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Many a regional leader will attest to how unforgiving Saudi Arabia’s leadership can be when it feels betrayed. Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has suffered from Saudi emotional intransigence for years, shunned and his country ignored because of perceptions that he is a sectarian, pro-Iranian leader.
More recently, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood got on the wrong side of Saudi Arabia and was punished when Saudi Arabia supported the coup that ousted the Islamist president.
But now Saudi Arabia has taken the politics of anger to a whole new level: it has turned down a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, stunning the international organisation as well as many of its own diplomats who had been lobbying for the position for the past two years.
But if Saudi Arabia is hoping to shake up the UN with its snub, it is likely to be disappointed. The biggest loser from this theatrical gesture is Riyadh itself.
The rebuke appears to be related in large part to the UN deadlock on Syria as much as to the widening policy divide between Washington and Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia was rattled by the US-Russian agreement to dismantle the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons. A major political, financial and military backer of the rebels, Riyadh had been a rare and public supporter of President Barack Obama’s earlier plan to fire cruise missiles at regime targets.
In its attempt to explain its decision to stay out of the UN Security Council, the foreign ministry on Friday cited both failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which has been going on for 65 years) and allowing the Syrian regime to “kill and burn its people through the use of chemical weapons, while the world stands idly by, without applying any deterrent sanctions”.
Saudi Arabia has stunned the international organisation as well as many of its own diplomats who had been lobbying for the position for the past two years
No mention of Iran was made in the statement. But the Saudis cannot be pleased about the international fawning over Hassan Rouhani, the new centrist president. They are said to be furious about Washington’s growing flirtation with Tehran and the apparent acceleration of talks to resolve the nuclear dispute.
It is true that the Security Council is an uncomfortable place for a country such as Saudi Arabia, which favours behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings and secret dealmaking to public diplomacy. Since the Arab upheaval of 2011, moreover, some of the most dramatic policies championed by the kingdom have been at odds with its western allies. Whether in its intervention to prop up the royal family in Bahrain two years ago or its backing for the recent military coup in Egypt to remove a democratically elected president, Saudi Arabia demanded that western governments back it or back off.
The UN snub could also play well in the Arab world, where Saudi Arabia’s image has taken a hit. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the kingdom’s standing has slipped substantially among key Middle Eastern publics, dropping in the Palestinian territories, for example, from 65 per cent in 2007 to 52 per cent in 2013, and in Lebanon from 82 per cent to 51 per cent over the same period. Only in Jordan and Egypt is opinion of Saudi Arabia overwhelmingly positive, says Pew Research.
Saudi indignation will not prompt Russia to abandon its support for the Syrian regime. Nor will it persuade the US to bomb Damascus or halt engagement with Tehran
But it is difficult to see how staying out of the Security Council can advance Saudi objectives. Throwing a tantrum delivers a warning of Saudi disapproval and it might presage more interventionist policies in Syria, including a rejection of the proposed US-Russian peace conference. But the flaws in the UN system and the ineffectual policies of its permanent members are not about to be repaired. Saudi indignation will not prompt Russia to abandon its support for the Syrian regime. Nor will it persuade the US to bomb Damascus or halt engagement with Tehran.
Instead, the Saudi rejection of a council seat will heighten its sense of estrangement from the world community and raise new questions about decision-making in the kingdom, encouraging speculation over policy incoherence and competing centres of powers within the regime. The necessity for a more concerted and effective international effort on Syria is undeniable. But a fit of anger will not build more influence or ensure better policies.
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