Why are the Saudis trying to turn down a seat on the UNSC?

The UN General Assembly elected five new members to the UN Security Council yesterday: Chad, Chile, Lithuania, Nigeria, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). They will replace Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan, and Togo, whose terms expire this year, and join permanent members China, France, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States as well as the five members whose terms expire next year, Argentina, Australia, Luxembourg, the Republic of Korea, and Rwanda. That, at least, is how things are supposed to work. However, the situation became a little less cut and dried today when the Saudis took the unprecedented step of refusing their election to the Security Council. When I say “unprecedented,” I mean “it’s not even clear that the UN has a way to deal with a member refusing to take its seat on the council.”

Further, there is no official mechanism for the Kingdom to turn down its seat on the Council. Nothing within the United Nations Charter says anything about removing a member from the Security Council once they have been elected. Nor is there any clause in the UNSC’s Provisional Rules of Procedure about how to replace a member of the body who declines their seat. There is a section in the rules of the General Assembly, which selects the non-permanent members, that says that a “by-election shall be held separately at the next session of the General Assembly to elect a member for the unexpired term” should Saudi Arabia not change its mind by next September, possibly allowing another country to hold the seat for 2015 only.

More likely, should Saudi Arabia continue on with its decision once the new session starts in January, the seat will remain vacant for the two-year period that the country holds the seat. The last such boycott was back in 1950, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic chose to skip Council meetings in protest, only to find itself unable to veto United Nations intervention in the Korean War.

Why would the Saudis take this step? According to them, it’s because they’re real mad at the UN and stuff:

“To have the Palestinian cause remaining without a fair and permanent solution for 65 years, which resulted in several wars that threatened international peace and security, is evidence and proof of (the) Security Council’s inability to perform his duties and responsibilities,” the ministry said.

It also blamed the Security Council for not preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the region — especially nuclear weapons, a likely allusion to Saudi Arabia’s adversarial neighbor Iran.

Lastly, the kingdom brought up the civil war in Syria, blaming the U.N. for not punishing the government after a poison gas attack there killed hundreds of civilians.

Which, OK, I guess, you think the UN sucks so you’d rather not participate in the sucking. Except if that’s the reason, then what was this all about?

Saudi Arabia on Thursday was elected as one of five U.N. members to take up seats among the ten non-permanent members of the Council, beginning in 2014. The two-year term is usually heavily lobbied for among the regional groupings that determine the number of seats available and Saudi Arabia was no exception. Gift bags to members of the General Assembly from the Saudi Mission showed the gratitude for the 176 votes out of 192 countries who make up the body — despite the fact that Saudi Arabia ran unopposed — illustrate the desire of the mission to take over a seat for the first time since it joined the United Nations in 1945.

So, even though they were running unopposed for the traditional (though informal, unlike the UNSC’s formal geographic slotting) “Arab” seat on the council, KSA openly campaigned for the seat, and then sent “thank-you” gift bags after their election. Yet despite all that, the Saudis today decided that they couldn’t accept the seat due to their anger over three things that have all been going on for years, if not decades. Does this make any sense? Certainly it’s not hard to argue that the UN has failed on the Israel-Palestine question, and while there is clear progress being made on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program, it doesn’t involve airstrikes so the Saudis don’t approve. It’s a little ironic that the Saudis are complaining that the UN hasn’t done enough to help the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel when the Israelis are KSA’s most sympatico pals when it comes to Iran, but anybody looking for intellectual consistency in foreign policy is going to have a long, frustrating search. I do think Iran is part of this, but not as big a part as the Saudis are claiming. Were the Saudis hoping to be lauded as shrewd champions for a better international community, or some such high-minded stuff? My impression of the international reaction in the NY Times report on this is that KSA is being seen less like a conscientious objector and more like a bunch of incoherent amateurs.

