Is the golden relationship being tested?
President Eisenhower (L) and Vice President Richard Nixon (R) are shown with King Saud of Saudi Arabia (C) at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. in 1957. © Your Middle East
Is the golden relationship being tested?
Last updated: October 24, 2013
Per Jönsson: The Arab World defies the UN and US

“New bets have been made in the big power game about the Middle East”

Banner Icon Saudi Arabia has in desperation chosen to not only challenge the UN as an organisation, but also the US – its loyal “benefactor” since President Roosevelt’s famous meeting with Ibn Saud on an American warship in the Red Sea in 1945, writes Per Jönsson.

The US’ oldest ally in the Middle East is going its own way. Saudi Arabia is the first country in the United Nation’s 68-year history to say no to membership in the Security Council. Above all, it is a desperate protest against that Obama’s US and Putin’s Russia have agreed to let Syria’s ruler Assad stay in power in exchange against disarmament of chemical weapons.

Ever since the UN was founded in 1945, the world organisation has been criticised for not functioning as was originally thought.  The critique has especially been aimed towards its central decision-making organ, the Security Council, with five permanent great powers (the victors of World War II: the US, Russia/Soviet, China, Great Britain and France). All too often these powers have used their veto to stop UN interventions in crises and conflicts that may endanger international peace and security – which is the very essence of the UN Charter.

The Saudi royal house has since Friday been praised by several other oil kingdoms

Such incapacitation in the Security Council was almost a certainty during the Cold War when Moscow and Washington disagreed on basically everything. But even after that, the council has routinely been paralysed as soon as the issue has been an intervention in some active or latent armed conflict, almost always as a result of at least one permanent member using or threatening to us its veto. This very much applies to the current Syrian crisis where Russia and China on three occasions have used their veto to prevent the Security Council from condemning the Assad regime for military abuses or threating to use violence against Syria.

Because of UN’s inability to act in acute crises calls have often been made about restructuring the world organization, or at least the Security Council with its permanent quintet of great powers. The argument has been twofold. Firstly, the global power relations and number of countries have changed so dramatically since 1945 that the Security Council no longer represents the global power map. Secondly, it is unreasonable that one single or a few great powers should be able to stop, in the humanitarian sense, absolutely necessary efforts for peace and security – which leads to suggestions about replacing the veto with some form of decisions with qualified majority. It is often suggested that India, Japan and/or Brazil are invited, replacing the two European powers with one, namely the EU.

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All such calls have been in vain, simply because the permanent quintet refuses to give up its power privilege and the UN Charter has no clause for changing this. And this very fall most have with relief noted that presidents Obama and Putin have actually been able to agree, even in the Security Council, on pressuring the Assad regime to account for and let the UN supervise disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

At that moment Saudi Arabia, probably the world’s most reactionary regime, served a diplomatic and political bomb. On Friday October 18, the day after Saudi Arabia with 167 votes in the UN General Assembly was nominated as one of the Security Council’s ten non-permanent members during 2014-2015, Riyadh said “no thanks.”

It is the first time in the UN’s 68-year long history that any country voluntarily has passed on a seat in the Security Council. For most of the member nations, being part of the UN’s central circle is a proof of prestige and an opportunity to have real political influence on the highest level. And Saudi Arabia – despite its size, riches and large influence in the Middle East – has never before been nominated to this exclusive club.

So what is the reason for the House of Saud’s surprising diplomatic explosion? Let us begin with the alleged reasons. The Security Council is accused of having double-standards that “prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace.” In other words exactly what various critics have accused the UN of for many years. As prime example, Riyadh asserts that the Security Council has allowed the Syrian regime to “kill and burn its people through the use of chemical weapons,” an accusation that reasonably is aimed towards Russia and China’s earlier vetoes. But it is exactly to stop this that Washington and Moscow recently agreed to force Assad to disarmament. So the timing for the Saudi move seems to be poorly chosen.

Other reasons that are given is that the UN has failed to free the Middle East of “all weapons of mass destruction,” and that the Security Council has been unable to deliver fair solution to the 65-year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Well, these are large and complicated issues where Riyadh has taken quite a few different stances and where Saudi’s vital protector (the US) on numerous occasions have used its veto to prevent the Security Council to act against the US’ other key protégé Israel. So the precision in the Saudi critique is flawed.

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So are there any underlying reasons that are different from those above? For some time now we will see numerous interpretations of the Saudi UN bomb. A relatively benevolent one is that the Saudi royal house currently finds itself in its perhaps most serious succession crisis ever, when the soon passed away King Abdullah for the first time is to be replaced by a family member who is not a son in direct decending line from the state founder Ibn Saud (dead 1953). In this political situation the royal family simply may not be united enough to take on a necessarily active role at the UN Security Council.

The House of Saud has made it its first priority to bring down the Assad regime

A less benevolent interpretation is that the Saudi royal leadership don’t want to tie itself to the global political considerations that it means to participate in the Security Council’s work. In a situation where the Security Council (US and Russia) through the agreement about the destruction of chemical weapons actually has given Assad almost a year’s breathing space it becomes very difficult for Saudi Arabia, as a member of the Security Council, to continue pumping arms and money to its Islamist, partly al-Qaeda connected allies among the Syrian rebels. And from the beginning, the House of Saud has made it its first priority to bring down the Assad regime, since it is a high octane strategic ally of Iran, Saudi’s historical nemesis and competitor for domination of the Persian Gulf, both under ayatollah and Shah regimes.

In the big strategic judgement, the Saudi royal house has since Friday been praised by several other oil kingdoms as well as Egypt, the Arab League’s Secretary General, and even Turkey for its decision to renounce the usually so coveted seat in the Security Council. Consequently, Saudi Arabia has in desperation chosen to not only challenge the UN as an organisation, but also the US – its loyal “benefactor” since President Roosevelt’s famous meeting with Ibn Saud on an American warship in the Red Sea in 1945.

This means that new bets have been made in the big power game about the Middle East. To be continued…

Translated to English by David Hedengren.

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