By Ian Williams
On the surface, Saudi Arabia’s decision to refuse its Security Council seat is as idiosyncratic as one would expect from a monarchy. Diplomats view a seat at the Security Council as the apogee of their careers, so foreign ministries tend to take elections to it far more seriously than most other parts of their governments. Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the United Nations and has in recent years sought and won seats on the Human Rights Council and other bodies.
Sometimes governments desperately want to shape Council discussions on certain issues—Morocco, for example, with Western Sahara, or Indonesia in times past with East Timor—so they exert great efforts to be elected. In a fit of heroic wishful thinking, Israel has announced its interest in being a candidate in 2020 for the “West European and Other Group” seat—more about which later.
The “unofficial” procedures for elections to the Security Council vary from region to region. The temporary rotating seats often are earmarked years in advance. Africa, in particular, rotates its seats among smaller subregions, deferring every now and again when the giants like Nigeria or South Africa want to be on the Council. That is why Rwanda keeps popping up in the Council at inopportune moments, like during a genocide at home, or intervention in neighboring Congo.
Clovis Maksoud, the distinguished former ambassador of the Arab League, takes credit for devising the current system, almost Ptolemaic in its complex epicycles, that ensures Arab representation. The Arab group is split between Asia and Africa, so he arranged that the Asian group would cooperate to alternate with the Africans so there would always be an Arab seat.
To be elected to a temporary seat, countries need to get two-thirds of all the secret ballots in the General Assembly. But more often than not that is almost a formality, because the regional groups vote in advance for their nominees and ensure that the number of credible candidates matches the number of vacancies. Saudi diplomats had spent two years working on their candidacy, canvassing and doing what they do, so the Asian group already had given its blessing. A country really has to rile a lot of nations for one-third of the world to actively block its candidacy, and the Asia group is the U.N.’s biggest region.
The last time Riyadh had made a bid for U.N. glory was in 1991, when its then U.N. Ambassador Samir Shihabi ran for president of the General Assembly, overturning the expected candidate, Papua New Guinea. The success of that election, however, showed the dilemma for a Saudi government trying to look after its home constituency and yet pander to its essential foreign backers. Shihabi took the U.N. very seriously, and set up the association of former presidents to perpetuate his moment of glory. One of his first tasks as president, however, was to preside over the special meeting of the General Assembly called by George H.W. Bush in 1991 to rescind the U.N.’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution. Himself Palestinian by birth, Shihabi absented himself from the meeting—as, in fact, did the Israeli ambassador, whose government saw the move as Bush’s desperate attempt to win over American Jews after he had refused the loan guarantees Israel wanted to build its illegal settlements.
That hints at the reasoning behind the surprising decision. Saudi diplomacy by its very nature has to be somewhat contradictory. Riyadh wants Iran hobbled. The government is displeased that the U.S. backed off threats of military strikes against Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. It’s unhappy with U.S. policies in Egypt. On the Israeli issues it would have to confront its existential ally, Washington, and there are many more issues where its domestic base would be unhappy if the Saudi representative voted the Foreign Ministry’s head rather than the imam’s heart.
So we can take with a sack of salt the idea that Riyadh’s refusal of the seat was solely to protest for Security Council reform, or on behalf of the beleaguered Syrians, let alone the Palestinians. After all, if the Kingdom were truly, deeply concerned about the latter, it could have turned off the oil pipelines many times over the decades before the U.S.’s recent achievement of energy self-sufficiency. If the concern was more about Syria, then a seat on the Security Council would give the Kingdom far more leverage with other members of the Council—with, for example, China, which has just become a bigger customer for its oil than the U.S.
The king simply was more astute in recognizing the realities of the regime’s position, which is predicated on keeping Washington as an ally. The U.S. may be a diminished superpower, after two disastrous stalemated military interventions and the financial crisis, but it still has more military clout than the rest of the world put together, and probably just enough influence over Israel to stop it from attacking and humiliating the land of the two shrines.
The sordid realities of global realpolitik and U.S. domestic politics put the Kingdom in an invidious position. It has contributed positively—since it is, after all, the “Saudi Plan” for Middle East peace that has been adopted by the Arab League and endorsed by almost every other player—except, of course, Israel. Washington’s verbal support for the formula has been correspondingly undercut in reality by its essentially unqualified military, diplomatic and financial support for the self-proclaimed Jewish state.
Recent reforms to the U.N. Human Rights Council were in part intended to lessen the over-emphasis on Israel compared with other members. A crucial improvement introduced by human rights supporters was the Universal Periodic Review, under which every member’s human rights behavior is scrutinized. This year, however, Israel was the one and only country to refuse to turn up for the review, which puts into sad perspective its supporters’ perennial claims of persecution. As we go to print, it has an opportunity to turn up, but the suspicion is that it will not.
Considering grandiose aspirations and hypocrisy, thoughts naturally move back to Israel’s declared intention to run for a temporary Security Council seat in 2019/20. To twist Groucho’s words, why does Israel want to be in a club that it has so consistently reviled and criticized over the years—let alone one that has so consistently condemned it in the past and would still be doing so were not for the automatic U.S. veto. So what would Israel gain from a seat, since it certainly would not have a veto as a temporary member? Well, other countries, like Morocco and Indonesia, as mentioned above, have sat around the Security Council chamber unblushing at defying resolutions against them.
Israeli diplomats, just like their U.N. counterparts, love the idea of grandstanding in the Security Council and pontificating on the behavior of the rest of the world. So they also overlook their prejudices against the institution and announced their bid. Unless Israel signs a peace treaty satisfactory to the Arabs and the Palestinians before then, however, their chances are minimal. Since the Asian group wouldn’t have them, and nor would any other regional group, U.S. pressure led the West European and Other Group to accept the state, eventually. For strange historical reasons having to do with the old British Empire, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the “other” in this title. And just to even out the anomalies, Cyprus joined the Asia group.
WEOG, as it is known in U.N. parlance, is the only regional group at the U.N. that has genuinely competitive candidates, who are not appointed by the group, but go to the general membership for election. So Israel, not particularly popular in Europe, would have to persuade serious contenders to stand down. They have not done so for others in the past. And then it would have to go to the General Assembly for an overall ballot, and get a two-thirds majority of the votes from diplomats who have fairly consistently demonstrated their antipathy to the state.
It would take a miracle of Biblical proportions to overcome such hurdles, and it is unlikely to be forthcoming. Indeed, the state of Palestine might be a better bet for gamblers!