On October 18, Saudi Arabia took an unprecedented step in announcing it would turn down a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the upcoming term beginning in January 2014. The day prior, Saudi Arabia had been elected to the Council with 176 out of 192 possible votes. Though the Saudi mission to the UN had expressed gratitude for the appointment on Thursday, media reports out of Riyadh the following day indicated that the Foreign Ministry intended to reject the seat. The Saudi Foreign Ministry cited the Security Council’s institutional weakness and inaction in the face of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, as well as its inability to resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the reason for their abstention.
The Saudi decision came as a shock to most of the world and, by some accounts, to the Saudi delegation in New York. It is especially perplexing in light of Saudi’s preparation for taking on the role. Saudi Arabia had reportedly lobbied for the position and provided specific training on UNSC procedures to its delegation. It was also reported that shortly after the vote, the mission distributed gift bags to supporters in gratitude. Many observers questioned the move: Michael Hanna called the announcement “a ridiculous and ineffectual stunt,” and Greg Gause argued that the grandstanding nature of the move “runs very much against [the Saudi] style in foreign policy, which tends to be more low key, less public, more working behind the scenes.” Saudi aversion to taking overt, public stances on issues, a requirement of membership, could have motivated the decision, but with this justification, the question remains as to why the seat was sought in the first place.
The Saudi government continues to insist that its decision is primarily a result of UNSC failure to take action in Syria. Writing for the Saudi-backed Asharq al-Awsat, Hussein Shobokshi argues that the government was abiding by a “moral duty to the Syrian people,” disgusted with both Chinese and Russian support of the Assad regime as well as American, British, and French failure to provide adequate support to the rebel factions. A report by the Jerusalem Post discusses the Syrian issue in the context of a larger struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran: Dore Gold reasoned that Assad’s agreement to disarm has provided his government “a new international lease on life, thereby undermining the entire Saudi strategy in Syria for the last two years and providing an enormous victory for Iran.” An editorial in the Times of India similarly suspects that the decision was “a culmination with discontent with U.S. handling of the Middle East,” including the “recent thawing of U.S.-Iran relations.”
Arab reactions to the decision were initially mixed, but they seem to be lining up in support of the Saudi government. Opting out of the UNSC seat will adversely impact the region at large, as Saudi Arabia’s delegation was to occupy the unofficial “Arab” seat on the Council. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani praised the decision as a needed call for reform, and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiya expressed his support on Twitter. Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi praised the Saudis for their stand in light of the UNSC’s failures with respect to the Arab world. A group of Arab representatives at the United Nations seem to be the only holdout. In a statement shortly after the announcement, they urged the Saudis to “maintain their membership” on the Council to “represent the Arab and Islamic world at this important and historical stage.”
The decision to opt out of a UNSC seat has no precedent in Security Council history. Analysts have drawn analogies to only one previous instance, when the Soviet Union’s resolution to replace the Nationalist Chinese representative with a delegation from the People’s Republic of China was defeated in January of 1950. Following the decision, Soviet representative Jacob Malik stormed out and announced that the USSR would boycott further meetings. This proved to be a costly choice, however, when the USSR was absent when a resolution to intervene in North Korea’s invasion of the South was adopted in June. By 1951, Malik and the Soviets had returned to the Council.
Saudi Arabia does not have veto power like the five permanent members of the UNSC, but in forgoing their seat, they will be unable to participate in the rotating UNSC presidency. During each delegation’s one-month presidency, its representatives set the agenda for all meetings and preside over any international crises. This would be a platform for the government of Saudi Arabia to steer discussions on its priority security issues, including the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program. With increased global attention on the latter, the Saudis could be setting themselves up to miss out on an important chance to speak out, just as the Soviets did with respect to Korea. Hayes Brown, writing for ThinkProgress, also notes that Saudi Arabia’s absence will “make it that much harder for the United States and other Western countries to gather nine votes on any given issue, the minimum required for passage on the fifteen-member body.”