Saudi Arabia’s UN Boycott

by Benjamin Studebaker

The UN Security Council includes a group of permanent members (USA, Russia, China, UK, France) and a group of rotating temporary members from the world’s various regions, each of which serves a two year term. Only the permanent members possess veto power over Security Council resolutions, but being a temporary member gives a member state a vote and a platform. This is why it is so very odd that Saudi Arabia, which has just now been offered a temporary seat on the Security Council, has chosen to reject that seat as a form of protest. What do the Saudis hope to achieve by refusing to take their seat, and are they likely to be successful? Even more broadly, how is the UN perceived differently in countries that do not have permanent membership on the Security Council?

The Saudis have two big problems with the UN Security Council:

  1. The Inciting Incidents–the Saudis want a UN intervention in Syria to eliminate Assad’s government. Assad is an ally of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s long-term enemy, both for religious and ethnic reasons. The Saudis are Sunni while Assad and the Iranians are Shia, and Iran is Persian, not Arab. Saudi Arabia is very upset with the permanent members of the Security Council for choosing not to intervene on its preferred side. They are also upset with the Security Council for not pressuring Israel to stop building settlements in the Palestinian territories.
  2. The Background Issue–the Saudis are dissatisfied with the structure of the Security Council, which allows the permanent members veto power. As far as the Saudis are concerned, they would be much more likely to get the results they desire on Syria and Israel if Russia and the United States were not permitted veto power.

Often in the United States we see the UN as a constraint on our policy. When the United States wants to do something in foreign affairs, it frequently seeks UN approval and often must deal with the threat of vetoes from Russia and China. But from the Saudi point of view, the United States is not constrained by the UN–the UN is constrained by the US, and by the other permanent members of the council, who use their vetoes to override policies that are popular with the majority of member states.

The reader might recall some time ago a General Assembly resolution to give Palestine “non-voting observer status”. While this offered the Palestinians some token legitimation, it did not change the facts on the ground in Palestine. What was most interesting about that resolution was the level of overwhelming support the Palestinians received:

Green countries voted with Palestine, red countries against it, and grey countries abstained from voting. If the UN were to make its major decisions through the General Assembly, it’s quite likely we’d see resolutions requiring Israel to stop building settlements, to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip, and so on. However, since these decisions are made through the Security Council, at which the United States has a veto, even a globally overwhelming consensus such as this can gain no traction. For a country like Saudi Arabia, this powerlessness is grating. Even a position on the Security Council does not count for much, if some of the members of that council can veto any resolution regardless of its general popularity.

That said, protesting the way the Security Council functions by refusing to join it as a temporary member is likely to count for nothing at all. In order to change the way the Security Council works, one needs the approval of the Security Council. It will always be in the interest of the permanent members of the council to vote to keep their veto power, because it is more valuable to a state to prevent the UN from acting against its interests than it is for that state to use the UN to pursue gains. Whenever a permanent member of the Security Council really wants to do something, it disregards the UN and acts unilaterally (see Iraq in 2003). The UN is not a constraint on US policy–it is a tool we like to use to legitimize our behaviors and to test to see how other states might react to them. When we decide not to do something on account of a UN vote, it is not because we fear a UN retaliation (the UN possesses no military forces of its own) but because we do not want to worsen relations with Russia and/or China.

This is the “double standard” that countries like Saudi Arabia refer to, but whereas the Saudis see permanent members as blameworthy for acting in this way, the reality is that this kind of behavior inevitably proceeds from the structure of the UN Security Council. If a state is powerful enough to take an action unilaterally, it is sensible for it to only use the UN to gauge foreign reactions and gather additional support. The Saudi boycott does not change the facts on the ground for the permanent members. It is still in their interest to use the UN in the way that they do. The Saudis are not sufficiently powerful to frighten off any of the permanent members. With few exceptions, only the permanent members are themselves powerful enough to give each other pause, because the permanent members are nuclear-armed and have the strongest conventional military forces. As a class, the permanent members are more or less immune to outside coercion. Only competition among themselves prevents them from collectively dominating all other states.

So while the Saudi boycott is doomed to fail and to lose the Saudis the small modicum of influence a temporary seat offered them, it is easy to see where the Saudis are coming from and the powerlessness they must feel. From their perspective, the permanent members of the Security Council exercise a kind of tyranny over the General Assembly and the rest of the world at large, one that is only checked by the permanent members’ capacity for infighting among themselves.

The Saudis, of course, are not the first to express views of this kind. In 2009, in a 98-minute diatribe, the late Colonel Gaddafi argued along similar lines:

It should not be called the Security Council, it should be called the Terror Council. Permanent is something for God only. We are not fools to give the power of veto to great powers so they can use us and treat us as second-class citizens.

But in the end, Gaddafi and the Saudis miss the point–it is not the Security Council that gives the great powers the ability to do whatever they like, it is the fact that they are great powers in the first place. That is how they were able to force the rest of the world to agree to give them veto power when the UN was first constituted. Or, to put it more simply: