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Saudi Act Of Protest Stuns U.N., And Some Observers

Oct 20, 2013
Originally published on October 20, 2013 7:58 am

Known for quiet diplomacy, Saudi Arabia is taking an unusual and very public step to protest the international community's failure to resolve the crisis in Syria and other issues that interest Riyadh.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia was elected to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which the Saudi ambassador to the U.N. initially called a defining moment in his nation's history.

But then the kingdom decided to reject — at least for now — the two-year rotating seat on the Security Council, calling the body incapable of ending wars and resolving conflicts.

"It certainly would seem that their ambassador to the United Nations was sandbagged by his own foreign ministry," says Tom Lippman, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He calls the decision self-defeating, given Saudi concerns about Syria, its rivalry with Iran and its hopes for a future state of Palestine.

"The reason you would want to be on the U.N. Security Council is that eventually that's the arena in which these issues are going to be resolved, or in which the solutions of these issues are going to be ratified," says Lippman. "Why then would you not want to be in the arena where the game is being played? I don't get it."

Saudi Arabia explained in a statement that it believes the Security Council is failing to carry out its responsibilities. It hasn't resolved the Palestinian question, and it has stood by — according to the Saudi statement — while Syria's regime killed and burned people with chemical weapons.

Riyadh said it won't take the seat until the Security Council is reformed. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says he wants to work closely with Saudi Arabia on all these issues. A spokesman said he was unaware of another case where a nation turned down a coveted seat on the Security Council.

But Saudi Arabia had given hints of its displeasure with the U.N., and with U.S. foreign policy. During a recent meeting of the U.N. General Assembly — when Iran's new president was on a charm offensive that even resulted in a phone call from President Obama — Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called off his planned speech.

The Saudi foreign minister is due to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris this week as the U.S. tries to ease Saudi concerns.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Saudi Arabia is known for preferring a quiet kind of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. So, it's unusual that the country's leaders have taken a very public step to protest the international community's failure to resolve the crisis in Syria. The kingdom decided it will not accept a two-year rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council, saying the council is incapable of ending wars and resolving conflicts. NPR's Michele Kelemen says the move took the U.N. and the U.S. by surprise.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When Saudi Arabia was elected to become a non-permanent Security Council member, its ambassador to the U.N., Abdallah al Mouallimi, called it a defining moment in the kingdom's history.

AMBASSADOR ABDALLAH AL MOUALLIMI: We take this election very seriously as a responsibility to be able to contribute through this very important forum to peace and security of the world.

KELEMEN: So, Saudi watchers were taken aback by the news the very next day that Riyadh won't take the seat until the Security Council is reformed.

TOM LIPPMAN: It certainly would seem that their ambassador to the United Nations was sandbagged by his own foreign ministry.

KELEMEN: That's Tom Lippman, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Middle East Institute here in Washington. He calls the Saudi decision self-defeating, given Saudi Arabia's concerns about Syria, its rivalry with Iran and its hopes for a future state of Palestine.

LIPPMAN: The reason you would want to be on the U.N. Security Council is that eventually that's the arena in which these issues are going to be resolved, or in which the solutions of these issues are going to be ratified. Why then would you not want to be in the arena where the game is being played? I don't get it.

KELEMEN: Saudi Arabia explained in a statement that the Security Council is failing to carry out its responsibilities. It hasn't resolved the Palestinian question, and it has stood by, according to the Saudi statement, while Syria's regime killed and burned people with chemical weapons. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says he wants to work closely with Saudi Arabia on all of these issues. His spokesman, Martin Nersirky, says he and his colleagues don't recall any other state turning down a Security Council seat.

MARTIN NERSIRKY: As far as we are aware, there isn't another case like it.

KELEMEN: But Saudi Arabia had given hints of its displeasure with the U.N. and with U.S. foreign policy during the week of the U.N. General Assembly, when Iran's new president was on a charm offensive and even got a phone call from President Obama, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister called off his planned speech. The minister, Saud al-Faisal, is due to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris this coming week, as Kerry tries to ease Saudi Arabia's concerns. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.