On Thursday, the 193 countries making up the U.N. General Assembly held a secret ballot to select new members of the Security Council. Each year, the Assembly elects five new countries to serve two-year rotating posts; competition is keen, and countries lobby years in advance for a seat at what remains the highest table in international politics.
In one round of balloting, the five countries rotating off — Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan and Togo — were replaced by Chad, Chile, Lithuania, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. There was a hearty round of applause and some criticism of human-rights records, but otherwise little in the way of surprises from the annual election.
Less than 24 hours later, Saudi Arabia announced it was rejecting its coveted seat on the council, an unprecedented move that shocked the diplomatic community. Its diplomats cited the council’s inability to take firm action on the current crisis in Syria (ostensibly the fault of vetoes from Russia and China) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (ostensibly the fault of the U.S.). “The manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities toward preserving international peace and security as required,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill its people and burn them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment is clear proof and evidence of the U.N. Security Council’s inability to perform its duties and shoulder its responsibilities.”
The rejection was especially surprising because Saudi Arabia had lobbied for the seat and reportedly given its diplomatic staff special training on Security Council procedures. A seat on the Security Council, in addition to giving a country a measure of prestige, allows them to be in the room for crucial votes, an opportunity no nation has ever turned down in recent times.
“There’s really no precedent for this in the council’s history,” says David Bosco, assistant professor of international politics at American University in Washington, D.C., who writes frequently about the U.N. To find a historical example, you have to go back to 1950. That year, the Soviet Union proposed expelling the Nationalist Chinese representative and recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the true Chinese government. When the proposal was defeated, the Soviets boycotted the council and missed out on the chance to veto military action in Korea. The Soviets later rejoined the Security Council. “Countries think that being on the Security Council is worthwhile, that they get some influence,” Bosco says. “And they do — they get some influence. It’s perplexing.”
The announcement was also out of character for the Saudis themselves. “It runs very much against their style in foreign policy, which tends to be more low key, less public, more working behind the scenes,” says F. Gregory Gause III, a political-science professor at the University of Vermont who specializes in the international relations of the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. “Why not withdraw your candidacy before? To go and get elected and then turn it down, it’s very puzzling.”
For decades, Gause explains, the Saudis preferred to move behind the scenes. But in the past 10 years, Riyadh looked around the Middle East and saw that no other country could stand up to Iran, whose Shi‘ite revolutionary government is ideologically anathema to the deeply monarchical, Sunni orthodox Saudis. They became much more public in pushing back against Iran in the region and took a leadership role that was, in many ways he says, uncomfortable for the kingdom. The effort to gain a seat on the Security Council seemed like it was part of that shift.
The Saudis noted their objections to the council’s handling of the Syrian civil war, but it’s hard to tell why Riyadh chose this time and this issue to protest. “Foreign policy is always a very personal thing, because it’s held by the chief executive,” Gause says. “It’s different from domestic politics. That’s just as true in Saudi Arabia as it is in the United States. The King calls the shots.” King Abdullah has a very experienced hand in Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has served in that position since 1975, making him the longest-serving Foreign Minister in the world. “He’s a really professional diplomat,” Gause says. “It’s not like him to fly off the handle. It’s possible that the King decided that a strong statement needed to be made because he’s very upset about the violence in Syria. But one wonders if the temporary focus that Saudi Arabia gets by doing this is worth giving up a seat on the Security Council where at least they’d have some voice in resolutions on Syria.”
The Saudis’ other chief complaint was the rules governing the council. Under its current structure, in which the five permanent members (the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China) can veto resolutions, the 10 rotating members have much less power, and those countries have felt marginalized. This is a gripe shared by the rest of the non-veto-wielding international community. But just by being on the council, a country can have influence. A member can call special meetings, and the presidency of the council rotates every month, so a country can push an issue that might not otherwise be discussed. “Occasionally, if it does come down to a close vote on the Security Council, every vote counts,” Bosco says. “The nonpermanent members can be influential.”
What happens next is a bit of a mystery. The General Assembly could declare that the seat belongs to the Saudis and the Security Council will meet with only 14 members present. In 1950, there were six rotating members, and until the Soviets returned, the Council met with 10 members and one empty seat. The assembly could also hold another vote and the Asia-Pacific group, which includes nations from the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, would nominate a new member. Because most countries stood down their lobbying efforts and deferred to the Saudis, a new election for the seat could be a bit of a free-for-all. In the oft-predictable world of international diplomacy, a wide-open, unpredictable vote would indeed be something to watch.