Why did Saudi Arabia turn down a UN seat?
On Friday, October 18, Saudi Arabia refused a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, citing political reasons. This, mind you, is the same kingdom that spared no effort 15 years ago to obtain the seat. There were even rumors four years ago that Saudi sought to “purchase” Lebanon’s Security Council seat at the time.
The stated reason for the snub, as per a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency, is the failure of the Security Council to carry out its duties, for example, in reaching a just solution to the Palestinian cause and putting an end to the Syrian regime's killing of its people.
Washington now realizes that its proxies in the Middle East no longer have the ability to settle conflicts in their – and its – favor. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. The conflicting Saudi positions reflect deep internal divisions in the kingdom and confusion among decision-making centers in Riyadh.
Riyadh’s policies have become so erratic that Western officials, including Jeffrey Feltman, have been slamming what they call the “demented” kingdom.
But what Riyadh declined to say about the real reason for its rebuke of Security Council membership, France volunteered through its UN envoy Gerard Araud. On Friday, shortly before entering the Security Council hall, he said that France understood the frustration of Saudi Arabia regarding the fact that the Security Council has been unable to act for more than two years. Araud added that the Security Council has not been allowed to function because of repeated use of the veto power by two specific permanent Security Council members, adding that Saudi’s frustration reflects that of a large part of the international community.
But in truth, perhaps for the first time in more than 10 years, there is harmony at the Security Council, both among its members, and between them and the UN secretary general. For instance, Resolution 2118 was passed unanimously, calling for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.
It is not the Saudis alone who feel their political role has been diminished as a result of the Syrian conflict. The French, who thought for a moment that Saudi Arabia would back them up at the council, just as Saudi had backed France economically for decades, now feel the same way.
Too Many Cooks
No one is quite sure anymore who calls the shots in Riyadh. And what is also odd about the Saudi stunt is that Riyadh knew well the dominant dynamic of the Security Council long before the UN General Assembly session on Thursday, where Saudi received 167 votes for its membership, and was chosen to serve as one of the 10 non-permanent Security Council members for a period of two years.
In fact, it has been the norm that this seat would go to an Arab nation, chosen on a rotational basis from Asia and North Africa. So, what prompted Saudi’s rejection?
To understand, one perhaps has to go back to events that occurred over the past several weeks. First, the 68th session of UN General Assembly in late September coincided with a Russian-American accord over the future of Syria and possibly on other matters as well.
True, what happened afterward did not go much beyond formalities. US President Barack Obama had a much hyped phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Still, these formalities had a lot of significance. Washington now realizes that its proxies in the Middle East no longer have the ability to settle conflicts in their – and its – favor. Clearly, Saudi Arabia can use its assets to send car bombs, stage terror attacks of various kinds, and recruit, fund, and deploy fighters to Iraq and Syria, but it cannot win any wars.
The Saudis should be aware of this, but perhaps they have not yet been able to take all these variables in, let alone analyze and assimilate them. Nevertheless, they must have no doubt felt that they are now out of the game – moving from the core to the periphery, and further toward irrelevance.
The Threat From the North
A month after the September 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia identified the threats facing the kingdom in a study presented by Prince Nayef bin Ahmed al-Saud, a colonel in the Saudi air force. The study, published in the US, claimed that the threats to Saudi came primarily from the north, stating, “Looking to the Persian Gulf in the past decades, it is clear that the source of the threat is two countries, namely, Iran and Iraq.”
Nayef bin Ahmed also wrote that the threat stemmed from the fact that these two countries could rival Saudi’s influence in the region. So naturally, the threat becomes only compounded when Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon work together in one unified strategy.
The Saudi military expert did not mention Israel or Palestine at all in his comprehensive study. They do not seem to figure in Saudi’s calculations. The study also stressed the need to strengthen the kingdom’s own military power, as US military bases in Saudi were opposed by an overwhelming majority of Saudis.
When Saud al-Faisal came to New York last month, he found that the Americans were preoccupied with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. The Saudi foreign minister, perhaps for the first time in the history of UN General Assembly meetings, completely avoided the media.
Faisal must have felt that the US-Saudi alliance was in danger, realizing that the master does not usually consult with its proxy about its fate at the end of the journey.
His meetings with Western officials were extremely limited, and he did not make any statements. In fact, he appeared flustered from the moment he first entered UN headquarters, and on one occasion, his bodyguard had to prop him up and stop him from falling.
He then left New York without delivering his speech at the General Assembly, and did not even ask the Saudi UN envoy to deliver it on his behalf. The whole spectacle was much more than the awkwardness that comes with old age.
Oil: The Good Old Days Are Gone
Saudi Arabia is facing its gravest crisis, even graver than the aftermath of September 11, when Washington saw Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one source of terrorism. Today, the US is much less dependent on Middle East oil than 40 years ago, when Saudi Arabia threatened to use its oil as a political weapon.
Thanks to the shale oil and gas revolution, the US is turning from a net importer to a net exporter of hydrocarbons. There is no longer a need to fight for oil, while the focal point of US interests is pivoting to the Pacific. Meanwhile, everyone wants to sell their oil.
Faisal must have felt that the US-Saudi alliance was in danger, realizing that the master does not usually consult with its proxy about its fate at the end of the journey. True, Israeli papers spoke about important meetings held by Gulf powers in New York, but neither Israel nor Saudi could conceivably succeed where the US had failed.
There are now efforts underway at the UN to find a replacement for Saudi at the Security Council. Some said that the United Arab Emirates would be the closest to Saudi in alphabetical order among the Arab countries in Asia. After a country is selected, there will have to be another voting session.
In the meantime, almost everyone was shocked by the Saudi move, which seems to have exposed the kingdom’s “political dementia,” annoying its friends before its foes.
On Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that Saudi Arabia had not yet officially notified the UN of its rejection of the Security Council seat. Speaking to reporters in New York, he said that replacing Saudi Arabia at the council was up to the member states.
Meanwhile, Russia blasted the Saudi move. In a statement on Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, “The kingdom's arguments arouse bewilderment, and the criticism of the UN Security Council in the context of the Syria conflict is particularly strange.”