London, Asharq AL-Awsat—Call it diplomatic jujitsu, if you like. But what Saudi Arabia did with regards to its non-consummated membership of the United Nation’s Security Council, is a classic example of reversing a move to surprise an adversary.
Well, let’s begin with a brief account of what happened.
Although one of the founders of the United Nations, Saudi Arabia has always shied away from seeking a non-permanent seat on the Security Council. The council is the UN’s chief policy-making body and the two-year rotating membership could have given Saudi Arabia an opportunity to inject a new tone in the international debate on several key issues.
On at least four previous occasions, the Saudis were pressed by regional allies to seek a seat but declined, preferring to nurture a low-profile cautious approach to international affairs.
As a member, the Kingdom would have had several obvious advantages, most notably due to its close—or at least good—relations with all five permanent Security Council members. This could have served as a great help in allowing one’s voice to be heard in the Security Council.
However, Saudi Arabia decided to decline membership in order to register a strong protest against the dysfunctionality of the Security Council with special reference to the Syrian tragedy. In a statement, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said the council had failed in its duties on Syria and other world conflicts.
“Work mechanisms and double standard on the Security Council prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace,” the statement said. “Therefore, Saudi Arabia has no other option but to turn down Security Council membership until it is reformed and given the means to accomplish its duties and assume its responsibilities in preserving world peace and security.”
The latest Saudi move was predicted by Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal’s passionately angry presence at the UN General Assembly in New York last month. Coming from a seasoned diplomat known for his cool nerves and almost inexhaustible patience, Prince Saud’s move indicated an unprecedented feeling of frustration with the Council’s paralysis.
It is too early to tell what effect the Saudi move might have on the long-stalled debate on reforming the Security Council, a debate that started with an internal UN report more than 30 years ago.
Making a protest at the UN is not unprecedented. In 1971, an angry Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, speaking for Pakistan after the Indian invasion and the secession of Bangladesh, threw his papers at the Council and walked out, shouting “Take your United Nations!”
However, the Saudi protest is unprecedented because member nations covet a seat on the Security Council.
The 2014-2015 international agenda, as it takes shape, includes a number of issues of close interest to the Kingdom.
Just to start with, there is the continuing civil war in Syria and the human tragedy that accompanies it. The Council has already reached consensus about convening the so-called Geneva II conference to seek a way out of the current Syrian impasse.
Saudi Arabia has said it will support such a move but would surely insist on a close examination of the small print. Its dramatic move yesterday will make it harder for Russia, which backs the Syrian regime, to try and fudge the core issues of the dossier.
Regardless of the possible twists and turns in the conflict, President Bashar Al-Assad’s term in office will end next May. Although he has boasted he might run for another term, the best guess at present is that holding any meaningful elections in Syria will not be possible for quite some time. In any case, the issue has now gone beyond what Assad might do or what might be done to him. The core issue now is how to save Syria from systemic collapse that could turn it into a Somalia on the Mediterranean.
Since the Syrian uprising started, Saudi Arabia has pressed for a political transition from a failed regime to a new configuration that could stabilize the country and provide an opportunity for building a system based on national reconciliation.
Because the Saudi position is backed by virtually all members of the Arab League, and almost all of Syria’s neighbors, the Kingdom’s voice is certain to carry additional weight in any deliberations regarding Syria’s future.
The next issue of direct interest to Saudi Arabia concerns the decades’ long dispute that has pitted Iran against the Security Council over Tehran’s nuclear program. There is consensus that if Iran were to build a nuclear arsenal it could trigger a regional arms race with incalculable consequences. Over the past two decades, the Council has unanimously passed six resolutions to force Iran to abandon activities that could lead to a nuclear arsenal. Iran has ignored the resolutions but managed to buy time through dilatory tactics and “talks-about-talks.”
However, since the election of Hojjat Al-Islam Hassan Rouhani as president, the Islamic Republic has played new mood music. Will this translate into genuine compliance with the Council’s resolutions? No one knows at present.
If the latest round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 group produces an agreement, the Security Council will need to pass a new resolution to cancel the six previous ones and set out the terms of the deal. The problem is that the Council’s current mechanism could produce another deadlock, preventing a credible settlement.
In its 2014-2015 sessions, the Security Council will also have to supervise the end of international intervention in Afghanistan as the multinational force dispatched there in 2001 withdraws.
Finally, there is the Israel-Palestine issue that is likely to return to the Security Council sometime next year. The Obama administration has pressed the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to shape a deal within nine months, that is to say by next spring.
The Saudi move is a dramatic reminder that the international system is broken. There are many ideas for mending it but, so far at least, little courage to tackle this Herculean task. If the Saudi move injects a dose of courage where it is most needed, it will be a much greater contribution to international order than warming a seat for two years in an atmosphere of cynical bickering.