But it seems like Syria is, of their three admitted complaints, the real flashpoint here, and while I’m sure the Saudis are still mad that America decided not to blow up lots of Syrians in an effort to “contain” Assad’s chemical weapons, I’m not sure that’s the key issue. Maybe the Saudis realized that a seat on the UNSC might bring with it a little more scrutiny of their efforts to arm and support extremist groups among the Syrian rebellion, efforts that reached a culmination of sorts three weeks ago with the creation of a new jihadi umbrella group in Syria called Jaysh al-Islam (“Army of Islam”), closely allied to the Saudis (it excludes Ahrar al-Sham, for example, whose sponsor is Qatar rather than KSA) and opposed to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Jaysh al-Islam is essentially an expansion of one of the largest of Syria’s jihadi groups, Liwa al-Islam (“Banner of Islam”), formed by merging that relatively large group with several smaller extremist militias who were outside ISIS’ control. This merger puts the non-Qaeda extremists on equal footing with ISIS, but it also may have sounded the death knell for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was previously strongest in the areas around Damascus that Jaysh al-Islam now calls home. Not only does this put KSA in opposition with whatever (presumably minor) efforts America is making on behalf of the FSA, it also would mean a member of the UNSC is actively engaging in the covert patronage of a network of Islamic extremists (the kind of folks that the non-Islamic world tends to define as “terrorists”). What if there’s a peace deal reached on Syria promising a transition to a post-Assad government while KSA is on the UNSC? Would they be comfortable using their perch to push hard for a hard-line Islamic state in Syria when the rest of the world is going to be pushing for democracy? Or is it better for KSA’s interests to keep a lower (meaning, not on the UNSC) profile here?

A similar concern for the Saudis may be their strong support of Egypt’s military junta. The Saudis have understandable self-interest in backing el-Sisi’s government against the Muslim Brotherhood, but they likely don’t want to attract a lot of attention to that support in light of the violent turn things have taken there since the coup.

There are two other concerns that I suspect became very apparent to the Saudis and led to today’s statement, which amounts to a very angry admission of cold feet with a side of displaced aggression. Iran is one. The first round of negotiations with Rowhani’s government over the nuclear issue seems to have gone fairly well, much to Bibi Netanyahu’s chagrin, and given the enormous domestic pressure on Rowhani to achieve a lifting of the international sanctions that are crippling Iran’s economy there is some reason to be optimistic about where things are going. But Saudi Arabia wants military strikes on Iran. They won’t be happy with a negotiated settlement that allows Iran even a non-militarized nuclear program, even though Iran, like every other nation, is entitled “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination” under Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. How would the Saudis react to a deal from their Security Council seat? What if KSA wound up acting effectively as Israel’s proxy on the security council when it comes to the right of an Islamic nation (Shiʿi, yes, but still Islamic) to have a peaceful nuclear program? How would the rest of the Islamic World react to that? How would KSA’s restless Shiʿa minority react? Is it better here, too, for KSA to keep a lower profile?

Speaking of that restless Shiʿa minority, one last consideration for the Saudis may be whether or not they want to invite additional scrutiny of the Kingdom’s dismal human rights record. The security council isn’t exactly a place for only the morally pure (the members who are departing all have lousy human rights records, and the incoming Chad still uses child soldiers, for Pete’s sake), but selection to the council does shine a spotlight on a country (for example, I’m fairly sure that many more people know today that Chad uses freaking child soldiers in its army than knew about it yesterday). KSA has a poor record on women’s rights, LGBT rights, religious and political freedom, and mistreatment of its migrant workers. Compounding things is the recent scrutiny that Qatar has been getting for its brutally poor treatment of expatriate laborers, scrutiny that may easily spill over to the rest of the Gulf since the practice of importing, and then mistreating, manual labor is ubiquitous there. Maybe, again, KSA decided it was better not to invite attention.

I’m not the only one thinking like this:

But some others in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, said they were not entirely surprised, given the kingdom’s long ambivalence about assuming a position that would strain friendships and alliances, particularly given the high profile and volatility of the Security Council’s recent decisions.

“The Saudis no doubt quickly realized that being on the U.N.S.C. would mean they could no longer pursue their traditional back-seat and low-key policies and therefore decided to give it up,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and an authority on Saudi Arabia.

“Regardless of the short-term costs, a seat on the U.N.S.C. may have also meant that Saudi Arabia would be more constrained in backing the Syrian opposition,” Mr. Haykel said in an e-mail.

So, mission accomplished? Profile lowered? It remains to be seen. KSA’s rejection of the seat has probably earned it more short-term attention than quietly accepting it would have, but I’m betting the Saudis figure it will blow over quickly and they’ll be able to get back to normal.

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