After two years of hectic lobbying, Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN Security Council on October 17. The election was followed by jubilation in the Saudi delegation in the UN, with the ambassador giving out a sober but triumphant press statement after the results were announced. A day later, the Saudi foreign ministry declined the offer to be a member of the highest decision-making body of United Nations.
This unexpected tantrum took most by surprise. In the murky prestige-politics of the UN, a seat at the Security Council is a much coveted and hard-won prize. The official reason for the rejection was the Security Council’s inaction over Syria, as well as continued inability to move in any direction on Palestine.
To pundits and Middle-East watchers, the reasons were to be found in America’s changing policy in the Middle East. The apparent pursuit of better relations with Iran, Obama’s refusal to bulldoze a regime-change in Syria and the visible attempt by Americans to keep options open with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, despite a Saudi-supported military coup, have all caused Saudi Arabia a great deal of irritation. The Saudi Intelligence Chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, went so far as to say that the Kingdom was considering a “major shift” in its policy towards the United States.
While all of these readings are true, they don’t quite add up to a sufficient cause for the Big Brother of the Gulf monarchies causing a major upset in relations with their biggest supporter. The United States remains Saudi Arabia’s biggest supplier of weapons, as well as being indispensable to the Saud family as a foundation of international support with whose backing it maintains a visceral grip over its own kingdom.
While Gulf money has become a significant player in the American economy and the Saudis are undoubtedly America’s closest allies in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia remains the junior partner in the relationship. In any worst-case scenario, Americans can always replace a non-compliant regime in Saudi Arabia (as in the case of King Faisal). The Saudis posses no similar influence, and cannot really afford to irritate the Americans.
The real reason for this little drama at the UN lies not in Washington but in the Muslim world. By virtue of being custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has long enjoyed a level of respect and admiration throughout the Islamic world. Over the last two decades, Saudis have begun to exploit the value of this respect. With the succession of King Abdullah to the throne, there has been a visible attempt to portray him as a Pope-like figure within the world of Sunni Islam. Stories of the king’s personal piety accompanied by excessively visible alms-giving and the spread of a Saudi-interpreted version of literalist Islam throughout the Muslim world have all been geared at creating the image of Saudi Arabia as a spiritual head of Islam. This has translated into huge cultural and political capital for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Evidence of this has been on display with the rise of Salafist parties in all the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ countries. The ease with which Egypt’s Al-Nour party changed sides after the coup against Morsi only underscored the fact that Saudi Arabia sponsors and controls the growing Salafist movement, particularly in Arab countries.
The Egyptian coup, however, marked a turning point for Saudi legitimacy. Openly siding with the military, which is seen as being pro-Israel and pro-US, exposed Saudi Arabia’s role as a proxy of American power. The fact that beneath all the anti-Zionist rhetoric, Saudi and Israeli interests are essentially in harmony was also plain for all to see.
The subsequent brutal crackdown over the Muslim Brotherhood further enraged sentiment in the Islamic world. The Saudi Grand Mufti’s edict banning protest against the coup was the subject of much ridicule, a drastic change from the respectful reverence of the past. Even within the Salafi camps, which had been pumped up with Islamic rhetoric following the Arab Spring, questions are being asked.
This downward slide in respect threatens to reverse the cultural influence gains in many parts of the Muslim world. To counter this erosion of legitimacy is probably the motivation behind Saudi Arabia’s little tantrum at the United Nations.
The skewered balance of power at the UN Security Council isn’t news to anyone. The Saudis did not highlight it to push for any reform of the system, but to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. By seeming to reject a privilege in protest against apathy towards Palestine and Syria, the Saudis hope to win back a little of the moral authority they have lost in the last few months. The “major shift” with regard to the US is meant to show that the House of Saud are in sync with the street.
None of this is to say that Saudi Arabia is actually going to reject the Security Council seat. It may still be “persuaded” to return, or in any case a close ally like UAE or Kuwait may be chosen to replace it. But none of that really matters. In the general public imagination, particularly that of its followers, Saudi Arabia has asserted itself for a righteous cause, and the western powers have to mollify it. The intended public relations effect is being milked to its fullest extent.
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