In this op-ed for oxgaps.org Dennis Sammut discusses the implications of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to accept a seat on the United Nations Security Council, to which it had just been elected.
It was the ultimate snub to the world community, and no country has dared to do it before. Saudi Arabia stunned the international community on Friday by rejecting to take a seat on the United Nations Security Council, to which it had just been elected. Each year five non permanent members of the 15 member council are elected for a two-year period according to regions. Saudi Arabia whilst allowing its name to go forward for the election in the General Assembly refused the seat once it was announced that it was elected. The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Kingdom rejects the seat “until the council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically” to carry out its mandate.
A statement in unusually tough terms from the usually cautious Saudi Foreign Ministry stated that :
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia believes that the manner, the mechanisms of action and a double standard existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities toward preserving international peace and security as and when required.” This has led to the “continued disruption of peace and security, the expansion of injustices against people, violation of rights and the spread of conflicts and wars around the world.”
The ministry cited Saudi Arabia’s concerns with how the Council has handled in the past the Palestinian Question, Syria and the issue of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, as examples of double standards.
The Saudi rejection took diplomats in New York completely by surprise. The Saudis had allowed their country to be put forward as a candidate for the seat in an election where all the 193 UN member states had a vote. In fact the influential Organisation for Islamic Co-operation (OIC), which has its headquarters in Jedda, had lobbied intensively for the Saudi seat.
The decision reflects Saudi frustration with international politics which they feel is biased in favour of some countries and against others, but it also indicates that Saudi Arabia may not be ready to continue playing by long-established rules which it feels are unfair. If this policy is pursued it can have wide-ranging implications. Saudi Arabia is an increasingly important part of the international system. It is a member of the G20, and a leading player in global political and economic fora. Saudi Arabia is not a revolutionary country and is not in the business of bringing down the international system. It has however sent a very clear signal that it is also not willing to accept the status quo as it is.
Saudi diplomacy has over the years been slow-moving. The foreign policy decision-making process in the Kingdom is cumbersome, and involves various groups within the al Saud Royal Family. The Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al Feisal has been in office since 1975. He is experienced and cautious but was recently not in good health. There have been signs that other actors are now involved in the decision-making process. Such an important decision as the refusal of the Security Council seat could however only been taken with the acquiescence of King Abdulla and Crown Prince Salman.
The question is, is this a one-off expression of frustration – there are even suggestions that the Saudis may be persuaded to change their mind – or is it a more long-term strategy of taking a firmer line on foreign policy? Will the Saudis bring their economic power as a leading oil-producing country, and their political and cultural power as the home of the great sites of Islam, to bear more strongly on the international community in the future?
Whilst the Saudis do not want permanent disruption in the international system they may now be ready to exert more pressure than they have done in the past. This reflects a trend that one is seeing throughout the GCC countries. The time of western manipulation of these countries seems to be coming to an end. It is now time to deal with them as equals and to hear their concerns.
Saudi Arabia however will make a mistake not to remain engaged fully with global politics. The Security Council gesture may earn it some recognition for firmness, not taking the seat on the Security Council is however a missed opportunity to influence global politics. Saudi foreign policy, both in its operational side and in its conceptual articulation needs to modernise if the Kingdom wants more clout in the international system. Like with many other things in Saudi Arabia we can see that change is happening, but quite what change, and where it is going, time only will be able to tell.
Dennis Sammut is a member of St Peters College at Oxford University and co-ordinator of OxGAPS – the Oxford Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org