Saudi Arabia is projecting that its rejection of the seat of a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council rests on high principles. However, the big question is: Who in reality Riyadh is snubbing? It may seem to be the UN system, but appearances can be deceptive.
To be sure, Riyadh had knowingly sought the privilege of being represented in the Security Council for the very first time since the inception of the world body over six decades ago. It assiduously canvassed for over a year to gain support for its candidature from the UN member countries after being nominated as the unanimous choice of the Arab bloc. Evidently, realpolitik figured in the Saudi calculus and if at all high principles began dawning on the Saudi mind, it must have been fairly recently.
The Saudis have decided on a “course correction.” Period. It is theatrical and it jars against the country’s famous reputation for the glacial pace at which its ponderous establishment takes decisions. More than anything, it is a rash decision and, therefore, somewhat “un-Saudi”, given their record of being overly cautious.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry statement alleged that “the manner, the mechanisms of actions, and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities towards preserving international peace and security as required, leading to the continued disruption of peace and security, the expansion of injustice, the violation of rights, and the spread of conflicts and war around the world.” In sum, Riyadh puts the entire blame on the UN’s doorstep. No doubt, it is a virulent tirade and the statement piles on the additional charge that the UN SC has shown no inclination to reform despite international efforts “in which Saudi Arabia has participated very effectively.”
It then went on to list out three specific areas where Security Council failed. On the very top comes its inability to secure for the Palestine people their legitimate rights. Then follows, implicitly though, Israel's nuclear weapons stockpiles ("Middle East region free of all weapons of destruction") and Iran's nuclear program ("subdue the nuclear programs of all countries"). Syria is listed as the third reason – failure to apply "any deterrent sanctions against the Damascus regime."
But then, Riyadh knew all along that the United States would never allow the Security Council to force Israel to pull out of the West Bank. Besides, Saudi Arabia claims to support the "Palestine Cause" but never exerted itself seriously and instead even maintained covert contacts with Israel, which are today more or less out in the open.
The plain truth is that the Saudi canvassing for a seat in the UN SC began several months ago at a time when the prospects of a US-Iranian engagement seemed rather bleak and the regime change agenda in Syria was in full swing. However, the tectonic plates began shifting through the past few weeks, which no one could have anticipated, with the
extraordinary initiative by Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles…
The implementation of the Russian-American concord on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons effectively makes the Bashar Al-Assad government the key interlocutor of the "international community" whose cooperation is today being commended upon by the Obama administration. On the other hand, the Syrian opposition mentored by Saudi Arabia has become disillusioned, is literally atomizing and increasingly radicalizing, apart from losing ground to the government forces.
Equally, conventional wisdom suggested that the formidable clout of the Israeli Lobby with the American political establishment would compel President Barack Obama to backtrack on his plan to engage with Iran. The Saudis worked closely with the Israeli Lobby in the corridors of power in Washington but feel despondent today that Obama has decided to explore the possibilities of an engagement with Tehran.
The Saudis can also the writing on the wall that their game is in serious trouble in Syria and the robust, relentless Russian diplomatic push for Geneva 2 process cannot be stonewalled anymore. Under the circumstances, the Saudis do have an option to strategically defy the US and mount a military campaign in Syria and indeed there have been reports that Riyadh is mobilizing the extremist Islamist groups under its wing as a new fighting force. But such a strategic defiance of the international community may come at a high price and may be difficult to sustain, because the Saudis are also increasingly unable to carry the Sunni Arab countries along with it in its proxy war with Iran.
Iraq and Algeria frankly oppose the regime change project in Syria. Today, Qatar stands aloof, brooding after a nasty brawl with the Saudis over Egypt (and Syria). Turkey is on the cusp of a rethink and shows signs of disquiet over the presence of the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups on its borders with Syria. Egypt has altogether pulled out of the regime change project in Syria and is on the contrary flushing out the Syrian rebel groups from their safe haven in Cairo. The other GCC states are also becoming ambivalent under US pressure. The International Crisis Group recently estimated that the Saudis would soon face a logistical problem in smuggling weapons into Syria, with both Turkey and Jordan showing reluctance.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia also knows that if the Russian-American accord on Syria’s chemical weapons holds, it becomes imperative to commence intra-Syrian dialogue and the mood in the UN SC will only favor advancing a diplomatic and political solution to the Syrian conflict. That means, as a Security Council member, Saudi Arabia might even have been caught in the ridiculous position of commending the excellent cooperation being given to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian regime. Actually, an OPCW statement last Thursday said that chemical weapons in 6 sites out of twenty have already been destroyed and that the proposed timeline visualizing the completion of the job by the middle of next year is realistic. It expressly stated its satisfaction over the cooperation received from the Syrian authorities.
However, Syrian conflict too is at its core a proxy war and the core reason behind the Saudi heartburn today is the US' engagement of Iran. Syria becomes a sub-plot of the
Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The overthrow of the Syrian regime is important for the Saudis as a means to cut down Iran's regional reach, especially its capacity to be a big player in Lebanon, which Riyadh considers its vassal on the Levant – like Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. And, Lebanon (Hezbollah) explains partly the Saudi-Israeli congruence as well.
All in all, therefore, the Saudis are sulking, which is what the decision not to occupy the UN SC seat signifies. They have been taken by surprise both by the flow of events regarding Syria as well as the commencement of direct talks between the US and Iran. Will the Saudi sulk impress anyone? In the ultimate analysis, the Saudis have only themselves to blame. They need to do some serious rethink to get out of the deep hole, which they dug for themselves in their obsession with Iran's rise.
The Saudi regime is wedded to a rock-like faith that the solution to any problem lies in throwing money at it. But for the first time it is getting to see that while money can take one far, it’s not the be-all and end-all in politics. Thus, even with the generous bankrolling of the interim government in Cairo, there is no sign as yet that the Egyptian economy is reviving or that the mass discontent would subside and the country would regain its stability. Again, after having spent billions of dollars on the regime change project in Syria, the Saudis don’t see light at the end of the tunnel. Finally, having tried to “influence” the movers and shakers in the Washington political circuit to stall the US-Iran engagement, Saudi Arabia realizes that its efforts haven’t been good enough.
But then, there is also something more involved here – perhaps, much more. Succinctly put, Riyadh intends that its decision to “boycott” the UN SC will be seen primarily as a snub to the Obama administration. The US-Saudi relations are being buffeted by strong undercurrents.
(To be continued)