Paul Pillar

The Saudi Snit

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has just had a tantrum. A day after winning one of the rotational seats on the United Nations Security Council, the Saudis announced they would not take the seat. This move undoubtedly has annoyed and even angered many others in member states and at the United Nations, not least of all in states that campaigned unsuccessfully for one of the non-permanent seats on the council. Diplomatic heads are shaking over this unprecedented situation. The closest thing to a precedent was a boycott of council proceedings in 1950 by the Soviet Union, which came to regret its tactic when in its absence the council authorized a U.S.-led intervention in Korea. But the Soviets had a permanent seat not to be filled by anyone else. It is unclear after the Saudi announcement whether the General Assembly will be picking a replacement member for the Security Council or there will be an empty chair.

Some predict that the Saudis, like the Soviets, will come to regret their move, and that prediction probably is correct. Although some Saudis may have genuinely believed that an unusual move such as this would help direct attention to their favored issues, plenty of smart Saudi officials would recognize multiple flaws in the tactic. Annoyance with Saudi Arabia probably will be a stronger international reaction than than any felt need to pay more attention to the Saudis' favorite causes. Action on the issues of high concern to Riyadh is stymied by factors other than merely insufficient attention to them. It also is not entirely clear exactly who or what is the target of the Saudis' disapproval. Ostensibly it is the Security Council itself, but according to some interpretations the Saudis are trying to express disapproval of U.S. policies.

A different and credible way to look at the Saudi move is as simple pique, less a matter of any calculation than of emotion and frustration at high levels, probably the level of the king. In this respect it is the result of a flawed policy-making system that does not do a good job of weeding out high-level emotion. The United States probably has done a better job of weeding such stuff out. Think of a short-tempered Harry Truman and all of the angry letters that he wrote but never got sent.

An explanation involving more calculation is that the Saudis had second thoughts about how casting votes at the Security Council would force them to be more specific and open in their preferences. This is different from the sort of behind-the-scenes influence with which they are more comfortable and is better suited to the type of power they wield. That still does not explain or excuse, of course, their earlier decision to seek the council seat.

The proper posture for the United States and others to take is a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger disapproval of what the Saudis have done, with the disapproval based on procedure rather than substance. Substantively some of the Saudis' favorite causes and positions are consistent with U.S. interests, and others are not. But the United Nations Security Council serves a useful function regardless of one's position on any of the issues it addresses. Shunning it, especially in a way that screws up the long-established procedures for filling seats on the council, does not help the council do its job any better. And it would be a mistake to encourage the notion that an absence of talk and engagement about controversial issues is better than the alternative.