Saudi Arabia’s snub of the U.N.

In an unprecedented move, Saudi Arabia last week turned down a two-year nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The move was a stunner. Not only has no country ever before refused the position, but Riyadh had lobbied for the seat and even prepared its diplomats for the post.

Saudi Arabia justified the decision with a condemnation of the U.N.’s “double standards” and the U.N.’s failure to protect international peace and security. The complaints are fair, but the action still makes no sense, as Riyadh has reduced its influence by rejecting the UNSC seat.

Every year the U.N. General Assembly elects five countries to occupy half the nonpermanent seats on the UNSC. While nonpermanent members do not enjoy the status of the Permanent Five seat holders — China, Britain, France, Russia and the United States — or their veto power, a place at the UNSC is considered one of the most important positions in international diplomacy, offering those governments insight into deliberations on key international issues and a chance to influence outcomes.

The competition for a nonpermanent seat is intense and governments usually begin lobbying for the slot years in advance.

Last week, Chad, Chile, Lithuania, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia were picked as the new members. Yet, a day later, Saudi Arabia announced that it was rejecting its seat, complaining that “the mechanisms of action and double standards existing within the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities toward preserving international peace and security as required.”

In addition to the long-standing complaint regarding the difference in power between permanent and nonpermanent members — especially that pesky veto — the Saudi Foreign Ministry pointed to the ongoing civil war in Syria, the failure to take action against Damascus for its suspected use of chemical weapons, the continuing Israel-Palestinian crisis and the failure to pursue a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

Those are all legitimate grievances, but the decision to turn down the post still seems excessive. After all, Riyadh would have more opportunity to shape U.N. action from the Security Council. On close votes, every representative counts — even without veto power — and this move effectively silences the Saudis.

Given the campaign and the training programs for its diplomats, the decision appears abrupt. Since Saudi Arabia is a kingdom, there is speculation that the move reflects the personal pique of King Abdullah, and his perceived need to make a strong statement regarding the conflict in Syria.

Saudi Arabia has been an outspoken critic of the actions taken by Damascus and has backed some of the opposition forces fighting against the regime.

The Saudis are no doubt dismayed by the bloodshed perpetrated by the Syrian government and the potential for the conflict to spread instability elsewhere in the region.

Riyadh also sees the conflict as a way for Iran to expand its influence in the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter foes, squaring off over supremacy in the region, as well as over faith. The Saudis represent the Sunni branch of Islam, and the Iranians, the Shiite branch.

Some observers believe that the Security Council snub is also a signal to Washington of Riyadh’s disappointment over the U.S.’ failure to back moderate Syrian rebels as well as the recent negotiations with Tehran that could lead to progress on the nuclear issue and thus to acceptance of Iran’s status within the region. Nothing would be more anathema to Saudi Arabia.

Reportedly Saudi Arabia has not been well informed of U.S. intentions in its outreach to Tehran across a range of issues, a development that is infuriating Riyadh, given Riyadh’s stake in any outcome and its position as a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf region. If this move is an attempt to get U.S. attention and reinvigorate U.S.-Saudi dialogue, it is likely to succeed.

It is not clear what will happen next. The U.N. could hold another vote to fill the seat, or it could leave it vacant but still belonging to Saudi Arabia.

The closest precedent for this situation was during the Korean War, when the Soviet Union boycotted the Security Council after it was unable to expel Taiwan and replace it with the People’s Republic of China, then its ally.

The lesson to Saudi Arabia should be clear: Because of the boycott, the Soviet Union was not present and, therefore, could not veto the Security Council’s vote to intervene in South Korea and fight against North Korean invaders.

Other Arab states are pressing Riyadh to reconsider its rejection of the Security Council seat. Given the language of the original refusal, and the very personalized way in which the decision was made in the kingdom, it is difficult to envision Saudi Arabia changing its mind without embarrassing the king.

If Riyadh’s chief complaint concerns the Security Council’s response to the Syrian conflict, it should reconsider — if only for the opportunity to confront Russia, the Damascus regime’s chief enabler, on a daily basis.

The Saudi snub of the United Nations may feel good and send a message, but it effectively will undermine Riyadh’s ability to influence policy on the issues that it feels most strongly about.