In an unprecedented move, Saudi Arabia has refused to take up a coveted seat at the United Nations Security Council, a sign not only of frustration with the ineffectiveness of the world body but also of a growing disenchantment with U.S. policies.
The action came just one day after Saudi Arabia was elected to take the seat for which its diplomats had campaigned for three years. It was the first time Saudi Arabia ever had sought a seat.
“It was a calculated move,” said Paul Heinbecker, a retired career diplomat and Canada’s last UN ambassador to sit at the Security Council, “designed for maximum effect.”
A statement released by the Saudi Foreign Ministry said “the manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities toward preserving international peace and security as required.”
As evidence of the Security Council’s failings, the Saudis cited “the continuation of the Palestinian cause without a just and lasting solution for 65 years” and the killing and burning of the Syrian people “without applying any deterrent sanctions against the Damascus regime.” It also pointed to the council’s “inability to subdue the nuclear programs of all countries in the region.”
“It’s not to say their criticisms are without merit,” said Mr. Heinbecker, director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. “But their tactic is surprising. They’ve never even tried to use their influence sitting on the council.”
The dramatic shift was certainly out of character for a country that has prided itself on working behind closed doors, using its oil, its wealth and its close relationship with the United States to influence regional and international powers.
Friday’s bait-and-switch move followed a less spectacular, but no less significant gesture at the UN General Assembly two weeks ago when Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal declined to deliver Saudi Arabia’s traditional speech to the assembly.
The motive then focused on the fuss that was being made over the newly elected Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. Shia Iran is Sunni Saudi Arabia’s bitter rival for influence in the region, with the two powers backing opposing sides in the bloody Syrian civil war.
“There are people being killed [in Syria] every day, every hour. And the Muslim world is very angry because we don’t see any action or any strong stance from the Security Council toward this situation,” said Abdullah al-Askar, foreign affairs committee chairman in Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council, in explaining the decision not to address the assembly
“Traditionally, the Saudis have blamed Russia and China for blocking initiatives at the Security Council,” said Mr. Heinbecker. “But this time, when it comes down to Syria and Iran, the criticism extends to Washington as well.”
“[President Barack] Obama’s decision not to take military action against Syria and the U.S. administration’s acceptance of a Russian-backed deal to dismantle the country’s chemical weapons stockpiles shook Saudi policy,” wrote Frederic Wehrey, this week. He is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Saudis saw this as “a ploy that had tricked an unsuspecting Obama into prolonging the conflict, thus ensuring the survival of [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad” and the triumph of Iranian influence, Mr. Wehrey said.
The Saudis believe the effect of this, he said, has “marginalized regional actors – the Gulf States, Jordan and Turkey – who are carrying the lion’s share of the burden in backing the [Syrian] opposition.”
Mr. Wehrey points to a recent editorial in Asharq al-Awsat as an indication of things to come. The views of the editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab daily are often believed to signal those of King Abdullah.
In this editorial, Adel al Toraifi advises that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states should act in the region as if Washington does not exist. The United States and the West will invariably follow the Saudi lead, as they did in Egypt and will do, eventually, in Syria, the editorial continued.
Toward Iran specifically, there are similar calls for the Gulf to leverage its newfound economic and political power to thwart a potential Western-Iranian alliance or backdoor deals made against the Gulf, said Mr. Wehrey.