Saudi Arabia rejects UN Security Council seat

Foreign Ministry cites inaction by the world body in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East as reason for decision

The move is the second time this month that Saudi Arabia has made a public gesture over what it sees as the U.N.'s failure to act in Syria.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia on Friday rejected its freshly acquired seat on the U.N. Security Council, saying the 15-member body was incapable of resolving world conflicts such as the Syrian civil war.

The move came just hours after the kingdom was elected as one of the Security Council's 10 nonpermanent members. Lithuania, Nigeria, Chile and Chad were also elected on Thursday. 

In a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, the Foreign Ministry said the council has failed in its duties toward Syria, saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has been able to "kill its people" without facing reprisal from the international community.

"Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill its people and burn them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment is clear proof and evidence of the U.N. Security Council's inability to perform its duties and shoulder its responsibilities," the Saudi Foreign Ministry said.

Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Jazeera that the decision to reject the Security Council seat was "a reflection of their dismay over the course of a number of things," but he said the "real bombshell was the U.N. deal on Syrian weapons."

Wehrey said the editorial pages in Saudi newspapers have seen columnists bemoan the fact that the "rug has been pulled out from under them" and that the "great powers were conspiring against them" with regard to the Syria issue. 

It is the second time this month that Saudi Arabia has made a public gesture over what it sees as the council's failure to take action to stop the civil war in Syria, which has left more than 100,000 people dead, according to U.N. figures. Two weeks ago, the Saudi foreign minister canceled a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in frustration over perceived international inaction on Syria and the Palestinian issue, a diplomatic source told The Associated Press.

But despite those public protests, Wehrey said the move to reject the Security Council seat amounted to little more than a "stunt." 

"It's ineffective. I think it suggests a certain immaturity on their part," he said. 

'Walking a very fine balance'

President Barack Obama had initially sought congressional approval to launch military strikes in late August following a chemical weapons attack outside the Syrian capital, Damascus, that the U.S. said was perpetrated by Assad's regime. However, the potential strikes were averted following a deal between the U.S. and Russia, one of Assad's chief allies, in September that resulted in an ongoing mission to dismantle and destroy the country's weapons by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). 

While Saudi Arabia has backed Syrian rebels in their struggle to topple Assad, the country is "walking a very fine balance" in trying to distinguish between rebel groups fighting there, Wehrey said. 

"They do not want Assad in place, (because) he's aligned with their geopolitical rival Iran," nor do they want Al-Qaeda to potentially flourish in the country, Wehrey told Al Jazeera.

Saudi Arabia easily won the council seat in a vote at the General Assembly Thursday, facing no opposition because there were no contested races for the first time in several years. After the vote, Saudi U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said his country's election was "a reflection of a long-standing policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes by peaceful means," a statement that stood in stark contrast to the tone struck by the Foreign Ministry. 

Security Council seats are highly coveted because they give countries a strong voice in matters dealing with international peace and security in places like Syria, Iran and North Korea, as well as with U.N. peacekeeping operations. The 15-seat council is made up of five permanent members, which wield veto power — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — and 10 nonpermanent members elected for two-year terms.

F. Gregory Gause III, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, said that while "not a huge amount of power" comes with being a nonpermanent member, it "does allow you to shape the debate within the council."

Saudi Arabia made it known some time ago that it wanted a seat on the Security Council and campaigned for it, Gause said. And with the situation in Syria and Iran's nuclear program — both key issues of interest to Saudi Arabia — at the forefront of the Security Council, Gause said the timing of the decision was "puzzling."

The Saudis have also been angered by a rapprochement between Iran and the U.S., which has taken root since Obama spoke by telephone last month to the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, in the highest-level contact between the two countries in more than three decades.

And Saudi Arabia has complained that the Security Council has not been able to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the past decades and has failed to transform the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. The Saudis, along with other Arab states, have often criticized the United States for blocking international action to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands seized in the 1967 war. 

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report, with wire services

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