The annual General Assembly at the UN received the unexpected news that the Saudis had decided not to join the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member. The two-year term of the non-permanent members, who had just been elected, begins on January 1, 2014. Only the day before, Saudi diplomats at the UN were celebrating what would have been the Kingdom's debut at the Council. The UN community was astonished to learn the very next day that Saudi Arabia had spurned the great honor, which many nations would be only too happy to achieve. The Saudi statement announcing this decisions said that the Security Council had been ineffective in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well as putting a halt to the on-going carnage of the Syrian civil war. The Saudi statement did not appear to be very credible as the Saudis knew very well the limitations, which are imposed on the Security Council by the UN Charter. The main stumbling block, as all students of the UN system know, is the veto power enjoyed by the five victors of WWII: the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China. The vetoes employed by all these countries to protect their protégés at the UN are well known impediments preventing the Security Council from its foremost function of promoting international peace and stability.
So, the UN community was looking for some other reason for this abrupt volte-face by Saudi Arabia. Bit by bit, as it often happens, the real reasons for the action are being pieced together. It appears that King Abdullah, who has been deeply annoyed at the turn of events, took out his anger by refusing to serve on the Security Council. To some observers, this appeared very close to the proverb, "he cut his nose to spite his face." It was a royal sulk of huge proportions. Secretary Kerry, who has gone to Paris about the International Peace Conference on Syria and other issues, has reportedly met the Saudis to encourage them to rescind their decision. Abdullah has been both alarmed and annoyed at the divergence of views that is developing between the United States and Saudi Arabia on Syria and Iran. On the former, the Saudis were deeply disappointed when Obama did not use the option of military strikes against Assad, but decided instead to follow Russia's advice not to use military action because Assad was now ready to dismantle his entire stock of chemical weapons. Cut to the quick, Abdullah took this personally. Secondly, Abdullah was equally alarmed at the warming of relations between Washington and Tehran, which would in his eyes inevitably lead to a downgrading of Saudi-US ties. Shia Iran is seen in Riyadh as a major rival and antagonist of Sunni Wahhabi, Saudi Arabia. Through this dramatic gesture of the renunciation of the Council seat, Abdullah is telling Washington not to abandon its long time ally in favor of warming up to Iran.
It would be interesting to see if Secretary Kerry succeeds in mollifying the Saudis enough for them to agree to serve on the Council. Kerry has reportedly advised them that they could have influence on the deliberations of the Council. This may satisfy Abdullah's ego enough for him to say that he has acquiesced to the importuning of an old friend and ally.
S.Azmat Hassan, an adjunct professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, is a former career diplomat for Pakistan. Among his diplomatic assignments, he was also Ambassador for Pakistan to Syria, Malaysia, and Morocco.