Saudi Arabia rejects seat on UN Security Council

Kingdom denounces the council's 'double standards' regarding Syria in an unprecedented move that shocks diplomats. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

The United Nations Security Council votes on a resolution that will require Syria to give up its chemical weapons in September. On Friday, Saudi Arabia rejected its seat on the council. Craig Ruttle / AP Photo
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Saudi Arabia slammed the UN Security Council for “double standards” yesterday as it turned down its election to the 15-member panel as a rotating member.

Citing a lack of progress on Palestinian statehood, regional arms control, and the Syrian conflict, the foreign ministry said that it would not join “until the council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security”.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia believes that the manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities towards preserving international peace”, the statement said.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly expressed frustration with the Security Council in recent months over its inability to bring a halt to the civil war in Syria and what Riyadh argues is its overly narrow focus on eliminating the country’s chemical weapons.

Several recent Saudi cabinet meetings had called for stronger international action against the regime of Bashar Al Assad. In one such meeting on October 7, Riyadh called on the international community to “shoulder the legal and moral responsibilities to address all aspects of the Syrian crisis”.

Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the Security Council seat is thought to be the first time a nation has ever turned down the position.

This was the kingdom’s first election to the council and countries often spend months or years campaigning for one of the 10 rotating two-year seats on the council.

The 15-member council also includes the five permanent members with veto power — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France. The non-permanent Security Council seats offer countries access to top international diplomats as well as local prestige, since they are allotted on a regional basis.

The Saudi ambassador to the UN had initially welcomed the vote, calling it “a reflection of a long-standing [Saudi] policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes in peaceful means”.

“We look forward to working with the rest of the international community to help our Syrian brothers achieve their objectives,” Abdullah Al Mouallimi said after the vote on Thursday.

Some analysts had argued that Saudi membership in the Security Council could help galvanise peace talks in Geneva aimed at hammering out a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Those talks could come as soon as late November, Syrian deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil suggested during a visit to Moscow this week.

Saudi Arabia is one of the strongest regional backers of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, which said on Sunday that it would not attend talks under the current conditions.

Russia, one of the main backers of Mr Al Assad’s government, called the Saudi decision “strange” and unexpected.

“We are surprised by Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision,” the foreign ministry said. “The kingdom’s arguments arouse bewilderment and the criticism of the UN Security Council in the context of the Syria conflict is particularly strange.”

Since the start of the Syria conflict in 2011 Russia has repeatedly vetoed Security Council resolutions brought by Western powers pushing for stronger sanctions against Mr Al Assad.

France said it shared some of the Saudi criticisms.

“We have an ongoing dialogue on the subject of Syria with Saudi Arabia. We share its frustration after the Security Council’s paralysis,” the French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said. He said France is proposing reforms to the council’s veto system.

But Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry argued that a 65-year stalemate between Israel and Palestinians was “irrefutable evidence and proof of the Security Council’s inability to carry out its duties”.

“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 Damascus regime, is also irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities”, it said.

It is not clear who will now fill Saudi Arabia’s vacant seat on the council.

* With additional reporting from Reuters and Agence France-Presse