By Burgan Hobbs
Washington – On Thursday Saudi Arabia won, for the first time, a highly coveted seat on the United Nations Security Council despite protest from human rights groups regarding Saudi abysmal human rights record. Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah Y. al-Mouallimi, said after the General Assembly vote on Thursday that it was “a reflection of a longstanding policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes by peaceful means”.
Saudi media reported the election, with unprecedented jubilation, as a diplomatic victory and recognition of the kingdom’s international weight. The Saudi government spent more than a year and invested millions in lobbying many nations for the position. It also trained and moved a dozen diplomats to New York to run the affairs of the Security Council.
By Friday however, Saudi Arabia had taken the virtually unprecedented step of rejecting a seat at the highest diplomatic table. The precise motivation behind the Saudi rejection is unclear, particularly because it actively sought to win a seat in the first place.
Following Friday’s rejection, the Saudi Press Agency quoted al-Mouallimi as saying, “ the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, based on its historical responsibilities toward its people, Arab and Islamic nations as well as toward the peoples aspiring for peace and stability all over the world, announces its apology for not accepting membership of the Security Council until the council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security.” Saudi statements went on to criticize the UN for failing to find “just and lasting” solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, inaction toward Syria’s civil war and failure to free the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.
Rejecting a global platform to advance Saudi interests based on political and moral objection is, to say the least, odd. A likely hypothesis is that Riyadh simply felt it could gain more by rejecting the seat than it could by participating in high-level diplomacy. No doubt a measure of Saudi narcissism played a role as well. After spending several years grooming diplomats in the Foreign Ministry for a council seat, the decision to reject the seat had to come directly from King Abdullah.
The King’s goals are twofold. One plausible rationale for rejecting the seat could be seen as a form of political humiliation to discredit Saud Al-Faisal, the longest-serving Foreign Minister in the world. The ultimate goal being, to replace the Parkinson’s afflicted Al-Faisal with the King’s son, AbdulAziz, who currently serves as the Deputy Foreign Minister.
Al-Faisal’s failure to produce results on the Syrian front and securing an American strike on Syria may be the last nail in his political coffin. The King’s decision to pull out from the UNSC could be the final low-point in Al-Faisal’s career.
Since his ascension to the throne in 2005, Abdullah has been promoting his sons to leading positions. Metab was appointed the Commander of the National Guard and a Royal Minister, Turki is the Deputy Governor of Riyadh, and Meshal is the Governor of Najran Province.
AbdulAziz was appointed as the Deputy Foreign Minister, the first since Saud Al-Faisal took office in 1975 following the assassination of his father King Faisal, who also served as Foreign Minister.
The second rationale for King Abdullah’s decision could be explained by his well-known fits of anger and reactionary behavior if he fails to get what he asks for. This may also explain the Saudi decision not to speak at the annual UN General Assembly meeting last month. The Saudi regime has generally favored backroom diplomacy and covert actions to further its interests, but these recent moves come at a time of regional instability and increased Saudi insecurity. After failing to persuade the U.S. into using military force against Syria, the King feels betrayed and forced to go it alone in support of various rebel groups. Related, and even more significant, is the prospect of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement which Riyadh believes would come at its expense.
To add insult to injury is the famous invitation by Abdullah to the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to perform pilgrimage in Makkah which Rouhani declined. Al-Faisal’s effort to secure Rouhani’s visit ultimately failed. This embarrassment must have angered the King and placed Al-Faisal, and his position as Saudi top diplomat, in jeopardy.
As Riyadh and Tehran back opposing forces in the Syrian conflict and the Saudi regime stakes its current foreign policy on breaking Iran’s foothold in the Levant, the kingdom is reevaluating its policy options. Coming out against the international community is a way for the regime to continue its policies, at home and abroad, while insulating itself from the criticism it would be increasingly exposed to while sitting on the Security Council. What can be observed from this recent Saudi stunt is, apart from any apparent “double standards” in the UN, the kingdom is willing to take bold steps to obscure its own double standards, thereby securing its foreign policy agenda and human rights record.
Burgan Hobbs is a Geopolitical Analyst at the Gulf Institute