Far from its tradition that treasures prestige, Saudi Arabia’s decision to opt-out of a covetable position at the United Nations appeared somewhat contradictory. For years, the Kingdom has primarily maintained an ambivalent foreign policy which has been mysteriously subdued on a number of regional and international issues. The decision to reject a seat at the UN Security Council might be misinterpreted as Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to actively get involved in global affairs. Saudi Arabia along with Chad, Chile, Lithuania and Nigeria were elected as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council for two-year terms. Last month, the 193-member UN General Assembly held a secret ballot to elect the replacements of five outgoing members. Competition was fierce as the newly elected members had to secure two-third votes.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement renouncing its inclusion to the United Nations group. In its defence, it denounced the Security Council’s hitherto inability to clamp down on Syrian President Bashar-Al-Assad’s brutality to his own people. The unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict is another anathema to the Saudis. The Saudis questioned the Security Council’s efficacy saying, “the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties…”
The decision by Saudi Arabia took diplomatic observers by surprise. Countries aspiring to join the rarefied club at the Security Council lobby for years. Saudi Arab was no exception. Saudi Arabia was reportedly training its diplomats to fit into the highly sophisticated job. But more to the point, why did Saudi Arabia go this route as a way to show it’s disapproval of the ineffectiveness of the UN Security Council? First, the speculation is that the Saudis wanted to snub China and especially Russia for their abuse of veto powers over Syria. Saudi Arabia was increasingly frustrated watching Russia manipulate the Security Council in favor of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Secondly, Saudi Arabia yet again tried to refuel the perpetual debate- if the veto power can be extended to states beyond the United States, Great Britain, China, Russia and France.
“Given that the kingdom had avidly prepared for getting the Council seat for years, some are scratching their heads,” said Dr. Steffen Hertog, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics and Politics. Saudis left the west and Muslim world in a dilemma. Firstly, if Saudi Arabia wants to change the functionality of the Security Council, why not work for this goal from within? Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry has yet to clarify this. Putting aside the veto power, the non-permanent members are not as peripheral in policy-making as Saudi Arabia might think. Non-permanent members can call for a meeting at anytime. The rotational presidency of the Council helps the members leverage extra pressure on their respective issues.
The reactions from the pro-Saudi Muslim world are two-fold. On the one hand some will laud the Saudi strength to resist the temptation to join such a dysfunctional club where the ultimate power is in the hands of five elites. “This might boost the Kingdom’s image among those already on its side especially Sunni and anti-Iranian regimes in the region,” added Dr. Hertog. On the other, some will be disappointed to watch Saudi Arabia dither on assuming its rightful leadership duties. Many regard Saudi Arabia as the custodian of Islam’s birthplace and as the true guardian of the Muslim World. Therefore it is a disappointment that Saudi Arabia has eschewed to its duty to fill those shoes.
However, the message conveyed to the Kingdom’s unfriendly nations is explicit- the Sunni Royal family is no good for the Shia Muslims. The Syrian conflict is at the point where ousting Assad from power is unlikely if there is no western military intervention. The Saudi official statement said, “Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stands idly, without applying deterrent sanctions against Damascus regime, is also irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities.” This means that Saudi Arabia has no problem if there are strikes to neutralize the Assad regime. Iran, too, can vicariously get the message, as it is the biggest threat to the Kingdom. In the same statement, Saudi has imparted its frustration in strong words over the U.N. failure to make the Middle East a nuclear free zone.
Saudi Arabia has yet to realize that it might have contributed to beginning this process had it joined the Security Council. The Kingdom could significantly contribute toward the decision-making sessions on Syria. History shows the Soviet blunder back in 1950 when the USSR boycotted the Security Council and subsequently had its veto power unused against the military action in Korea. It is not possible to score goals from the sidelines.
In order to realize the cost of its reluctance, Saudi Arabia perhaps needs not to wait any longer or Saudi Arabia might find itself in an awkwardly cornered position on the playground of global politics. Should this be the case, will Saudi Arabia escape from that unpleasant predicament?