Saudi Arabia’s Big Security Council Blunder

Saudi Arabia was elected by the General Assembly to serve on a two year term as one of the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council. That was yesterday. Today, we learn that the Saudi government is turning down the position. Riyad is apparently making this dramatic gesture in protest of the Council’s inaction on Syria.

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

“Accordingly, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, based on its historical responsibilities toward its people, Arab and Islamic nations as well as toward the peoples aspiring for peace and stability all over the world, 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,” the statement said.

This is a huge mistake.

Saudi Arabia is giving up its ability to influence the very body it wants to see reformed. To be sure, as a non-permanent member of the Council, Saudi Arabia would hold less power than a veto wielding member. But there are still important ways it could shape outcomes at the Security Council.

Here are just a few ways non-permanent members of the council are influential:

-Most of what the UNSC passes are not resolutions (over which the P-5 holds veto power.) They are things called Presidential or Press “statements.” Unlike a resolution, these do not have the force of law. But to be issued, they must be passed unanimously. When passed, they reflect the will of the entire Council and carry political weight. This gives any individual member the council great power to shape the presidential statement and object if they think it’s too weak or too strong. There have been three presidential statements on Syria in the past two years, and there will be others in the near future. If Saudi Arabia were on the Council it could presumably influence the direction of these statements in a way it deemed beneficial to its aims on Syria.

-Another key power held by non-permanent members is in deciding on individuals to target for sanctions, like an asset freeze and travel ban. The individuals named for targeted sanctions must be approved unanimously by the Council. Again, there very well may be a time in the next two years when the Council decides to use sanctions as a tool of compellence (what if Assad stops cooperating with the inspectors?) Saudi Arabia is giving up its ability to name names.

-The Presidency of the Security Council rotates every month between member states. Being president confers some procedural control over the schedule of the Council, and typically, a county will use its presidency to highlight some issues it deems a priority. The president can put an event on the schedule, and force every member state to go on the record on an issue. The president can even compel a vote on a resolution. For example, last month Australia used its presidency to push a resolution to combat the illicit trade in small arms. On Syria, Australia rather deftly used its presidency to to call for expanded humanitarian access to Syrians displaced by conflict. The resolution authorizing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons passed under Australia’s presidency. That resolution, though, did not say a thing about humanitarian issues. So Australia cleverly used the momentum from a unified resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons to put expanded humanitarian access on the agenda as a presidential statement.

If Saudi Arabia was really concerned about Security Council reform, it could have used its presidency to hold a meeting (or several!) on the subject, and force every council member to come to the table with a statement. Instead, it is relegated to complaining about the Council on the sidelines.

To be sure, the imperfections of the Security Council were laid bare by two years of paralysis on Syria. But paradoxically, that has also exposed the centrality of the Security Council in the Syria crisis. The seemingly swift and ongoing destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile has demonstrated that the way to get things done on Syria is through the Security Council. They key charge now for the Security Council is to find ways to harness that momentum toward an international diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis. Alas, Saudi Arabia will no longer be privy to those discussions.

I suspect Saudi Arabia will come to realize the magnitude of this strategic blunder in the coming months as Syria continues to dominate the Council’s agenda.