disgruntlement over Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive at the same UN session, analysts say, but also unhappiness over how the US and Obama himself are greeting Iran’s new diplomatic overtures.

Obama made a historic phone call to Mr. Rouhani before the Iranian leader left New York for home, and Secretary of State John Kerry also held an unprecedented meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in the Security Council chambers.

Mr. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Faisal next week in Paris on the margins of a meeting on the Arab League’s Mideast peace initiative.

Kerry will very likely choose to highlight the ongoing US-brokered negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as proof the US remains engaged in an issue of great importance to the Saudis.

But Faisal is likely to question Kerry about US policy toward Egypt and the objectives behind the recently announced cutbacks in US military assistance to the Egyptian military.

The Saudis had already organized a multi-billion-dollar regional aid package for Egypt to fill the breach left by falling US assistance. The recently announced cut in military aid can only have added to Saudi Arabia’s displeasure with US Middle East policy.

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