Last Thursday, Saudi Arabia, along with Chad, Chile, Lithuania and Nigeria, were elected to two-year terms on the United Nations Security Council.
For Saudi Arabia, election was quite an accomplishment, the culmination of a national effort to bolster its diplomatic corps and win a Security Council seat.
Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, was ebullient. “It is a defining moment in the kingdom’s history,” he said. “As one of the first founding members of the United Nations, our election is much to rejoice over.”
The Security Council has 15 members, five of which are permanent and 10 of which are rotating. Although the rotating seats do not have veto power, as the five permanent members do, the seats are highly sought because they offer nations a stronger voice on issues of international security. Given that today’s burning issues include two of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors — Syria and Iran — one would think the Saudis would be pleased.
Within hours, however, the Saudis’ tone changed dramatically. In a move that stunned the United Nations and is believed to be unprecedented, Saudi Arabia turned the seat down. The Saudi press agency and the Foreign Ministry said the Security Council had failed with regard to the civil war in Syria and on peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Saudis also made clear they were unhappy with international negotiations that might allow Iran, the Saudis’ chief Mideast rival, to continue to develop nuclear weapons.
Said the Foreign Ministry: “Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill its people and burn them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment is clear proof and evidence of the U.N. Security Council’s inability to perform its duties and shoulder its responsibilities.”
Whether Saudi Arabia’s participation would have made a difference given the resistance of Russia and China, both of which would almost certainly have blocked aggressive U.N. action in Syria, is perhaps doubtful. Yet sitting out the debates is hardly productive. It does little except accept a status quo that Saudi Arabia finds objectionable.
The Saudis have historical relied on a low-key style of diplomacy, often working behind the scenes to forge breakthroughs. Sometimes their efforts pay off, sometimes they fail. Certainly we hope the Saudis continue those endeavors.
Yet rejecting a Security Council seat, a move that had to have had King Abdullah’s support, is disappointing. It hardly improves the prospects for peace in the Middle East or anywhere else.