In a move that left many experts baffled, Saudi Arabia announced today that it is rejecting a rotating seat on the seat on the U.N. Security Council, one day after being elected to it. This is believed to be the first time this has ever happened. The Saudi government has been increasingly frustrated with the Security Council’s response to events in Syria, and in a statement today, the country’s foreign ministry said 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.”
But why wouldn’t the Saudi government still want a seat at the table when important decisions pertaining to Syria and Iran are made? Well as Erik Voeten notes the veto power enjoyed by permanent members like Russia and China would make it unlikely that Saudi Arabia, as a non-permanent member, could seriously influence decisions. It’s not as if Saudi Arabia isn’t already a major power player in its region and Council membership might not enhance its role all that much.
Other countries often covet the Council’s rotating seats both for the international prestige they confer and for the goodies—often in the foreign aid—that come with having a vote. In some cases, the benefits of council membership can even act as a kind of resource curse, encouraging irresponsible and anti-democratic behavior from governments. These factors don’t really come into play with Saudi Arabia, which isn’t exactly in need of foreign aid.
So, what are the takeaways here? First, it certainly looks like there was some behind-the-scenes disagreement within the Saudi government over whether to pursue the seat and then whether to keep it. Second, a seat on the Security Council doesn’t seem to carry the same kind of automatic prestige it used to. Third, this latest move, coming after public disagreements over policy toward Syria, Egypt, and Iran and with the U.S. depending less on Middle Eastern oil, seems like another sign that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is chillier than it’s been in a long time.