What started as a routine action by the United Nations Security Council — the election of nonpermanent members — turned into a major drama when Saudi Arabia, one of the nations so selected, turned down the seat.
The Security Council is composed of 15 member nations. Five are permanent, including the United States. Ten are nonpermanent; five are chosen each year for two-year terms.
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry declined the seat to which the nation had been elected. It offered a list of grievances against the Security Council as its reasons for rejecting what is considered to be an honor and is a matter of hot competition among member nations.
The Arab Group at the U.N. urged Saudi Arabia to take the seat. The Arab League supported Saudi Arabia’s refusal. The country’s U.N. delegation was apparently caught by surprise, having lobbied for the seat.
The Saudi foreign ministry said the Security Council had showed an “inability to perform its duties.” It complained about the U.N.’s inaction on the Syrian civil war and chemical weapons, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the presence of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, presumably referring to Iran and Israel.
The Saudis also suggested annoyance with the United States for avoiding a military attack on Syria by leaving the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons up to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for restarting the Israeli-Palestinian talks, and for resuming a long-suspended dialogue with Iran on its nuclear weapons program.
Some Saudi elements may prefer to conduct the kingdom’s foreign policy privately and independently, outside of international bodies. That sacrifices the opportunity the Security Council provides to swing a bigger bat in global affairs.
Saudi rulers may believe that relative isolation is key to the monarchy’s preservation in the 21st century. That prospect seems increasingly unlikely.