Amid the arrival of presidents, prime ministers and kings, the 66th annual session of the U.N. General Assembly debate opens in New York on Wednesday, but the session hardly starts in a celebratory mood as a series of geopolitical, financial and natural jolts have shaken the world body to the core, including the “Arab Spring” of 2011 and debilitating natural disasters.

To the foreboding backdrop of a global economic upheaval and major political changes in the Middle East, the session’s elected president, Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser of Qatar, stated perhaps prophetically, “The sands are shifting.” He added that “political protests were upending once-stable governments, and the seemingly unending raft of natural and man-made disasters,” were reshaping the global scene for the 193 member states.

Though the U.N. General Assembly will plod through its near-static 168-item agenda over the next few months, the real focus of the session comes down to a few key issues; the Arab Spring, the global economic gloom, and the humanitarian challenge of natural disasters from Haiti to the Horn of Africa.

First, the Arab Spring. A series of unexpected popular rebellions have rocked the Middle East and North Africa since January. Formerly “stable” autocracies such as Tunisia and Egypt were jolted by protests which toppled the governments.

Later similar uprisings spread to Yemen, Libya and Syria. In early January, few would have predicted the serious revolts in Egypt or Syria or could have imagined that NATO’s military might would be fighting alongside Libyan rebels to oust Moammar Gadhafi.

While the roots and results of each of the revolutions are different, the political bottom line remains the same, a tectonic shift in power and the players in key countries. The overthrow of the pro-American President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt presents a major loss for regional stability. The recent trashing of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and a Muslim Brotherhood regime waiting in the wings does not bode well for Egypt’s future.

Amid the political surprises in the Arab would comes the peripatetic Palestinian issue before the U.N. General Assembly. Palestinian authorities are pushing for a formal move to U.N. membership as an upgrade of their “Permanent Observer” status. But getting a membership resolution through the 193-member General Assembly is not the challenge; passing the 15-member Security Council remains the hurdle.

While Washington is certain to veto U.N. membership of a Palestinian state at this point, Israel in the meantime warns that such a unilateral move to formalize Palestinian statehood in an area encompassing the pre-1967 borders, would breach previous agreements to negotiate a two-state solution.

Global economic turmoil naturally threatens the U.N. in profoundly different ways. As the world economy remains mired in recession, and as major economic engines of growth such as the United States, Japan and the European Union face not only economic slowdowns but, more dangerously, the albatross of massive debt. Prospects for developing countries is souring. The loss of investment, markets and commerce, has been held hostage to the recession. Developing countries are bound by this grim reality.

Moreover, the terrible earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan earlier this year has not only significantly cut into an already tepid Japanese growth rate, but has hampered one of the key countries providing economic and humanitarian assistance to many developing countries. The Japanese along with the U.S., Canada and some European Union states remain among the most generous global givers in time of crisis.

Natural disasters are the third issue affecting the new Assembly. Assembly President al-Nasser stressed that “We must invest in preparedness, to reduce risk and vulnerability to natural hazards.”

He added poignantly that the ongoing famine in Somalia saw people “facing starvation and humanitarian disaster on an unimaginable scale.”

According to UNICEF officials, the drought in the Horn of Africa remains a “crisis of magnitude not seen in the last decade” with 13 million affected across the region. Humanitarian challenges go well beyond the Horn of Africa to Haiti, Pakistan, and North Korea.

Assembly President al-Nasser, coming from the business-friendly Persian Gulf state of Qatar, confronted a lingering problem in the U.N. itself: “There is no shame in admitting that after six decades, our Organization needs reform,” addressing key issues such as Security Council expansion and alluding to inefficiencies in the U.N. management system, and the widening challenges of peacekeeping mandates.

The U.N. system, at 66 years of age, seems well beyond a political midlife crisis.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Transatlantic Divide: USA/Euroland Rift? “(2010)

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