Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry announced that the kingdom would not join the U.N. Security Council until the council “reformed so it can effectively and practically perform its duties and discharge its responsibilities in maintaining international security and peace.” Although this decision stemmed from Saudi frustration over the council’s failure to end the civil war in Syria and to act on the issue of Palestinian statehood, there is more to the rejection. Saudi Arabia opting out of a temporary position in an international forum is a sign of things to come as the kingdom pursues a new, and assertive, foreign policy.
The decision came after several weeks of intense debate among senior officials in Jeddah, the summer capital, over whether Saudis can achieve more by assuming a relatively nominal position in an international setting or by unilaterally expanding their work and implementing their doctrine. Over the past two years, the Saudi government had expended a great deal of energy and resources to prepare their diplomats and U.N. mission to join the Security Council.
But events in Syria over the summer and the manner in which the debate over the war has played out on the Security Council changed the calculations of the Saudi foreign policy establishment. Central to the internal discussions was the question of whether, in such a charged regional environment, the kingdom could politically afford to be a powerless member — albeit with a “voice” on a docile council — when it faces the urgent imperative of ending the massacres in Syria.
The tipping point came the week before the U.N. General Assembly meeting last month, when a draft resolution on dismantling Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons circulated among the permanent members of the Security Council. The Saudis, supported by the French and, to a lesser extent, the British, wanted the draft to say that President Bashar al-Assad and his thugs would suffer extreme punitive military actions for noncompliance. The Russians, however, were adamant that even an insinuation of this sort would be unacceptable. To get the resolution through, U.S. officials acquiesced to Russian wishes and pressured France and Britain to drop this demand. The tyrant Assad, then, was saved and practically given a U.N. mandate to continue slaughtering the Syrian people and destroying the remnants of the Syrian state. For the Saudis, this was a cold lesson in the Security Council’s dysfunction.
At this point, the Saudis faced two options: become a non-binding member of a largely inactive clique in which only the five permanent members are able to push through policy, or excuse themselves from this ceremonial, and ultimately empty, responsibility. In choosing the latter, Saudi Arabia has sent a powerful message about the effectiveness of the Security Council and the Obama administration’s Middle East policy. The Saudis realistically assessed their limited options within the Security Council as well as the fact that the kingdom already has power to influence global events and exerts enormous influence in the Muslim world. Joining the Security Council would not change those things.
This unprecedented decision also signals the coming of age of Saudi Arabia’s forceful foreign policy and the methods it is willing to pursue to achieve its objectives. Out of necessity, the kingdom is reformulating its foreign policy to assess how best to solve the Syrian tragedy, a massive humanitarian crisis that has the potential to exacerbate already severe tensions among neighbors and destabilize the region. While brought to the fore by the Syrian dilemma, this necessity is the result of deeper trends that are also guiding Saudi decisions: the lack of U.S. leadership in the region, regional turmoil sparked by the “Arab Awakening” and the new policy of Iranian rapprochement toward the West.
In short, the Saudis find themselves in a drastically different foreign policy situation than even one year ago, having essentially been left alone to maintain stability in the Arab world. Given the pressure of this predicament, the fundamental basis of the new Saudi foreign policy doctrine is about changing course from being protected by others to protecting themselves and their allies. The Saudis know they need to restructure their foreign policy and national security establishments to conduct themselves internationally on par with the political, economic and religious significance and influence the kingdom holds.
The road ahead is long. It is clear, however, that the Saudis fully intend to pursue their national security interests much more assertively, even if that leads to a strategic break with the United States.