Saudi Arabia Enters the Theater of the Absurd

Saudi Arabia may not be an enigma, but its opaque diplomacy is a "puzzlement," with seemingly contradictory relationships with two units of the international community: the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations Human Rights Council.  In a paraphrase of the old song, "Undecided," Saudi Arabia said it won't to the first unit and that it would to the second.

On October 18, 2013, Saudi Arabia surprised the world by saying it would not take the non-permanent two-year seat on the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) to which it had been elected.  This action followed the cancelation by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, on October 2, 2013, of his speech to the U.N. General Assembly.  The October 18  decision seemed inexplicable, because Saudi Arabia appeared to have been trying for many years to obtain a seat on the council.  The Saudi representative at the U.N. had even said that when his country was elected to a seat it would be a sign of moderation, and of support for resolving disputes by peaceful means.

The second surprise is that on November 12, 2013, Saudi Arabia was elected and agreed to take its place as one of the 47 members of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a three-year term.  Saudi Arabia was elected along with five other countries that have equally dubious credentials in relation to human rights: Algeria, China, Cuba, Russia, and Vietnam.  Two other countries, Syria and Iran, also not prominent among states that uphold human rights, had expected to be candidates for admission but pulled out at the last moment.

To her credit, Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., commented on the election of the six countries: "Some commit significant violations of the rights the UNHRC is designed to advance and protect."  She might have gone farther and argued for the withdrawal of the U.S. from the organization of which it recently became a member when the Obama administration decided to join it four years ago.  In the UNHRC theater of the absurd, known mostly for its repetitive anti-democratic and anti-Israeli resolutions, these six countries can continue the histrionic role of anti-Western antagonism that is a major part of the UNHRC's normal script.

The addition of Saudi Arabia will only strengthen the members of the UNHRC who violate human rights rather than support those willing to be their protector.  At present, 12 of the 47 members of the UNHRC can be described as "not free."  One of them is Mauritania, in which about 800,000 of the population of 3.5 million are reputed to be slaves or chattel, but which is a vice president of the UNHRC.  Of the other members, 11 are "partly free," and 24 are "free."  Five of the new elected members have refused to allow U.N. investigators to visit their countries to determine the existence and extent of alleged abuses.

The explanation given by Saudi Arabia not to take the seat on the U.N. Security Council seems specious rather than inexplicable.  Saudi Arabia declared that the United Nations had to be reformed first.  "Double standards," which the Saudi representative left undefined, had prevented the UNSC from carrying out its duties and meeting its responsibilities to preserve world peace and security.  

In a speech to the UN General Assembly on November 8, 2013, the permanent representative of Saudi Arabia to the U.N., Abdallah Y. Al-Mouallimi, repeated this argument.  He called for comprehensive reform of the U.N. system based on universality, equity, and regional balance.  He did not mention human rights, freedom of speech and religion, or the empowerment of women.  Nor did he propose that since his country was interested in world peace, it would stop funding the madrasas where their extreme Islamist imams propagate the Wahhabi version of Islam.

The Saudis criticized the U.N. on a number of specific issues.  They said the U.N. had failed to take action against the Syrian government for killing its own people with chemical weapons.  In what appeared to be strong disapproval of President Obama , the Saudis complained that the U.N. had not confronted the Syrian regime or imposed any deterrent sanctions.  In particular, they were disappointed that the U.S. supported the U.N. resolution because the resolution did not require military action against Assad.

Not surprisingly, the Saudis also criticized the U.N. for not finding a solution "to the Palestine cause for 65 years," a failure leading  "to numerous wars that have threatened world peace."  They declared that the U.N. had not solved the situation in the Palestinian and Arab occupied territories.  They also criticized the U.N., but really implicitly referring to Israel, for failure to eliminate weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East.

Will there really be a "major shift" of Saudi relations with the U.S.?  The Saudi view is that the U.S. has failed to address major problems.  Obama refused to honor his commitment of  the "red line" on the use of chemical weapons and had not authorized a strike against Bashar Assad.  Obama abandoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak when he was challenged in 2011.  Then the  U.S. offered little support for the interim military government in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi were ousted and, further, suspended part of the $1.3 billion in annual American aid.  Nor did the U.S. aid Saudi Arabia in supporting the Bahrain regime's attack on protesters.

Above all, Saudi Arabia fears that the U.S. has been too hasty in trying to reach an agreement with Iran.  In particular, it is worried that the U.S. will not act sufficiently strongly to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability, which, among other things, will empower Iran to become a strong, perhaps the hegemonic, power in the Persian Gulf.  Saudi Arabia, the Sunni power, and Iran, the Shiite power, have long been strategic rivals in the area, as well as competitive religious rivals in their claim for leadership of the two branches of Islam.

The Saudi decisions may be puzzling.  But they are based on the reality that the U.S. administration under Obama has been unreliable.  The U.S. seems to be eager for a rapprochement with Iran.  It has been weak in reacting to the brutality in Syria.  It has been hesitant in the war against Islamist terrorism.

Saudi Arabia may not be the most likely ally, but it has pointed out the stumbling nature and the inadequacies of U.S. policy in the Middle East.  Other nations should step up to warn the U.S. to be more resolute on behalf of democratic ideals, freedom of expression, and the end of discrimination against women.


Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.