Key Mideast leaders are coming out in support of the Saudi move, which it announced shortly after winning an election for one of the council’s non-permanent seats for 2014-15.
The kingdom accused the Security Council of “double standards” and a failure to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region; to respond firmly to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people; and to resolve the Palestinian issue.
U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman said to the best of his knowledge no country had ever been elected onto the Security Council and then not taken up the seat.
Since the 1960s one of the council’s 10 temporary seats by unwritten agreement has always been held by an Arab country. The U.N. has not yet said how it will handle the first-time situation, but either Kuwait or Yemen, both of which earlier indicated their intention to run for a seat in 2017, may be invited to bring their plans forward.
Secretary of State John Kerry was already scheduled to meet with his Saudi counterpart, Saud al-Faisal, in Paris on Monday, and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she was certain they would discuss the U.N. matter.
While in Paris Kerry is also due to brief an Arab League committee, of which Saudi Arabia is a member, on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Although the Saudis cited the Palestinian issue as one of their reasons for rejecting the council seat, that dispute has gone unresolved for 65 years and is not currently at a crisis level.
Far more pressing for the kingdom right now is the council’s divisions over Syria including U.S. reluctance to give greater military backing to the opposition, and its perception that the Obama administration is softening towards Shi’ite Iran, the Sunni kingdom’s regional rival.
Saudi commentary in recent weeks suggests that the kingdom is deeply concerned about the prospect of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Al-Faisal’s unprecedented failure to deliver a scheduled speech at the U.N. General Assembly last month was an earlier indication of Riyadh’s unease over Syria and Iran.
After Friday’s announcement a group of Arab ambassadors in New York appealed to Saudi leaders to “maintain their membership in the Security Council and continue their brave role in defending our issues specifically at the rostrum of the Security Council.”
But voices in the region backed the Saudi decision.
Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi told reporters in Cairo the Saudis were correct in objecting to the council’s methods and failings while Qatar’s foreign minister Khalid al-Attiyah on his Twitter account called al-Faisal “my brother” and thanked him for a decision which had “confused the world.”
United Arab Emirates foreign minister Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan in a statement voiced understanding for Saudi Arabia’s “public frustration” about the council’s ineffectiveness, and the foreign ministry of Bahrain, a Shi'ite-majority island state whose Sunni leaders also view Iran as a threat, supported Saudi Arabia’s “courageous stance.”
Turkish President Abdullah Gul told journalists in Istanbul at the weekend that Turkey shares the Saudis’ frustration and that their decision deserved “respect.” During his speech at the General Assembly last month Gul called the Security Council’s failure to unite on Syria a “disgrace.”
Psaki declined to say whether the administration would try to persuade the Saudis to reverse course, saying it was their decision.
She defended the council, saying that it “plays an important role” and citing its recent resolution aimed at destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. That measure, diluted to remove any critical references to President Bashar Assad’s regime, came only after Russia and China dropped their longstanding refusal to support any resolution relating to the Syrian conflict.
Just weeks before that, senior administration officials had themselves been scathingly critical of the Security Council, which President Obama described as “completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.”
Stoking the reform debate
Russia’s foreign ministry said through its “bewildering” stance Saudi Arabia had “excluded itself from collective work within the Security Council to support international peace and security.”
Judging from reaction in the region, however, Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the seat could end up having a bigger impact that any it could expect to have had by being a member for two years – simply by stoking the faltering debate on Security Council reform.
The Saudi decision “is far more important than a two-year membership rendered valueless in the light of the Security Council’s double standards and protection of tyrants,” argued Hussein Shobokshi, a columnist in the Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat, regarded as one of the Arab world’s most influential newspapers.
The Security Council’s makeup largely reflects the balance of power at the end of World War II: The permanent five (P5) – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China (which in 1971 took the seat previously held by Taiwan) – all have veto power, which the temporary members do not.
U.N. member-states have been discussing reforming the council for decades but every attempt to do so has run into insurmountable hurdles.
P5 members are reluctant to extend veto power to newcomers, while aspirants for permanent seats struggle to overcome resistance from regional rivals. China opposes a permanent seat for Japan, for example, while Pakistan objects to India getting one.
The Bush administration publicly supported only Japan’s bid for a permanent seat while President Obama has endorsed one for India “in the years ahead.”
Others eyeing permanent seats include Brazil, Germany and South Africa, while the Organization of Islamic Cooperation wants an Islamic representative.