October 19, 2013 | Policy Brief

Saudi Arabia Turns Down UN Security Council Seat

October 19, 2013 | Policy Brief

Saudi Arabia Turns Down UN Security Council Seat

Saudi Arabia made the surprising choice on Friday to give up its first ever seat on the UN Security Council.  The position, which Saudi Arabia had won the day before, was set to begin on January 1st and last for two years.  This comes on the heels of a decision earlier this month to issue a harsh rebuke of the United Nations’ other main body, the General Assembly.  When world leaders gathered in New York to share their views, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister pointedly chose not to speak.

Both times, Saudi sources cited UN inaction over Syria and the Palestinians to justify their unusual protest.  However, the fact that Saudi Arabia is not currently engaged in major initiatives regarding the Palestinians suggests that this addition was mainly for domestic consumption. 

The Foreign Ministry’s statement explaining why Riyadh gave up a seat on the Security Council suggests that Syria is really their core concern, warning that “allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people” is “irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties.”

Saudi Arabia’s UNGA walkout was also in protest over the recent U.S. outreach to Iran. Indeed, a line in the Saudi statement bashing the UN for letting nuclear weapons proliferate in the Mideast is likely code for Iran.

A Security Council seat did not come cost free for Riyadh.  Saudi Arabia had lobbied other countries extensively and even gave out gift boxes for their support.  Perhaps that is why Saudi Arabia’s statement declining the seat actually included a sheepish “apology.”

The Kingdom’s ambassador to the UN called the event “a defining moment in the Kingdom’s history” and made other statements suggesting he was blindsided by the recent announcement.  Saudi diplomats had trained for their role at the UNSC for months if not years in advance.

Ironically, Saudi Arabia finds itself a victim of the same UN system from which it previously reaped extensive benefits.  Given the large number of Arab and Islamic states, coupled with the vote-buying power of petrodollars, Saudi Arabia has historically used the United Nations to advance its own regional agenda, including the infamous 1975 bill condemning Zionism as racism.  However, the Saudis may now realize the limitations of the system, particularly when it comes to resolving conflict in their own back yard. They are understandably upset at Russia for blocking stronger UN action in Syria and wary that Tehran is advancing its own agenda in Syria and the Gulf with impunity

In the end, however, Saudi Arabia’s tantrum deprives it of a seat at the table and may presage a more extensive turn away from the international community.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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