By Chinmaya R Gharekhan
Oct 24 2013
Growing distance from the US, the US-Iran thaw, and Russia’s stonewalling on Syria were the triggers for Riyadh turning down the Security Council seat.
Saudi Arabia dropped a bombshell on the UN on October 18. Having won, for the first time ever, a seat as a non-permanent member of the Security Council just a day earlier in a secret ballot, the foreign ministry in Riyadh issued a statement that enumerated several reasons that left it “no option but to turn down Security Council membership”. The delegations of the 193 countries in New York were stunned at this unprecedented action of a member state to renounce a seat on the most important organ of the UN, after having worked for two years to get elected. The Saudi delegation in New York had been celebrating the election success and in Riyadh, too, there was jubilation. The Saudi ambassador had even said in a statement that “we take this election very seriously and accept the responsibility to contribute to this important forum to maintain peace and security”. All the other delegates, this writer included, were no doubt delighted to have the opportunity to speculate and pontificate on the real reasons behind the Saudi decision, apart from or in addition to those outlined by the government in Riyadh. On one thing, however, there was consensus: the decision was taken personally by King Abdullah.
The official statement in Riyadh, inter alia, essentially mentioned these factors: Syria; working methods and double standards; and Palestine and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. “Allowing the ruling clique in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stood idly by, without applying deterrent sanctions against the Damascus regime is also irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities”. Further, “work mechanisms and double standards... prevent it from carrying out its duties and responsibilities in keeping world peace. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has no other option but to turn down SC membership until it is reformed and given the means to accomplish its duties and resume its responsibility in maintaining peace and security in the world”. The Saudi statement criticised the failure of the UN to rid the Middle East of WMDs, including nuclear weapons, as well as the failure to find a solution to the Palestinian crisis for 65 years.
Russia, which along with China is regarded as the main culprit by the Saudis and many others for the ineffectiveness of the SC in dealing with the Syrian situation, was prompt in criticising the Saudi decision. The Russian foreign ministry said that the Saudi argument about the Syrian situation caused “bewilderment”, and its criticism of the SC was “particularly strange”.
For the past several months, perhaps a couple of years, Saudi Arabia has been untypically active and assertive in its foreign policy approach. For decades, its style had been low-key in public. It did assert itself when its concerns were in question, but always discreetly and in private. The events in the Arab world since January 2011 seem to have caused deep unhappiness, unease and introspection amongst the ruling circles in the kingdom, and have led them to question their longstanding alliance with the US. From the Saudi perspective, America’s failure to stand by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt came as a big shock. When Mohamed Morsi became president — it was of no consequence to the Saudis that he had won in a democratic election — Riyadh became most worried for itself and upset with the Americans, who seemed to have embraced Morsi despite his Muslim Brotherhood credentials. Indeed, the Saudis suspected that the Americans had contributed to Morsi’s success. Hence, when Morsi was toppled in an apparently popular coup, King Abdullah was the first to offer congratulations.
Syria was the next factor. The Saudis and Americans were on the same side, as was Israel. They all wanted Bashar al-Assad out. In Saudi Arabia, the policy towards Syria was personally directed by the king for sectarian and tribal reasons: one of his wives is of Syrian origin. The kingdom, like Israel and the US, wanted to smash the axis between Damascus and Tehran for sectarian reasons, while Israel and the US also wanted to weaken Iran’s influence in the region, choke Iran’s supply links to Hezbollah and Hamas, and eventually to weaken Iran itself. The Saudis poured significant resources into the rebel militias and encouraged other Gulf states to do so, with Qatar playing a leading role in financing the rebels as well as supplying them arms. But they could not persuade the Americans to be more forthcoming in supplying heavy military equipment. Nonetheless, when US President Obama began to prepare for air strikes against Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons on August 21, the Saudis were perhaps mollified, even though the strike was going to be limited in duration and scope. When that was called off, thanks to Russian quick-thinking and initiative, the Saudis were deeply disappointed and angry. From their point of view, the Russian action was like a stab in the front.
But the final straw was probably the beginning, however tentative, of a thaw in US-Iran relations. While much of the rest of the world welcomed the telephone conversation between presidents Obama and Rouhani, for Saudi Arabia it was a most unwelcome development. An intense struggle is going on between the leader of Sunni Islam and the leader of Shia Islam for dominance in the Muslim Ummah. For some time, they attempted to keep up the façade of being civil to each other, but the “new great game”, as this writer has described this rivalry, is being fought with all means, not excluding a proxy war in Syria. Saudi Arabia had every reason to feel betrayed by the US administration’s opening up to Iran.
The fact that America has become self-reliant in the energy sector and might even start exporting oil, and particularly gas, might have convinced the Saudis that they could no longer count on the alliance with America, which was based on hard national interests of both sides — energy for the US and regime security for the House of Saud, proving continued validity of the axiom about no permanent friends, but only permanent interests. For all these reasons, Saudi Arabia most likely did not want to sit on the SC alongside America, which it now views with a less than friendly eye.
Since there is no precedent, the UN will have to find a way to fill the vacancy caused by the Saudis. Technically, they could retract their decision, but practically and politically this will not happen. The General Assembly will have to hold a special election. The seat for the next two years has to be filled by an Arab state from Asia. Kuwait has already announced its candidature. The Asia-Pacific group will meet soon to endorse Kuwait’s candidature, unless some other country jumps into the fray. Our permanent representative in New York, Asoke Mukerji, will probably have an interesting few weeks ahead, as India is the chair of the Asia-Pacific group this month.
Chinmaya R Gharekhan, India’s former permanent representative at the UN, is adjunct senior fellow, Delhi Policy Group. Views are personal.