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Why Saudi Arabia rejected its seat in the UN Security Council

January 24, 2014 at 4:24 am

Saudi Arabia has turned into a country of political surprises and shocks almost overnight. First its Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, refused to give his speech at the UN General Assembly last month due to its “double standards”; and now his ministry has declined membership of the UN Security Council due to the group’s failure to resolve the Palestinian issue, put an end to the Syrian conflict and ensure that the Middle East is safe and free of nuclear weapons.

The government in Riyadh is quite conservative in its policies and is not known for overreacting to Arab and international matters, preferring to deliberate and exercise self-control before taking a position. We used to have to wait three days for Saudi to announce its stance on almost any issue so I was astonished at the decisions to boycott the UN and its institutions. I venture to suggest that this is the first time that any country has taken such a stand in the history of the UN.

Saudi Arabia’s position against the UN sends a clearly angry message to the US, first and foremost, and to Russia after their agreement to remove chemical weapons from Syria. That stopped or postponed an American-led military strike against the Syrian regime, after it was accused of using the weapons against its own people.

The Saudis have become the main supporters of the armed opposition in Syria and they feel that the Obama administration, normally an ally, has let them down twice; first, when it released President Bashar Al-Assad from his international isolation through the aforementioned agreement, and second when it moved closer to Iran, Assad’s main supporter financially and militarily. The lines of communication with Iran were re-opened without prior consultation with Saudi Arabia; Riyadh found out about the thawing relationship through the news, like any other government.

Although it is true that the Saudi foreign ministry’s statement justified the rejection of the Security Council seat on the grounds of its double standards and other failures as noted above, it is also true that such double standards have existed since the UN’s establishment, so what is new? Essentially, what’s new is the fact that the US backed down from striking Syria. If the UN Security Council had issued a decision against Syria in accordance with Article 7 of the UN Charter, which allows the use of force, then Saudi Arabia would have accepted the seat and would even have regarded it as a great achievement.

If this bold position was taken by Saudi Arabia 3 years ago before the Syrian war ignited it would have exposed and shamed the proponents of these double standards more effectively and received more attention within Arab and Islamic circles. However, since it was a reaction to America’s disappointing position on Syria and Iran, its strength and significance has been diminished.

The question now is whether the Saudi leadership will keep up its “hawkish” position in regards to the Palestinian conflict, as negotiations are faltering, Israeli settlements are expanding and the divide between Hamas and the PA in Ramallah is widening. Will it look at Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons and Iran’s nuclear programme in the same light? Will it insist on removing all weapons of mass destruction from the region, with no exceptions, or is Saudi’s current position a temporary blip due to its anger at America?

With its financial, political and religious clout, as well as its international relationships, Saudi Arabia is capable of being a key player in all of these urgent portfolios which have been in the hands of the UN for years; it does not have to limit itself to the Syrian file. However, Syria has become Saudi’s obsession in the context of its open struggle with Iran over influence and leadership in the region; the government in Tehran is regarded as the main enemy of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Riyadh has spent over $5 billion so far to fund and arm the Syrian resistance, similar to what it spent in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. It has also put its man, Ahmed Al-Jarba, at the head of the Syrian National Coalition and established its loyal Islam Army to fight alongside the resistance.

I do not believe that Saudi Arabia’s boycott of the UN and its institutions, despite its legitimacy and justifications, is the best way forward. I think that we must have a strong presence in the UN and use its institutions and platforms to defend Arab and Islamic issues and confront American and Israeli domination. Keeping away leaves the field free for pro-Israel resolutions which serve the expansion of illegal settlements and policies leading to the demolition of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Solving the Syrian and Palestinian conflicts and making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone will not only benefit Saudi Arabia but also attract support from many third-world countries for whom these are important issues. The Saudis should rethink their position.

This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Yemen press on 20 October, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.