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Political theatrics: Saudi Arabia and the Security Council

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

The Saudi decision to reject membership in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) is still resulting in a lot of noise. I don’t think anyone accurately understands what really happened; unless one directly speaks with those who made the decision. All we have is the statement of the Saudi Foreign Ministry which explicates the justification of the decision and not its rationale. I say this, because all the reasons in the Foreign Ministry’s statement had existed for more than half a century; so why now? In any case, here I will only reflect on the context of the Saudi decision and not on its justification. And I will not speculate on the rationale behind it.

To start with; this decision is multi-faceted. Saudi Arabia rejected the UNSC seat; but it only did so after pursuing it for a long time. Moreover the rejection was not made by Saudi Arabia’s U.N. representative, rather by its Foreign Ministry. To make the matter more confusing, Saudi Arabia rejected the seat after an excited reaction and a positive statement made by the Saudi U.N. mission. Until now, Saudi Arabia has not sealed the rejection formally, and there still are some diplomatic efforts to turn the decision around. We may wake up with Saudi Arabia on the UNSC after all.

A wise decision or a reckless reaction?

Political pundits and commentators are divided between supporters and detractors. Most are going overboard. Supporters are overselling the decision as if it were the resolution of the decade and detractors are positioning as if it were political suicide. It is worth noting that some of the supporters of Saudi Arabia’s decision to reject the seat had a few hours before being hailing Saudi Arabia’s nomination to the seat as a milestone in its international diplomacy.
Whatever the case, what the supporters are saying goes little beyond rephrasing – and spicing up - the Foreign Ministry’s statement. Suddenly everyone is disparaging the U.N. and the UNSC. It is as if, all of a sudden, everyone here woke up to the reality that the UNSC is subservient to the interests of the super powers. Now whatever one can say about the U.N. – which is a lot - it makes no sense to say that it is the underlying rationale of the Saudi decision. Such an analysis misses the point and trivializes such a major decision. The U.N. has been what it is from day one; the UNSC was rarely effective in issues that matter to Saudi national interests. So, to say that those ever existing realities where a rationale for rejecting the seat makes Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of the seat extremely nonsensical and its decision some 50 years late. And to be fair, Saudi has actually benefited from the UNSC in more than one important instance. True, the UNSCE obscenely failed Syria and Palestine but it was quite effective in Lebanon, Yemen, Iran and other areas of vital interest to Saudi national security.

Some detractors say this will limit Saudi leverage in the UNSC. And if Saudi Arabia had an issue with the UNSC then they shouldn’t miss an opportunity to influence it from within

Abdullah Hamidaddin

The detractors focused on the potential Saudi losses by taking such a step. I believe what those people have to say is more important to consider. Not that they are making a more balanced argument; but rather because without direct access to what the decider had in mind, it is difficult to assess the merits of the decision; while we can assess its risks by considering the facts we all know about the international order.

Some detractors say this will limit Saudi leverage in the UNSC. And if Saudi Arabia had an issue with the UNSC then they shouldn’t miss an opportunity to influence it from within. Now this line of thinking only makes sense if we were considering a state with a marginal role in world affairs; a state that really needs to be in the UNSC to influence it. But that is not the case. Important states can influence the UNSC whether they are members or not. Saudi Arabia is not a super power, but it is a very relevant world power. Moreover, reforming the UNSC cannot happen from within the UNSC and being a member makes no difference whatsoever. Such reform can only happen when the more powerful member states exert pressure towards that end. Most importantly, the functioning of the UNSC is a reflection of the global balance of power and its structure will only be reformed when global realities change in a way to demand that. So, it is not accurate to say Saudi Arabia will lose anything in this specific regard. A related critique is to say that this decision will isolate Saudi Arabia internationally. This is quite funny. It is as if the U.N. is the main medium for political and diplomatic relations. Saudi Arabia does not need the UNSC, or the U.N. for that matter, to have one-on-one interactions in international diplomacy.

A Saudi Arabia– U.S. Divorce?

Some say that this will push U.S.-Saudi relations to a breaking point. They say that U.S.-Saudi relations are already sour because of the way the U.S. has been mismanaging the Syrian situation and the threat they feel by U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. Thus they conclude that such a reckless decision only forces closer the imminent political divorce between the two countries. But, while it is true that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have different interests with regards to Syria and Iran, it is far too premature to assume that they will take different paths. The relationship between both countries is based on hard facts that have not changed since the 1940s and will not change anytime in the foreseen future. Saudi Arabia and the security of the Gulf will remain vital to U.S. national security - even if the U.S. became Oil independent. On the other hand, the U.S.-Saudi defense alliance will remain vital to Saudi national security.

Saudi Arabia and the Americans need each other and no degree of sourness in relations will change that. For sure, there will be differences and there will be angry rhetoric from both sides, but that will not change the solidity of their security and strategic relationship. They may even severe some aspects of their relationship. But that happens between allies. The U.S. and France collided with each other to the point that France pushed itself out of NATO, but that did not change the essence of the security relationship between both countries. A more recent comparison is to look at is Israel and its relationship with the U.S. The Israelis are going berserk because of the U.S.-Iran rapprochement but it would nonsensical to say that they are heading for a divorce.

What I want to say is that even if we cannot see the exact benefit of the decision, we can still conclude that are clear losses for Saudi Arabia.

Political theatrics

What interests me most is the way the decision came out. Some have said that it gave the impression that the Saudi Foreign Ministry and the Saudi mission in the U.N. are not aligned. Or that the decision was made last minute, even rash and reckless. All are possible in the world of politics; yet one can also say that Saudi Arabia staged this carefully.
Politics is a theatrical performance as much as it is a strategic consideration and a risk calculation. Political theatricals start from the subtle such as political statements or leaks; to the spectacle such as flag rising and national celebrations; to the demonstration such as military parades. The Cuban Missile crisis was itself one spectacular theatrical performance from beginning to end. Theatrics were important in that they compensated for the break in communication lines.

In this case we could be seated in front of a theatrical performance courtesy of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia wants to say something. Initially it appears that it is saying that it will not participate in a powerless organization. But the exact meaning of what it is saying depends on who it is saying it to; on its audience. That same statement means different things to different audiences. And here I do not think anyone can say for sure who that is: The Russians; the Chinese; the Americans; or even the world? Whatever the case may be, the way Saudi Arabia directed this performance seems to be working for its end.

Seizing the moment

The real question in my mind is: Now what?

Whether Saudi Arabia withdraw its rejection and accepts the seat or not, it is now up to a big challenge. By taking this unprecedented stance against the U.N. it can no longer act as before. Saudi Arabia cannot be just another member in the UNSC, not just another member in the U.N.

Herein is a major opportunity that has to be seized by Saudi Arabia. Today, more than ever, countries and people are ready to listen to what Saudi Arabia has to say. It has the world’s attention. Will it seize it or let go of it?

Today, Saudi Arabia needs a strong, active and present diplomacy in all international arenas. It needs a creative media strategy and an effective implementation plan. It needs to activate channels of people diplomacy. And it needs to do all of that today more than ever before.

What happened thus far is the assumption of an important political stance. But what happens next will determine if or not this will be a historic position for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

This article was originally published in al-Hayat on Oct. 23, 2013.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.