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.
"The Saudis 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 strategic mistake."
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