By Angus McDowall
RIYADH, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia turned down acoveted seat on the United Nations Security Council on Friday ina rare display of anger at the failure of the internationalcommunity to end the war in Syria and act on other Middle Eastissues.
The kingdom condemned what it called international doublestandards on the Middle East and demanded reforms in theSecurity Council, which has been at odds on ways to end thefighting in Syria.
Unlike in the past, when Riyadh's frustration was mostlydirected at Russia and China, it is now also aimed atWashington, its oldest international ally, which has pursuedpolicies since the Arab Spring that Saudi rulers have bitterlyopposed.
Citing the Security Council's failure to resolve theIsraeli-Palestinian dispute, take steps to end Syria's civil warand stop nuclear proliferation in the region, Riyadh said thebody had instead perpetuated conflicts and grievances.
"Saudi Arabia ... is refraining from taking membership ofthe U.N. Security Council until it has reformed so it caneffectively and practically perform its duties and discharge itsresponsibilities in maintaining international security andpeace," said a Foreign Ministry statement.
A founding member of the United Nations, Saudi Arabia wasone of five countries elected by the body's General Assembly onThursday to serve a two-year term on the 15-member SecurityCouncil.
The council, which has power to authorise military action,impose sanctions and set up peacekeeping operations, has 10rotating members. The United States, China, Russia, France andBritain are permanent members, which wield a veto.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had not receivedany official notification from Saudi Arabia rejecting itsfirst-ever seat on the council.
A decision of such magnitude would have to have been takenby King Abdullah or Crown Prince Salman, said a Saudi analystwho asked not to be identified.
"Saudi Arabia has been working on (the council seat) for thelast three years. They trained diplomats, male and female, thecream of the Foreign Ministry, our best talented youths. Thensomebody made the decision suddenly to pull out," he said.
In a single previous example of a council member walkingaway from the body, the Soviet Union in 1950 boycotted itspermanent seat for half a year in protest at Taiwan's occupationof the Chinese place instead of Beijing.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was surprised at SaudiArabia's move and puzzled by its accusations against theSecurity Council. "With its decision, Saudi Arabia has removeditself from the collective work of the U.N. Security Council tosupport international peace and security," the ministry said.
The conservative Islamic kingdom has traditionally avoidedbig political statements, preferring to wield its influence asthe world's top oil exporter, birthplace of Islam and chief Arabally of the United States behind closed doors.
However, immersed in what they see as a pivotal struggle forthe future of the Middle East with arch rival Iran, Saudi rulersare furious that the United Nations has taken no action over theSyrian conflict where they and Tehran back opposing sides.
Russia and China have repeatedly blocked resolutionssupported by Saudi Arabia to toughen action against SyrianPresident Bashar al-Assad, whose forces' assault on rebel-heldareas has been described by the kingdom as genocide.
In a sign of mounting Saudi anger, Foreign Minister PrinceSaud al-Faisal cancelled his speech at the U.N. General Assemblytwo weeks ago in what a diplomatic source said was a response tointernational inaction on Middle East issues.
France, a Security Council permanent member, said itunderstood Saudi concerns. "We think that Saudi Arabia wouldhave brought a very positive contribution to the SecurityCouncil but we also understand the frustration of Saudi Arabia,"French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said.
A U.S. official would not comment on the Saudi decision butpraised the council's "vital work."
Blood-drenched images of Syria's civil war, in which morethan 100,000 have died and in which millions have beendisplaced, are aired daily on Saudi news and the kingdom hasbacked the rebels with arms and money.
Saudi anger boiled over after Assad escaped U.S.-ledmilitary strikes in response to a poison gas attack in Damascusby agreeing to give up his chemical arsenal.
"There are people being killed every day, every hour. Andthe Muslim world is very angry because we don't see any actionor any strong stance from the Security Council towards thissituation," said Abdullah al-Askar, foreign affairs committeechairman in the kingdom's quasi-parliament, the Shoura Council.
The Security Council has been split on how to handle thecivil war in Syria, with Western powers pushing for strongersanctions and Russia vetoing resolutions to that end.
Saudi concerns that the U.S. decision to avoid strikesdemonstrated weakness were underscored by signs of a tentativereconciliation between Washington and Tehran, something Riyadhfears may lead to a "grand bargain" on Iran's nuclear programmethat leaves Gulf Arab states at a disadvantage.
It has been sharply critical of U.S. policy in the MiddleEast since the Arab Spring, not only on Syria but also in Egypt,where Washington cut off aid to the military after it ousted aMuslim Brotherhood government that Riyadh saw as a threat.
Russia said it hoped Asian countries would swiftly selectanother candidate in place of Saudi Arabia for election to thecouncil, but it was not clear whether such a procedure would bewidely accepted given the lack of historical precedent.
U.N. Security Council reform has long been a topic ofdebate. Some countries want the council expanded, while Germany,India, Brazil and Japan are pushing to become permanent members.
"Membership in the Security Council is a decision by memberstates," Ban said. "I encourage all member states to fullyengage with the principal organs of the United Nations whileadvancing their efforts to improve their working methods."
Alongside its anger over inaction on Syria, Saudi Arabiaalso cited the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction andthe failure to resolve the Palestinian crisis as reasons fordeclining its first ever seat on the Security Council.
The Saudis have expressed disappointment at U.S. PresidentBarack Obama's failure to push Israel to end settlement buildingin the West Bank and agree to a Palestinian state.
The reference to proliferation appeared aimed at both Iran,which Western and Gulf Arab states fear is using a civiliannuclear programme as cover to develop atomic weapons, and atIsrael, which has long been believed to possess a nuclear bomb.
Iran denies it is seeking atomic weapons capability. Israelhas never commented on accusations it has the bomb.
Riyadh has previously pressed Washington to "cut off thehead of the snake" by striking Iranian nuclear facilities.
Asked about the Saudi concerns, Guatemalan U.N. AmbassadorGert Rosenthal, currently a council member, said: "They shouldhave thought of that before competing for the seat."
- Foreign Policy
- Politics & Government
- Saudi Arabia