In diplomacy, it is easier to pull off a stunt than sustain a long-term strategy. Last week Saudi Arabia managed some multilateral acrobatics at the United Nations by winning a seat on the Security Council unopposed and then almost immediately renouncing it. Most states lobby for a council seat for years and cling desperately to the kudos that it offers. But the Saudi Foreign Ministry declared that the U.N.’s failures to resolve the Palestinian issue and intervene effectively in the Syrian civil war add up to “irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities.”
It is not clear whether this was a well-calculated maneuver or a last-minute decision. Saudi diplomats had been in training for their spell on the council and seemed genuinely pleased to have won it. But Riyadh was unhappy with America’s decision to respond to the Syrian chemical weapons crisis through Security Council diplomacy rather than unilateral military strikes. President Barack Obama’s use of the U.N. General Assembly as a platform to push for detente with Iran this September alienated the Saudis further.
So the Saudi refusal to join the Security Council can easily be interpreted as a signal of discontent with Washington’s recent choices over the Middle East. But it must also be seen in the context of Riyadh’s long-running and often successful efforts to shape multilateral diplomacy over the Syrian crisis. The Saudis have played a crucial part in mobilizing large coalitions of states to assail the Syrian regime in the General Assembly and used their economic muscle to influence debates inside the Security Council. Their decision not to continue this campaign inside the council suggests they have concluded that this strategy has failed—and they may use their leverage to stymie further U.N. attempts to stabilize Syria.