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Saudi Arabia’s Pointless Theatrics

It remains unclear what Saudi Arabia hopes to gain by refusing a seat on the UN Security Council that it campaigned hard to receive.

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Unless the people who run Saudi Arabia know something nobody else does, it’s difficult to see what they hope to achieve by turning down a seat on the United Nations Security Council that the kingdom had worked assiduously to gain. It appears to be the kind of theatrical but pointless gesture the Saudis have always avoided — not on a par with shutting down the U.S. government for no gain, perhaps, but absurd in its own way. The world might have expected this from the late, unlamented Muammar Qadhafi, but not from Saudi Arabia.

Do the Saudis actually believe that the Security Council, chastened by Riyadh’s disapproval, will now force Israel to pull out of the West Bank, or unite to drive Bashar al-Assad out of power in Syria, or head off a possible rapprochement between the United States and Iran? Surely they know better. If they harbor such strong resentment against the Security Council, would they not have more influence over the group’s performance from the inside? And why seek the seat in the first place if they thought the elite group they were trying to join was impotent and feckless, as the statement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry announcing the decision said it was? It is hard to dispute the New York Times’s characterization of the decision as “a self-destructive temper tantrum.”

Saudi Arabia has traditionally pursued its international objectives through quiet diplomacy rather than open confrontation or grand gestures. It may well be that the Saudis would have been uncomfortable on the Security Council, where they might have been forced to take public positions on issues outside their relatively narrow range of interests — on territorial disputes in the Pacific, for example, or peacekeeping deployments in Africa. Did no one in Riyadh think that during the two years the kingdom campaigned for the election to one of the prized non-permanent seats? Apparently not, because the kingdom’s diplomats in Riyadh and New York were celebrating the election as a great success until they were sandbagged by the Foreign Ministry statement.

The Saudis may have signaled their intentions last month when Prince Saud al-Faisal, the veteran foreign minister, decided not to address the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly. That was a one-time gesture for which there was no price to be paid. It raised a few eyebrows but nobody really cared because, after all, who needs another speech at the General Assembly? Spurning a seat on the Security Council, on the other hand, could have much greater and longer-term implications because that group may be called upon to make real decisions about sanctions on Iran, dismantling Syria’s poison gas arsenal and possibly even managing a leadership transition in Damascus. The Saudis could have been at the table.

Saudi Arabia was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945. Today it is a member of the G-20 group of rich countries, the World Trade Organization, and several other transnational groups. Membership in the Security Council would have capped the kingdom’s emergence as a country to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. Instead, the Kingdom just looks petulant.

Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi analyst who likes to tell people how close he is to the rulers, wrote recently that the Saudis have decided to go their own way because they have realized that traditional diplomatic forums are irrelevant to contemporary security issues in the region. “The only way the Arab world can make progress,” he wrote, “is through a collective security framework initially consisting of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the GCC nations.” Good luck with that. If the Saudis truly believe they can organize such a “security framework,” it will be fun to watch them try. Note the omission of Iraq from Obaid’s wish list.

Almost as surprising as the last-minute decision itself was the overheated statement of explanation issued by the Foreign Ministry, which distorts history and omits crucial facts. The most egregious example was an article in its bill of indictment against the Security Council asserting that “the current continuation of the Palestinian cause without a just and lasting solution for 65 years, which resulted in several wars [and] threatened international peace and security is irrefutable evidence and proof of the Security Council’s inability to carry out its duties and assume its responsibilities.”

There was no mention of the fact that the United Nations did in fact create a solution to the Palestine question, however flawed, in 1948, partitioning the former mandate to give half to the Jews and half to the Arabs — an outcome basically the same as the “two-state solution” that Saudi Arabia endorses today. Nor did the statement mention that the Arabs, including Saudi Arabia, rejected that solution and started one of those “several wars” for which the Saudis now blame the Security Council. Nor did it mention that the Saudis acquiesced when King Abdullah of Jordan took advantage of the partition to append the West Bank to his own kingdom — over the opposition of the Palestinians, whose cause the Saudis now claim to espouse.

No individual in the Saudi leadership has publicly associated himself with the decision to spurn the Security Council or the wording of the Foreign Ministry statement. Prince Saud, a shrewd veteran of many diplomatic crises, may have accepted a decision about the Security Council forced on him by King Abdullah, but it is hard to believe he is responsible for the wording of his ministry’s anonymous statement. It only undercuts his country’s credibility.

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than three decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam.

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