After Saudi Arabia became the first country to reject a seat on the UN Security Council on Friday, speculation has been rife as to why.
Was it because of Israel and the Palestinian issue, or – more likely – because of frustration and anger directed at the US and other world powers over inaction in Syria and the recent rapprochement underway with Iran? And wouldn’t it serve Saudi interests to be on the council, influencing decisions, rather than on the sidelines? Perhaps the general dysfunction of the council, along with the blocking action by China and Russia preventing effective measures against Syria and Iran, have left the Saudis feeling they have nothing to gain from joining.
In the Saudi-backed daily Asharq Alawsat, Hussein Shobokshi wrote an article titled “Rejection is better than capitulation.”
It stated that “Saudi Arabia made the Syrian revolution one of the pillars of its foreign policy,” while Security Council members Russia and China “have both overtly supported [Syrian President] Bashar Assad’s regime, which continues its merciless killing of the Syrian people.”
Thus, accepting the position would have held Saudi Arabia back from pursuing its own agenda in Syria, by putting it at odds with the rest of the council.
Shobokshi said that Saudi diplomacy is known for working behind the scenes, but that even so the move “took everyone by surprise.”
But he argued that “by rejecting this seat in this manner, Saudi Arabia has increased its international stature,” taking a principled stance on Syria and showing that it is willing to make sacrifices for it.
Could the move be a show to grab the world’s attention? Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former Israeli ambassador to the UN, told the The Jerusalem Post that the Saudis are demonstrating “very unusual behavior.” Some pundits have argued that the Saudi government, on account of its leadership’s age, is incapable of taking any forceful action, “but this decision of Saudi Arabia shows how wrong these analysts were,” he said.
The Saudis, in the midst of a regional conflict with Shi’ite Iran, have been supporting the predominantly Sunni rebels in Syria against Iran’s ally, President Assad.
But Gold said that as a result of Bashar Assad’s concession of chemical weapon disarmament, “his government has gotten 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.”
Asked if the Saudis really care about the Palestinian issue, Gold responded that “the Saudis genuinely have issues with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but right now the issue of Iran overshadows that.”
The Saudis have had differences with the UN before, “but this is indicative of how disturbed the Saudi establishment is about Syria and Iran,” he said.
Mordechai Kedar, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation) and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, wrote on his blog that the Saudis publicly expressed that they were taking a moral stand on the Palestinian and Syrian issue, but failed to directly mention Iran.
Ironically, Israel is not a threat to the Saudis, but the Iranians and their pursuit of nuclear weapons are, Kedar said.
Kedar believes that Middle Eastern culture can help explain why the Saudis declined to join and become a second-class member in comparison to the first class veto-wielding members of the Council: US, Russia, UK, France and China.
“A Saudi will not accept second-class membership. He would rather remain on the outside because his honor is more important to him than anything else,” Kedar said.
Kedar told The Jerusalem Post that if Russia and China were to veto Saudi initiatives, the Saudis would get embarrassed because their vote was not as important, and that would put them in a shameful position.
“I don’t think the Saudis are thinking about the national interest. What you understand as the national interest, they think about as the family interest,” he said, pointing out that if the al-Saud family could benefit from sitting on the Council, they would do it.
The Saudis, he said, calculate that the damage caused by joining is greater than the benefits they could gain.
Brandon Friedman, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at its Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told the Post that he believes the Saudis are registering their dissatisfaction at the UN for not stopping the slaughter of Sunni Arabs in Syria. The Saudis see things through the prism of the US-Russian agreement of non-intervention, he said.
“It is hard to overstate how upset the Saudis were with that decision,” Friedman said.
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