Saudi Arabia on Thursday was elected as one of five U.N. members to take up seats among the ten non-permanent members of the Council, beginning in 2014. The two-year term is usually heavily lobbied for among the regional groupings that determine the number of seats available and Saudi Arabia was no exception. Gift bags to members of the General Assembly from the Saudi Mission showed the gratitude for the 176 votes out of 192 countries who make up the body — despite the fact that Saudi Arabia ran unopposed — illustrate the desire of the mission to take over a seat for the first time since it joined the United Nations in 1945.
On Friday, however, a different tune was being sung in Riyadh. According to a statement out on the official Saudi media Friday morning, the Foreign Ministry had determined “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.” The statement went on to say that Saudi Arabia “announces its apology for not accepting membership of the Security Council until the Council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security.”
In turning down the seat, the kingdom took swipes not only at the Council’s actions on Syria, saying it had allowed “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 the Damascus regime,” but also for failing to find a “just and lasting solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Riyadh had expressed its displeasure with the U.N. last month when it turned down the opportunity to speak at the General Assembly, again citing Syria. Saudi Arabia has also reportedly been angered by its ally — and permanent UNSC member — the United States’ choice to not attack Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons in August and for its recent signs of rapproachment with its arch-rival Iran.
The decision to turn down a Security Council seat though caused many watchers of the Middle East and Turtle Bay alike to scratch their heads. “Saudi refusal of UNSC seat is a ridiculous and ineffectual stunt,” Michael Hanna said on Twitter after the news was announced, “Their diplomats should be very embarrassed.” Riyadh’s decision confused not only observers, but apparently the Saudi mission itself. “Saudi decision to reject Security Council seat came from the Foreign Ministry in Riyadh,” Saudi journalist Ahmed al Omran reported. “Saudi Mission to UN seemed unaware of the decision.”
Further, there is no official mechanism for the Kingdom to turn down its seat on the Council. Nothing within the United Nations Charter says anything about removing a member from the Security Council once they have been elected. Nor is there any clause in the UNSC’s Provisional Rules of Procedure about how to replace a member of the body who declines their seat. There is a section in the rules of the General Assembly, which selects the non-permanent members, that says that a “by-election shall be held separately at the next session of the General Assembly to elect a member for the unexpired term” should Saudi Arabia not change its mind by next September, possibly allowing another country to hold the seat for 2015 only.
More likely, should Saudi Arabia continue on with its decision once the new session starts in January, the seat will remain vacant for the two-year period that the country holds the seat. The last such boycott was back in 1950, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic chose to skip Council meetings in protest, only to find itself unable to veto United Nations intervention in the Korean War.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told the press that the choice of Security Council membership was one for member-states to decide. “I have taken note of the media reports regarding the decision of Saudi Arabia,” he said, “But I would like to caution that I have not received any official notification in this regard.” Afaf Konja, a spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly, confirmed with ThinkProgress that the Saudi Arabian Mission to the U.N. had not yet sent a formal note to the U.N. to make clear its intentions. Until then, it isn’t apparent whether Saudi Arabia intends to be sworn-in this January and boycott meetings or whether a new vote will be held in the coming weeks to replace it on the Security Council. If the latter, the Asia-Pacific group will need to meet to determine a new candidate, most likely also hailing from the Middle East.
Morocco, who currently holds the informal “Arab seat” that Saudi Arabia is slated to take over, likewise was unavailable to speak on the matter. Due to a rule that says that non-permanent members are unable to serve consecutive terms on the Council, however, it’s unlikely that Morocco will be able to argue to hold the seat for Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi decision will have an impact on the Council’s operating as well, given the items on its agenda and the way the Council functions. Syria’s ongoing civil war and Iran’s nuclear program are both issues that matter deeply to Riyadh and would have given the country a chance to affect the way the Council approached them. Those two issues alone would have given Saudi Arabia an out-sized voice in drafting the potential binding resolutions that the Security Council is able to pass on the matters. This especially would have been true when it was Saudi Arabia’s time to take up the rotating Presidency of the Security Council, when it would have been able to set the Council’s agenda for the month it held the gavel. Saudi Arabia’s absence will also make it that much harder for the United States and other Western countries to gather nine votes on any given issue, the minimum required for passage on the fifteen-member body.
This post has been updated from an earlier version.