Saudi Arabia took the extraordinary step Friday of refusing
to take its seat on the U.N. Security Council -- despite pursuing the position
for years. It's an unprecedented protest over the council's failure to
take firmer action in Syria and Palestine. And it comes at a time of growing
Saudi frustration with American-led policies across the Middle East.
The decision, which came in an announcement from the Saudi
Foreign Ministry, came one day after Saudi Arabia was elected for the first
time in its history to the United Nations' most powerful body. And it reflected deep
resentment over China and Russia's blockage of steps by the Security Council to
restrain President Bashar al-Assad's military and to force him from power. The
announcement left many regional specialists shaking their heads, saying the
move may run counter to Saudi interests and would deny the Saudis an opportunity to
use the high-profile position on the council to promote a tougher line on Syria
and other issues.
"This strikes me as bizarre; I've got no good explanation
for it," said F. Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University
of Vermont and an expert on Saudi Arabia. "I know the Saudi diplomats at the mission were preparing for
this; they were taking courses at Columbia University to get ready." Gause said
that Saudi foreign policy has a deeply personal quality to it and that the
Saudi leadership sometimes has "fits of pique and then backs down. I don't know
if this is a fit of pique."
Saudi Arabia is one of five countries that were elected by
the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday to serve two-year stints without veto
power on the council starting on Jan. 1. The others are Chad, Chile,
Lithuania, and Nigeria.
Some Security Council members cautioned that the Saudis'
intentions are not entirely clear. Will they, for instance, formally resign their
seat, or will they just not show up for Security Council sessions? "Let's not
get ahead of ourselves," said one council diplomat. "We haven't seen anything
formal from the Saudis, and we can't say exactly what this is."
The Saudis have grown increasingly frustrated with the
U.N.'s handling of the Syria crisis. In September, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, abandoned plans to deliver his speech to the
193-member General Assembly because of the council's failure to take action in
Syria and Palestine, according to diplomatic sources. "The Saudi decision … reflects the kingdom's dissatisfaction with
the position of the U.N. on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of
Palestine that the U.N. has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as
well as the Syrian crisis," a diplomatic source told Reuters.
Still, the decision took many by surprise.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments have long decried
the inability of the U.N. Security Council to impose pressure on Israel to
return Arab lands to the Palestinians and to halt the establishment of new
Jewish settlements. But for years, the Security Council's edicts have often coincided
with Saudi Arabia's interests: pressuring its adversary Syria to withdraw forces from Lebanon and imposing sanctions on its chief regional rival, Iran,
for continuing to enrich uranium.
But the Saudis have made their displeasure clear over the
course of U.S.-backed diplomatic efforts by Security Council members to engage
Iran in nuclear talks and to work with Assad on a deal to eliminate
Syria's chemical weapons. Saudi Arabia's leaders have refused to accept a visit
by the U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is spearheading
international efforts to negotiate a political settlement between Assad's
government and the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, Riyadh has continued to arm
Syrian rebels and back the opposition Syrian National Coalition. The Saudis
have also been pressing for support for a resolution in the U.N. General
Assembly that would denounce Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons
and his government's abuse of human rights.
In a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, the
Saudi Foreign Ministry offered its "sincere thanks and deep gratitude to all
countries that have given their confidence to elect it as a non-permanent
member of the United Nations Security Council for the next two years." But it said "Saudi Arabia … is refraining from taking membership of the U.N.
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." It denounced that "the method and work
mechanism and the double standards in the Security Council prevent it from
properly shouldering its responsibilities towards world peace."
"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a founding member of the United
Nations, is proud of its full and permanent commitment to the purposes and
principles of the charter of the United Nations, believing that commitment of
all member states, honestly, truthfully and accurately, as agreed upon and
stipulated in the charter is the real guarantee for world security and peace."
U.N. specialists say that this is the first time a country
has ever flat-out refused a Security Council seat. In 1950, the Soviet Union
boycotted the Security Council to protest its failure to accept the People's
Republic of China as a member of the U.N. security body. The move proved disastrous for the Soviets. In June 1950, the
U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution authorizing a U.S.-led military
intervention in Korea, a decision the Soviets would have been able to veto if
they had been present in the room. Two years earlier, Ukraine temporarily refused
to attend Security Council meetings. But council diplomats say it is
unprecedented for a newly elected member of the Security Council to decline to serve
out its term.
"There are no precedents. Candidates normally drop out
before elected, usually when their regional group is divided or the race for a
seat is contentious," said Edward Luck, a historian and professor at the
University of San Diego. But this is "a baffling case of shooting oneself in
the foot. Apparently, Riyadh failed to learn the lesson of Moscow's boycott: You can't win if you refuse to play the game."
One U.N. official said that the Saudi action might be
viewed "as a principled step" to underscore the council's inconsistency if Saudi Arabia
"had a reasonable human rights record" and did not have a record of "promoting
religious war abroad." Still, the official added, the gesture "could help shake
up the current system."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at New York University's
Center on International Cooperation, said the Saudi move may reflect the country's
realization that major non-Western powers are routinely "cut out of serious
decision-making" by the council's big five powers.
may come to regret this maneuver," said Gowan. "It wins them some attention today,
but they could find themselves excluded from Security Council talks on the war
in Syria" and potentially on future talks aimed at relaxing sanctions on Iran.
If that's the case, he added, "this will look like a
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