In a region where everything seems to be standing on its head and doing its best to defy decades of “conventional wisdom,” Saudi Arabia’s decision to decline a coveted seat on the UN Security Council shouldn’t seem so surprising. However, the rationale behind the abrupt about-face that reportedly surprised even the Saudi UN Ambassador is worth consideration as it speaks to the fluidity of the balance of power in the region and the scrambling of regional players to jockey for pole position in the still to be determined new regional order. There are three possible explanations; each indicating a breach in US-Saudi relations yet still affirming a level of dependency on the retreating super-power.
The first explanation is to take the Saudi explanation at face value. They see no point in joining an international body that has proven incapable of offering a solution the region’s most pressing problems. UN paralysis over the crisis has long angered the Saudis, who sought definitive action against the Assad regime. The chemical weapons punt brokered by the US and Russia now has Syria trudging back to a re-assertion of Assad’s rule. This is the worst case outcome for the Saudis and seen as yet another betrayal by a United States all too willing to abandon friends in the region. When taken in combination with Saudi and regional frustration on Security Council impotence in addressing other regional crises, not the least of which is the failure of the UN body to deliver a just settlement to the Palestinian question, the Saudis took the chance to demand reform.
There is no question that the rhetoric of double standards marshaled to justify the decision played well with the “Arab street,” which is an important outcome for Saudi Arabia, which has seen its soft power decline among key Sunni-Moslem constituencies in Egypt, Lebanon , Turkey and Palestine. However, the short PR boost will quickly be consumed by jaundiced cynicism if no regional alternative strategy commences; which by all measures is not forthcoming.
The chorus of Gulf States cheering the “brave” Saudi decision speak to another source of Saudi frustration: possible US rapprochement with Iran and failure to move on a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Problem with this analysis is the disconnect between aims and means. If keeping tough sanctions and a possible military strike on the table is Saudi’s end goal, closer cooperation with the United States, including providing cover in the UNSC, would seem the more rational course of action.
Which brings me to the third, and most compelling explanation: the Saudis were hedging. They want to assert their independence and displeasure with the United States Syria policy in particular but are still leery of the consequences of a complete rupture with the world’s sole superpower even as its willingness to exercise that strength is in decline.
The Saudis are no neophytes to global diplomacy or the inner-workings of the various UN bodies. Their recent experience in the UN Human Rights Council has provided strong lessons for the conundrums facing Arab allies of the United States as they navigate these systems. Voting with their ally will engender opposition in the streets and be seen as backing the US/Israeli agenda (there is no daylight between these two here) at the expense of their Arab brethren. However, voting against the US would risk a spat with an ally necessary for Saudi national security and regional power projection. Abstaining would only assure that everyone is upset, as King Hussein learned in 1990-1991.
The list of probable issues coming towards the UN Security Council in the coming years would all see the Saudis caught between the frying pan of US disapproval and opprobria on the Arab Street. It is avoiding these precise sorts of public show-downs that scholars like Bernard Haykel have long cited as an explanation for the Saudi’s preference for low profile, back room diplomacy. The choice to pursue the seat was regarded by many as a welcome but high stakes shift towards a more assertive foreign policy and a bid to reassert its leadership during a time of turmoil. In this light, turning the seat down suggests a reappraisal of the merits of this strategy.
A plausible conclusion is that the Saudis, all public protestations of a change in their relationship with the US notwithstanding, are keenly aware that an alliance with the United States is still necessary for the Kingdom to advance its regional interests. Part of the frustration with US possible rapprochement with Iran is the recognition that Saudi’s dependency on the US nuclear umbrella will be even more acute if Iranian ambitions are unchecked. Moreover, the region the Saudi’s are purporting to lead is combustible, fragile and fraught with conflicts that could infiltrate the kingdom’s own borders if left unaddressed. Opposing US policy may enhance Saudi’s regional influence but absent US resources it is unclear how that influence can be translated into actionable policy to preserve, let alone better, Saudi’s interests.
This essay by Madawi Al-Rasheed provides a compelling analysis of the shaky situation in the Saudi’s regional coalition. As stated in their break up letter to the UN, the Saudis are fed up with double standards and the willingness of global powers to let regional wounds fester in pursuit of their geo-political interests. Nevertheless, deeming the global institution a waste of time because of the global balance of power is not the same as being ready to challenge it, even on a regional level.