Saudi Arabia’s Missed Opportunity

On Thursday Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN Security Council as one of the 10 rotating members for the first time in history. On Friday it became the first country ever to decline that offer, sending diplomatic shockwaves around the globe.

In a public statement, the kingdom’s ministry of foreign affairs cited the UNSC’s inability to help bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to curb nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. But most importantly, the Saudis cited the UNSC “allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stands idly, without applying deterrent sanctions against the Damascus regime”. They said all of this was “irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council”.

As a result, Saudi Arabia expressed regret for “not accepting membership of the Security Council until the council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security”.

We saw hints of this frustration at the UN general assembly debate back in September, when the Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was scheduled to speak – but instead refused to do so, and declined to even circulate a draft of his speech.

Perhaps these key policy priorities and the desire for reform in the Security Council are the true motivation behind the Saudi snub. Or maybe these statements are simply rhetorical bombast. Either way, we think the Saudis’ tactics are not in their best interests – or those of the international community.

A cynical interpretation would indicate that the Saudi statement was political rhetoric and the crux of the issue is that Riyadh is publicity-shy. The Saudis are comfortable pursuing their regional objectives through the Gulf Co-operation Council and bilateral engagement behind the scenes. It makes sense that Saudi Arabia would hesitate before putting itself on the hook for black-and-white public decisions, such as a likely forthcoming UNSC referendum on the Iranian nuclear programme. But if Riyadh valued its privacy over the added diplomatic heft that the seat would afford it, then it made a significant tactical blunder letting it go this far. It is not like its election to the Security Council was a shock: the Saudis had expressed interest in the seat years ago, and negotiations within their geographical group at the UN resulted in their running unopposed. They could have signposted their about-face and minimised the shock and fallout. It is clear the decision came from the top, as it even took many Saudi officials by surprise.

The alternative is that Saudi Arabia wanted its statements to resonate as much as possible, declining its seat in this manner to draw attention. After all, Saudi Arabia’s observations are undeniable – it is absolutely right that the UN Security Council is hardly effective and archaically constructed. With five permanent members on the council – the US, the UK, France, China and Russia – equipped with veto power, the key players are too misaligned to reach consensus, while power remains too consolidated to reflect the interests of the broader international community.

But if the Saudis want a better international body, this was a tactical mistake as well. In a world lacking global leadership, the UN is all we are going to get. In its absence, no effective global organisation would emerge to pick up the slack. Thus, refusing to participate and decrying the UNSC’s actions is not the best path forward – Saudi Arabia was wrong to sweep away pieces from the chessboard. If Riyadh wants to go rogue to draw attention to international inaction in the Middle East and the shortcomings of the Security Council, it should go rogue within the confines of the UN framework.

But what about the pesky permanent member veto it would quickly run up against? It seems a procedure exists for getting around it, although exercising it would inevitably infuriate some of Saudi Arabia’s main allies.

In 1950, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 377 A (V) – the “Uniting for Peace” rule – in response to the Soviet Union blocking any attempts by the UNSC to come to the aid of South Korea in response to aggression by North Korea. The rule was effectively a veto override: if the Security Council is “failing to maintain international peace and security”, the UN General Assembly can call an emergency special session and issue any recommendations it deems necessary with a two-thirds vote. There have been 10 such sessions over the years, spearheaded by countries ranging from the US to Zimbabwe.

If the Saudis took this route, they could float specific policy suggestions such as the “deterrent sanctions against the Damascus regime” that they have promoted. With a veto off the table, this course of action would prove far more effective at potentially bringing about the changes the Saudis seek. But even if it fell short, the process would force the world’s 193 recognised nations to vote with the Saudis, against them or abstain – thus garnering vastly more international attention and public discourse.

More importantly, it would be a step toward the “reformed and enabled” international body that the Saudis imagine. A UNGA vote gives small countries outsized influence, with all votes treated equally. Of course, this is still a far cry from true democracy, with incentive for large states to buy the loyalty of minuscule ones through aid and other carrots. But it skews closer to collective governance than a rigid UNSC model where five countries hold all the cards. In the cold war era, perhaps such emergency sessions seemed like little more than a proxy fight between the US and the Soviet Union. But in today’s world where no major power can single-handedly set the global agenda, coalitions of countries large and small gravitating around major powers is a leap toward decentralising the UN’s decision-making.

Riyadh could also explore the UN Charter’s oft-ignored article 11 that gives the General Assembly the right to make recommendations to the Security Council to take action with regards to the maintenance of international peace and security. Such a measure would amount to a moral directive by the international community to the Security Council to come together. This would certainly shake things up at the UN, adding to an already lively debate about how to rebalance power between the organisation’s principal organs, in accordance with the tenets of its charter.

The UN is far from ideal as an international governing body – but nothing else compares. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There is room for vast improvement within the UN framework that could better gear it for truly global leadership.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and global research professor at New York University. Vuk Jeremić is president of the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development, a public policy think-tank, and was president of the 67th session of UN General Assembly from 2012-13

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