Forgotten Kingdom

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mohammad Khajouei
Senior Middle East Scholar

It seems like a surreal story. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had made strenuous efforts to find itself among the 15 member states of the United Nations Security Council. However, less than 12 hours before this diplomatic achievement was announced, the Saudi government declared that it does not want to be a member of the Security Council and withdrew its bid for that position.

The decision made by Saudi Arabia took many people by surprise. Few of them actually believed that a country whose diplomatic apparatus moves at a snail’s pace, at least at official levels, will take such a step, which has had no precedence not only in the history of Saudi Arabia’s diplomacy, but also in the entire history of the United Nations.

For more than 15 years, Saudi officials have been striving to enter the Security Council. The fact that Saudis made a decision, out of the blue, to take a U-turn in their policy, is also indicative of differences, confusion and weaknesses in the decision-making gravitational center of Riyadh.

Of course, the Saudi government has officially mentioned incompetence of the Security Council [in dealing with international crises] and the double standards it applies to regional issues – such as the situation in Palestine, the crisis in Syria, and nuclear disarmament in the Middle East – as the main reason behind its decision to withdraw from the Security Council membership. However, to get at a more transparent picture and to correctly understand the main reason behind the Saudis’ decision, developments in recent months should be reviewed because they are considered by some analysts as the root cause of the sudden measure taken by Saudi Arabia.

This year’s annual session of the UN General Assembly did not come as a blessing to Saudis. During the days that the session was in full swing, two major developments took place with Saudi Arabia being the big loser in both developments.

The first development was an agreement between the United States and Russia over dismantling the Syrian government’s arsenal of chemical weapons. The agreement, which was also hailed by Damascus, practically forestalled warmongering efforts aimed at launching a military strike against Syria. This agreement in addition to another agreement reached between Moscow and Washington in May according to which the United States and Russia agreed to hold the long-awaited Geneva II peace conference on the Syria crisis in November, dealt a deadly blow to Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy in Syria.

During more than two years which have passed since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, Saudi Arabia has spared no effort to overthrow the government of the Syrian President Bashar Assad. Saudi leaders believe that the fall of Assad and the subsequent rise of a new Syrian government in line with the policies of Riyadh will increase the political weight of Saudi Arabia in the region and deal a drastic blow to its main regional rival power, Iran.

The focus on finding a peaceful solution to Syria crisis and the cancellation of a possible military strike against Syria was by no means good news for Saudi Arabia. According to some reports, Riyadh has so far spent almost five billion dollars to keep Syria crisis going, and has also put its own political prestige at stake by accepting the disgrace of being known as the main source of support for the foreign-backed terrorist groups operating in Syria. Nobody will forget the zeal and avidity with which political and media circles affiliated to Saudi Arabia welcomed a contingent military strike against Syria by the United States during the whole period that such a strike was considered very likely. Therefore, it goes without saying that when a military option on Syria was announced to be out of the question with Washington and Moscow adopting more similar stances on the crisis in Syria, Saudi Arabian officials were beyond themselves with rage. The reason is clear enough: Saudi Arabia found itself a forgotten partner in the political game of Syria.

The second development that rubbed the proverbial salt into Saudi Arabia’s wound –caused by the agreement between the United States and Russia – was a partial thaw in Iran's relations with the West. The election of the new Iranian administration headed by Dr. Hassan Rouhani, which has put constructive interaction with the world on top of its foreign policy agenda, has offered a new opportunity for the reconstruction of Iran's relations with the West. The meetings held with prominent officials of the Western states by Rouhani and his active Foreign Minister Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the 68th annual session of the UN General Assembly, and most importantly, direct contacts and meetings between Iranian and American officials, have raised hope in many quarters about the possibility of a serious and positive development in Iran's relations with the West. At the same time, however, many Arab states, topped by Saudi Arabia, have become very concerned about these developments and their concerns are no less serious than those of [the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and other Israeli officials.

Saudis have been playing the role of the United States’ main ally in the region during many years that tension has dominated Iran's relations with the West, especially the United States. As such, they practically considered themselves as the gravitational center of the regional security and economy. Therefore, now they are concerned that propinquity between Tehran and Washington will undermine their regional influence as Riyadh considers Tehran its archrival in relations with the United States.

In the meantime, the success of the two latest sessions of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the member states of the P5+1 group of world powers – first in Washington and then in the Swiss city of Geneva – has doubled the concern of Saudi Arabia about a serious and practical development in Iran's relations with the West. Here again, Saudis consider themselves a forgotten player in the political game between Iran and the West.

The sudden step taken by Saudi Arabia to forgo the Security Council membership can be, in fact, considered a reaction to diplomatic failures of this country during recent months and a measure taken to make up for the increasing isolation of Saudi Arabia in regional equations during the same period of time. It seems that the main message that the Saudi measure is supposed to convey is, more than anybody else, addressed to the United States.

From the viewpoint of the Saudi officials, the United States has committed two unforgiveable sins during recent months without even caring for Saudi Arabia’s consent. The first sin was making way for Syria to successfully get out of the international isolation by accepting the recent agreement between the United States and Moscow over its nuclear arms arsenal. And the second sin is the reconstruction of relations between the West and Iran, which is considered by Riyadh as the main supporter of Syria in the region.

In fact, by taking this measure, Saudis have been trying to indicate their resentment at the United States policies vis-à-vis the regional developments. Perhaps, Saudi officials believe that by taking such a surprising measure, they will be able to attract more attention from the US leaders in Washington.

The political developments, which have taken place in the past few months, have made Saudis very pessimistic. The Saudi officials are seriously concerned about the possibility of being marginalized in regional developments or, at least, losing their regional role. They are also very concerned about being pushed from the center of attention into the margins.

Key Words: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Russia, Syria, Iran, US, Chemical Weapons, Hassan Rouhani, Israeli Officials, P5+1, Khajouei

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