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Saudi Arabia refuses UNSC seat

The diplomacy strike no one expected – why Saudi Arabia rejected its UNSC seat and the possible implications of this for Middle Eastern politics.


On Friday 18 October, less than 24 hours after the United Nations General Assembly allowed Saudi Arabia on to the adults’ table, delegates awoke to the news that the Kingdom had refused to take its seat at the Security Council. Nominations to the highest committee in the international arena are a notoriously bureaucratic and extended business; years of lobbying and cajoling are a prerequisite to any successful bid. Which begs the question: what would possess Riyadh to reject the nomination?

The morning statement dispatched from the Saudi Foreign Ministry bemoaned the failure of the Security Council in settling the Palestinian question, as well as in holding Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, to account for the use of chemical weapons against his own population. It went on to apologise that it could not take its seat “until the Council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security”.

Reports suggest that Riyadh had failed to inform the United States, the Gulf Kingdom’s principal international partner, of its decision prior to the release of the statement.

At face value, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry, weathered and battle-hardened as it is, has dropped the ball. Gripped by Damascene bloodlust and provided with a truly global audience, Riyadh has taken a seasoned opportunity to claim headlines week-long. Accepting a seat on the Security Council is not defeatist, nor is it unsubstantial. A seat on the Security Council permits agenda influence on levels unimaginable among the barren wastes of the General Assembly, yet Saudi Arabia seems to have chosen to break the glass ceiling and wilfully fall back through, all for the sake of a short-term protest.

For all the flaws of this most exclusive of committees, it still remains the centrepiece of international collective security, and when vetoes are left dormant, every last vote counts; a vote Riyadh will no longer have.

Although international pressure in recent days has meant that Saudi Arabia may be willing to renege on their decision and face up to the inevitable cries of hypocrisy and petulance, prospects remain bleak. However, if Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal and King Abdullah remain steadfast, having publicly signalled a divorce from joint US interests by rejecting the seat, we could witness a significant shift in the Middle Eastern political landscape in the coming years. No longer may we see US-Saudi cooperation on developing crises in the region, but Gulf states acting of their own accord, a prospect some may find refreshing, yet others worrisome indeed.

The US will need to throw Riyadh a rather large bone on matters such as Syria and Iran if the two nations are to return to the same page, and Saudi Arabia to its Security Council seat. This particular act may yet prove to be a rather intelligent diplomatic move.

The coming weeks will provide more answers over the issue, but needless to say, this unprecedented episode has left the New York-based diplomacy organisation really quite perplexed, and the rest of us much the same.

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