Saudi Arabia’s Security Council Gamble

Saudi Arabia's Security Council Gamble

By Jessica Sun. 

In an unprecedented move last Friday, Saudi Arabia announced that it had decided to reject its seat on the United Nations Security Council after winning Council membership for the first time on Thursday.  In the official statement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry, Riyadh blamed the “manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council” for a failure to “perform its duties and assum[e] its responsibilities towards preserving international peace and security as required, leading to the continued disruption of peace and security, the expansion of the injustices against the peoples, the violation of rights and the spread of conflicts and wars around the world.”  While the international community scrutinizes Saudi Arabia’s motives for rejecting the Security Council, Turtle Bay now faces a new dilemma, what to do with the Saudi seat; there is no protocol for this situation because no country has ever rejected an appointment to the Council.

Saudi Arabia has continued to voice frustration with the failure of the Security Council to take action in Syria while the Assad regime has “kill[ed] and burn[ed] its people with chemical weapons, while the world stands idly, without applying deterrent sanctions against the Damascus regime.”  This was cited as a major reason for turning down the SC seat, as well as disappointment with a lack of progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace and failure to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions as primary motivations for its decision.  In its statement, the Saudi Foreign Ministry apologized for not accepting membership in the SC but claimed that it had a responsibility to its people, as well as all Arab and Islamic nations, to not accept the seat until “the Council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security.”

It appeared Friday that the rapid about face from the Foreign Ministry shocked even Saudi diplomats. The election to the seat was the culmination of two years of lobbying and diplomats in New York were still celebrating their achievement. The move seems to be a reversion to an older style of Saudi diplomacy. Riyadh traditionally works more behind the scenes and had previously believed that seeking a SC seat would hamper their discrete diplomatic style.  Until recently, however, the Saudis had been taking a greater leadership role in the Middle East to stand up to what they perceived as the growing influence of Iran, its arch rival in the region. Allegedly, the decision to ultimately reject Security Council membership was made after an ongoing internal debate over the usefulness of the SC seat. King Abdullah has decried the continuing use of veto power in the Council by Russia and China to block major international action in Syria and has been equally frustrated with President Obama’s decision to not pursue airstrikes against the regime following evidence of the use of chemical weapons.  Beyond Saudi concerns in Syria, the move may be indicative of a shift in Saudi Arabia’s strategic calculus regarding how it seeks to wield its international influence.  It appears Riyadh needs to strike a balance between its traditional style of backroom diplomacy and outspoken criticism in arenas in which it can make a significant impact.

The Security Council’s permanent members have predictably reacted negatively to the Saudi decision.  Russia expressed surprise and criticized Riyadh, saying, “the kingdom’s arguments arouse bewilderment and the criticism of the U.N. Security Council in the context of the Syria conflict is particularly strange.”  The United States has attempted to convince Saudi Arabia to change its mind.  Secretary of State Kerry has scheduled a meeting with the Saudi Foreign Minister to discuss the benefits to Saudi foreign policy objectives inherent in Security Council membership.  However, Egypt and many of Saudi Arabia’s Gulf allies have applauded its decision to not sit on the Security Council.  Supporters like Kuwait see the move as a brave political statement and the United Arab Emirates has said that Saudi Arabia’s decision will push the Security Council to change what it sees as an attitude that marginalizes Arab countries.  Overall, the response from the Middle East has been supportive and the Gulf Coast states are hoping that the Security Council will now be shaken out of complacency and take a more active role in particularly the Syrian conflict. 

Two prevailing questions remain- what is Saudi Arabia hoping to achieve in turning down the Security Council seat and how likely is it that their refusal will have the desired effects?  Saudi Arabia’s stated motivation was to spur both structural and substantive changes in the Security Council.  While rejecting Council membership has certainly shaken Turtle Bay, it is highly unlikely that significant changes in the way power is distributed in the Security Council will follow.  If Saudi Arabia hopes to momentarily turn international attention to issues important to its national security and interests, it has succeeded.  But it is far more likely that Saudi Arabia would be able to have a major impact on changing international policy-making on these issues as a member of the Security Council than as a conscientious objector. The Saudi’s would have the power to focus the Council’s agenda in its month as President.  And without Saudi Arabia on the Council, the US and other Western nations will be harder pressed to gather the requisite nine votes to pass a resolution (assuming no other permanent member exercises its veto). 

Some have argued that Saudi Arabia’s actions were in response to a deepening rift between Riyadh and its traditional ally, Washington.  As the United States has recently disappointed Saudi Arabia by backing the overthrow of Mubarak, not supporting the overthrow of Mohammed Morsy in Egypt, entering into talks with Iran, and signing on to a chemical weapons deal for Syria with Russia instead of sending in cruise missiles, the Saudis have become wary of the lack of consistency in American support and have begun to take matters into their own hands.

An alternative explanation, and one that seems far more likely than Saudi Arabia believing that it can single handedly restructure the Security Council, is that Saudi Arabia views a seat on the Council as a potential barrier to its continued support of the Syrian opposition.  Direct support from the Saudi regime to anti-Assad forces would be less acceptable were the Kingdom to sit on the Security Council and actively participating in international decision-making on the Syrian issue. Declining the Security Council seat frees Saudi Arabia to remain involved, or become more active, in the exact areas it cites as reasons for turning down membership.  It is far more reasonable to conclude that the Saudi’s realized that their interests are best served by acting unilaterally as they please unless key allies, like the United States, are ready to back them more substantially in the Security Council.  

Since no nation has ever declined to take its Security Council seat, there is no set procedure to follow for replacing Saudi Arabia.  It is possible that the General Assembly will seek to elect another non-permanent member from the Asia group- likely another Arab country since Saudi Arabia was slated to fill the unofficial Arab seat currently occupied by Morocco.  Electing a new nation to the seat would likely lead to a bit of a free-for-all as other interested Arab states had previously deferred to Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of the seat.  Alternatively, the Council could meet with only 14 members, with the option to possibly elect a different country to the seat for the remainder of the Saudi term in 2015.  The Council has operated without full membership before; in 1950 the USSR boycotted the Security Council and the Council continued to meet without pause.  Though this isn’t the ideal scenario, it may become inevitable.  At present, Riyadh has not formally and officially notified the Secretary General or the President of the General Assembly of its intention to decline its appointment and the GA is unlikely to vote on another Council member until it receives this official confirmation.

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