Most of the 193 countries that are part of the United Nations consider winning a temporary spot on Security Council a great honor. As the body’s sole authority on debating issues of international peace and security, countries in every region of the world are often quick to put themselves in the running in hopes of joining the exclusive club.
Not, it seems, Saudi Arabia.
In a surprising move that left many of the world’s governments perplexed, the Arab kingdom refused to take its seat on the council on Friday, a day after it was elected in a secret ballot.
The decision, the first of its kind in the history of the United Nations, even appeared to take some Saudi diplomats and officials by surprise. The kingdom’s Foreign Ministry was reportedly ordering its team of envoys in New York to enroll in classes that tackled Security Council procedure. All of this, naturally, to prepare them for when Saudi Arabia was finally elected to the chamber.
Analysts who study the United Nations were stunned. F. Gregory Gause, a leading American authority on Saudi politics, called the decision to abstain from the council “bizarre.” Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University, suggested that it could be a strategic mistake, depriving the Saudis of a chance to weigh in on the very regional issues they have long tried to put on the international community’s radar. Why the Saudis pulled out at the very last moment, and not before the election was conducted, is also a mystery.
Why the Saudis rejected the seat is clear, however. Deeply upset about the lack of outside intervention in Syria’s civil war and concerned about a possible warming of relations between their closest Western ally, the United States, and their regional nemesis, Iran, the royals in Riyadh snubbed the United Nations both to express their dissatisfaction with how the organization has operated recently and signal to Washington DC that its foreign policy in the Middle East is causing
The statement that the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out is both substantive and emotional in tone and leads outside observers to believe that the world’s major powers are simply not performing their duties. It cites the “continuation of the Palestinian cause without a just and lasting solution for 65 years” as “irrefutable evidence and proof of the Security Council’s inability to carry out its duties and assume its responsibilities.” So, supposedly, is “allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons.”
Caught off guard, other United Nations members now have to decide whether to replace Saudi Arabia with another country or simply do their work in the Security Council without the kingdom’s participation. That work, however, seems rather less prestigious now that the world’s largest oil exporter has said it wants nothing to do with a body that allows conflicts in the Arab world to fester.