King Abdullah (right) with Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain on Thursday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AFP)
New York, Oct. 18: Like Julius Caesar in Mark Antony’s funeral oration, who declined the crown that was offered, Pakistan yesterday made way for Saudi Arabia to take the Asian seat in the UN Security Council but Riyadh this morning rejected its own victory in the election by the General Assembly.
The surprising refusal to accept the seat is unprecedented in the history of the UN.
Saudi Arabia, one of the founding members of the UN in 1945, has never contested for a seat in the Security Council. But in a major departure from that policy, the kingdom has been vigorously campaigning for the last three years to take its seat at the high table of the world body.
Yesterday it won that election, but with the lowest number of votes — 176 out of 193 General Assembly members — among the five countries elected to the Council for a two-year term from January 1, 2014.
The election for the Asian seat, which Pakistan was vacating, was uncontested from the Asian group at the UN, but the low votes suggested that although there was no other candidate from the region, several Asian nations refused to vote for Riyadh. It is presumed that these dissenters include Syria, Iran and others who are totally opposed to the kingdom’s drive for regime change in Damascus.
Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN, Abdullah al-Mouallimi, cut a sorry figure this morning in the lobbies outside the General Assembly hall, not knowing what had hit him overnight. He had issued a statement yesterday after his country’s victory.
It said: “Our election today is a reflection of a long-standing policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes by peaceful means.” The jubilant ambassador, who distributed sweets and gifts to celebrate the election, told reporters that “we look forward to working with the rest of the international community to help our Syrian brothers achieve their objectives” of democracy and human rights.
His fellow ambassadors from other Gulf states, who had jointly celebrated the victory at a party late into last night, were woken up this morning by colleagues from other countries with the news from Riyadh and were shocked into silence.
A fortnight ago, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal had arrived in New York to represent the kingdom at the annual General Assembly, but abruptly cancelled his address in protest against what diplomats from other Gulf states described as Riyadh’s anger against inaction by the UN on Syria.
The Saudis are also alarmed by what they see as Iran’s slow but inevitable return to normal international diplomacy with a new, moderate President in Tehran whom the US is keen to engage.
Riyadh is worried about losing its unique special relations with Washington if President Barack Obama’s overtures to his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani gather momentum.
All eyes are now on Geneva, where the Saudis are engaged in a vigorous bid to be elected to the UN Human Rights Council.
The Saudi bid is being criticised heavily in view of the kingdom’s poor record of human rights, especially its edicts against women, including denying them the right to drive automobiles.
The change in the kingdom’s traditionally low-profile style of diplomacy in favour of a more pro-active role at the UN has been aimed mainly at realising its objective of overthrowing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad through a combination of diplomacy and military means.
It is presumed that this morning’s rejection of its own election to the Security Council reflects a realisation that the Council will not play the Saudi tune on Syria with Russia and China determined to veto any effort at regime change.
Additionally, the Saudis are disappointed that Obama went along with a Russian plan to avoid attacking Syria and agreeing, instead, to proposals to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
Riyadh had hoped that the Assad regime would be crushed after it allegedly used chemical weapons twice against its own people, but the Americans had no stomach to start another war in West Asia. Besides, there was no way to persuade Moscow or Beijing to agree to an attack on Syria with the Security Council’s approval.
The Saudi foreign ministry’s statement rejecting Riyadh’s election to the Security Council said the kingdom “is refraining from taking membership of the UN Security Council until it has reformed so it can effectively and practically perform its duties and discharge its responsibilities in maintaining international security and peace”.
The statement released through the official Saudi Press Agency on the weekly Friday holiday added 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 toward preserving international peace and security as required”.
By convention, Asian and African countries alternate in accommodating an Arab state from their quota for election to the Security Council. That arrangement facilitated Pakistan’s seat being claimed by the Saudis. If Riyadh persists in rejecting its election, a fresh election will have to be held in the General Assembly.
The others elected yesterday to the Security Council were Chad, Nigeria, Chile and Lithuania.