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October 25, 2013
In an unprecedented move, Saudi Arabia has rejected a seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The decision comes after Saudi officials decried the inaction of the UNSC in the Syria crisis, its “naïve” engagement with Iran, as well as ongoing Palestinian suffering. Regional partners have expressed surprise at the decision, even though most of the statements have been supportive of the Kingdom’s arguments for turning down the seat. More worryingly for most however, is what the move actually signifies, with fears that such an unprecedented step means that the Saudi-U.S. alliance might be falling apart.
Explaining his government’s reasons, the country’s ambassador to the UN “Abdullah bin Yahiya Al-Mua'lemi delivered a scathing attack on the Security Council’s failures to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Syria, and to convene a conference on creating a zone in the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction at a day-long council meeting....Arab ambassadors at the UN held an ‘extraordinary’ meeting on Saturday and expressed hope that Saudi Arabia would keep the seat ‘at this important and historical stage, specifically for the Middle East region ... and continue their brave role in defending our issues specifically at the rostrum of the Security Council.’”
The Saudi media has naturally been supportive of the decision, with the Saudi Gazette dedicating two separate editorials to the matter. In the first one, the Saudi daily asserts that “In turning down the United Nations Security Council rotating seat, Saudi Arabia has taken a courageous decision that not many countries would take and has passed up an opportunity many countries would be eager to seize if they had half the chance....The last time the Security Council adopted a resolution of note was last month’s demand that Syria’s chemical weapons be eradicated. But the proviso was that it would not threaten automatic punitive action against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government if it does not comply. This is the Security Council that Saudi Arabia has refused to join because the UN body is incapable of shouldering its responsibilities toward world peace.”
But the Syrian crisis is not the only thing in the minds of the Saudi officials. A second editorial highlights what it considers is the hypocrisy of the UNSC and suggests that other countries in the region are quietly applauding the Saudi government’s move : “the reasons for the Kingdom’s unprecedented action are being looked at more closely and hopefully are forcing the five permanent members of the Security Council into some embarrassed reflection. It is the double standards of the UN’s most powerful organ that sit at the heart of Saudi anger. These have reached their most scandalous proportions on the two crucial issues of Palestine and Syria....The Kingdom wants no part of such hypocritical maneuverings while the lives and livelihoods of good and innocent people are destroyed. Even if they do not back the move openly, as have Egypt and our fellow GCC member states, more than a few governments and millions of people around the world will understand and admire the resolute position taken by the Saudi government.”
This sentiment appears to be backed by a few of the regional dailies, including Gulf News, which, in its editorial, asserts: “Saudi Arabia’s decision on [the] UN seat is timely…. The decision to join or not to join is Saudi Arabia’s to take. But there is a greater issue that needs to be addressed over the whole composition, functions and failures of the Security Council....Over the past five decades, the Security Council’s five permanent members have tarnished its collective and their individual reputations with spineless vetoes and failure to act on Palestine or against the interests of Israel....Those who are shouting the loudest at Riyadh should look at their own pitiful record in the glasshouse of the Security Council before casting stones elsewhere.”
Asharq Alawsat’s Hussein Shobokshi contrasts the typically low-key approach to diplomacy that the Saudis usually favor with such a dramatic public display, pointing out that in doing so the Saudi government has drawn the attention of the world to some very pressing problems (and in the process increased its stature): “Saudi diplomacy is known for its calm approach and for working diligently behind the scenes, rather than pursuing confrontation. This is something that was reaffirmed in the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’s Hajj message. King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz stressed that Saudi Arabia would not allow external interventions to determine the fates of the Arab and Islamic people or humiliate them, continuing its great approach in fighting all forms of terrorism, oppression, and violence....Saudi Arabia’s rejection of membership is a historic decision which is to be credited....Saudi Arabia had to reject a seat that ultimately would have gained them nothing. However, by rejecting this seat in this manner, Saudi Arabia has increased its international stature.”
For some, though, the more concerning aspect of this development is what it means for Saudi-U.S. relations, which have a long and rather successful track record, but which may now be coming apart at its seams: “The strange thing about the crackup in U.S.-Saudi relations is that it has been on the way for more than two years, like a slow-motion car wreck, but nobody in Riyadh or Washington has done anything decisive to avert it....What should worry the Obama administration is that Saudi concern about U.S. policy in the Middle East is shared by the four other traditional U.S. allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel....U.S. policies have been upsetting; but the deeper damage resulted from the Saudi feeling that they were being ignored — and even, in their minds, double-crossed.”
Finally, with an empty seat waiting to be filled, many are wondering which country should occupy it. The early speculation is that Kuwait might be ready and willing to take the seat, although it is far from certain that they will end up with it: “Kuwait, which like Saudi Arabia belongs to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, has emerged as an early front-runner, but Jarallah said: ‘It is too early to talk about this.’...Saudi Arabia was the Arab candidate from the Asia-Pacific bloc. Kuwait had put its hand up to be the next Arab candidate from the group and run for the 2018-2019 term on the Security Council, which has led some diplomats to speculate that the Gulf US ally could be a capable replacement.”
Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.