By Hugo Corden-Lloyd
In a column for the New York Times on December 17th 2013, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United Kingdom – Mohammed bin Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz al Saud – attacked inaction over the crisis in Syria using ‘Western’ as a thinly veiled synonym for British and American governments. He is heavily critical of the Assad regime both on a humanitarian level: ‘…the regime itself remains the greatest weapon of mass destruction of all,’ and on a diplomatic one; ‘…his regime will continue to do everything in its power to frustrate any serious solution.’ Throughout the piece, he asserts that the current administration’s attitudes towards the Middle East endanger the stability of the region, and therefore The Kingdom must become more assertive and dominant in international affairs ‘to stand up for the genuine stability our region so desperately needs.’ Indeed, stability has played a key role in Saudi foreign policy over the last three years, as it defended the status quo against the turmoil of the Arab Spring. This too, has strained relations between Riyadh and Washington. King Abdullah was horrified when the Obama administration dropped Hosni Mubarak and embraced the Muslim Brotherhood – an organization that the Saudi government is continually railing against. Perhaps the most definitive act of this new Saudi political rebelliousness was their rejection of their non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, with the interior minister Mohammed Bin Nayef claiming that “The Kingdom sees that the method and work mechanism and the double standards of the Security Council prevent it from properly shouldering its responsibilities toward world peace.” This makes Saudi Arabia the first country ever to have been elected onto the Council and then refuse its seat.
Criticism of the UNSC is not limited to Saudi Arabia though. The secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council called for fundamental reform of the Security Council, and France has publicly shared Riyadh’s frustration over the council’s “paralysis”. China’s governmental opinion was reflected in the China Daily – the government’s media mouthpiece – that saw this moment (Saudi’s rejection of its seat) as an opportunity for the international community to contemplate the role of the UN in its arbitration of diplomatic crises. The Security Council has only been reformed once in its 68-year history, in 1963, when four new non-permanent seats were created, and for the majority of its lifespan it has existed merely as a diplomatic sparring ground for Russia and the United States. Up to August 2012, there had been 264 vetoes, and the biggest two users of this power were the aforementioned nations, with 123 and 86 vetoes between them. Moscow accounts for 47% of all vetoes. Although China has used its veto the least, the rate is increasing – with five out of its 10 having taken place since 2007. Therefore the use of the veto can be seen as something of a litmus test for diplomatic clout. The inherent issue with the UNSC is that it represents the global order as it was at the end of World War 2, and hasn’t reformed itself to be more in touch with the modern world. Therefore nations are becoming increasingly disenfranchised with an organization that both fails to represent their interests and – by the use of a veto system that is incredibly undemocratic and favours a few elite nations – actively works against them.
Despite much of the rhetorical emphasis being placed on Syria, this is merely symptomatic of the ongoing Cold War between Tehran and Riyadh. Therefore Obama’s deal with Iran is likely only to intensify Saudi Arabia’s fears of a nuclear Iran. This is partly due to the contained pre-emptive concession that left Iran with the permanent capability to enrich uranium, which justified their rejection of their Security Council seat on the basis of the US rendering the organization defunct. It boils down to Saudi Arabia, after decades of being the largest (Islamic) recipient of US favour in the region, fearing Iran challenging their position. The presence of the Revolutionary Guard throughout the Middle East suggests that soon they might well be in a position to do this. The Saudi state views the Obama administration as being at best indifferent to their most urgent concerns, and at worst openly hostile. They need only look to Benjamin Netanyahu openly criticise the Iran deal and realize that even Israel is being faced with a less prominent position in Washington’s foreign policy. Therefore the incentive is ever increasing for Saudi Arabia to pursue its own interests in the region, which may well be at Washington’s detriment such as raising oil prices, and the widening of diplomatic channels with Russia and China. One thing King Abdullah has been clear about – if Iran goes nuclear, we go nuclear too.