Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Riyadh takes the long view

Gamal Nkrumah analyses the political ramifications of Saudi Arabia’s decision to decline a seat on the UN Security Council

Al-Ahram Weekly

Upon succeeding his brother Fahd to the throne of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah emerged as a central figure in contemporary Arab and Islamic world politics. The unprecedented development at the United Nations this week, of Saudi Arabian refusal to take its place at the UN Security Council, raised eyebrows. Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the move bewildering, and said Saudi Arabia’s criticism of the UN Security Council over its actions on Syria “is particularly strange”.

The Saudi decision appeared largely directed at the oil rich kingdom’s longtime ally, the United States. The Saudi Foreign Ministry said the UN needed to be reformed first before it takes up its seat at the UN Security Council.

The US’s Egyptian debacle appears to be one of the pivotal events that infuriated Saudi authorities. Washington expressed disapproval of the Egyptian interim government following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia, in sharp contrast, is a main supporter of the new post-Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt.

So is Riyadh working at cross-purposes with Washington? Not quite. The kingdom is at loggerheads with the US over a number of key foreign policy issues, not least Syria and the new rapprochement between Washington and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Saudi Arabia, nevertheless, continues to align itself with the broad contours of US foreign policy. The war against terror is a cornerstone of both Saudi and US policy, yet Saudi Arabia continues to support certain Sunni militant Islamist groups in a number of Arab states, including Libya and Syria.

The Syrian Salafist group Jaish Al-Islam (Army of Islam) for instance is reputed to be supported by Saudi Arabia, even though Saudi authorities have denied the claim. Saudi Arabia’s championing of the ideology that politically animates such groups, however, has led tens of thousands of youth to take up arms and fight in the name of Sunni Islam.

Meanwhile, as ties between Washington and Tehran — Riyadh’s regional archenemy — appear to be improving somewhat, the Saudis fear they will be left out in the cold. The Saudis were particularly angered that Washington backed off on threats of military strikes against Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. And even though Saudi Arabia is currently cultivating closer ties with Russia, it nevertheless is opposed to Moscow’s backing of the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria.

Saudi Arabia’s refusal of the UN Security Council seat surprised the international community — in particular UN diplomats and officials. Ironically, Saudi Arabia had long lobbied to gain a seat on the council. Several noted that the Saudis were lobbying for support right up until the vote.

Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, told reporters following last Thursday’s UN vote that his government took the election of Saudi Arabia to the UN Security Council “very seriously” and regarded it “a reflection of a longstanding policy in support of moderation and resolving disputes by peaceful means”. The Saudi decision to decline the seat on the UN Security Council could help overturn the dynamic of Saudi-US diplomatic relations and confirm Western prejudices against the world’s largest oil exporter.

Be that as it may, Al-Mouallimi’s comments stood in sharp contrast to the vociferous tone of Friday’s Saudi Foreign Ministry statement, which accused the Security Council of failing on multiple fronts in the Middle East — including resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and ridding the region of weapons of mass destruction.

King Abdullah, obviously, has the final word. Certain Saudi diplomats openly expressed their enthusiasm for a Saudi seat at the UN Security Council. Saudi Arabia had dispatched diplomats to the US to receive training in how to handle being on the council.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry statement was especially critical of the Security Council’s “inability to perform its duties” to end the conflict in Syria, saying this enabled Syrian President Al-Assad’s regime “to kill its people and burn them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment”.

At first sight, Saudi Arabia’s criticism appears to have basis. Al-Assad’s allies Russia and China blocked three strongly worded Security Council resolutions aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. But its refusal of an elected seat on the very same council is an unprecedented move, and much out-of-character with protocol in international relations.

“Work mechanisms and double-standards on the Security Council prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement. So why not join the council and try to influence it from within?

Non-permanent members sit on the council for two years, alongside the five permanent members — the US, the UK, France, China and Russia.

Riyadh simply refuses to play ball. “Saudi Arabia has no other option but to turn down Security Council membership until it is reformed and given the means to accomplish its duties and assume its responsibilities in preserving the world’s peace and security,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry statement added.

The failure “to find a solution to the Palestinian cause for 65 years” had led to “numerous wars that have threatened world peace”, the Foreign Ministry added.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Washington does not expect to always agree with its allies, adding: “We have a range of issues we work with Saudi Arabia on. That will continue.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, met the Saudi ambassador on Wednesday and he is scheduled to meet Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal next week.

Saudi Arabia showed its displeasure last month when Al-Faisal declined to address the General Assembly meeting. Days later, the kingdom’s unease with Washington appeared manifest when US President Barack Obama spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a groundbreaking telephone call.

Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the UN, joining on 24 October 1945, the day the UN Charter was unanimously adopted in San Francisco. The kingdom has kept a low profile at the UN for decades, but in recent years has become increasingly active, using its oil wealth and religious prestige to gain influence and power, and seeking and winning seats on the Human Rights Council and other bodies.

Many Muslim nations were looking forward to Riyadh’s tenure on the UN Security Council. But the kingdom has demonstrated it needs no prodding from outsiders.

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