Saudi Arabia, the UN Security Council, and the Future of U.S.-Saudi Relations

Photo Courtesy: Britannica[1]

By: Chloé A. Maiers

On Thursday, October 17 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly elected five new non-permanent members to the UN Security Council (UNSC) to serve a two year term. The countries elected included Chad, Chile, Lithuania, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, with only Chile and Nigeria having served on the UNSC previously.[2] Less than a day later, however, Saudi Arabia surprised the international community by releasing an unprecedented statement via the government run, Saudi Press Agency (SPA), announcing that they would not be accepting the UNSC membership.

The primary source of Saudi Arabia’s frustrations with the UNSC seems to be structural in nature, particularly the veto power of the five permanent members (P5). This is because the P5’s veto power often leads to a kind of international gridlock, stalling international action. In its official statement, the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the following:

the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities towards preserving international peace and security as required, leading to the continued disruption of peace and security, the expansion of the injustices against the peoples, the violation of rights and the spread of conflicts and wars around the world.[3]

Additionally, the statement specifies examples in which they feel that these flaws have been most devastating. These flaws can be summarized in three main points: the Palestinian issue, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and the lack of military action against the Assad regime.[4] These complaints are not surprising given Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy history, but the subversive nature of the statements deserves attention. It is worth noting that this was Saudi Arabia’s first opportunity to serve on the UNSC, which took a great deal of campaigning within the UN General Assembly. Admittedly, by giving up their spot Saudi Arabia is also passing up an opportunity to fix these issues; but  it seems that this is really about getting the international community’s attention and they certainly have done that by catching almost everyone completely off guard by their decision.

However, Saudi Arabia’s decision has garnered quite a bit of support regionally. The chief of the Arab League has stated public support for the Saudis’ decision, as well as a range of individual nations including Algeria, Morocco, Burkina Faso, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.[5] Given this support, it appears that Saudi Arabia is positioning itself as a regional leader, one that could possibly operate independently, without the support of longtime ally, the United States.

This move by Saudi Arabia has come at a very important time regarding the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region and Middle East more generally. As the United States and Iran attempt to improve their relations after over 30 years, the integrity of the Saudi monarchy is being threatened. Both the Iranian and Saudi governments pledge to conduct politics and policies in accordance with Islamic law. However, while the Saudi monarchy does so through a sort of divine power related the prominent interpretation Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism,[6] the Iranian government claims to achieve the same through free elections. Maintaining monarchical power is of utmost importance in Saudi Arabia, and should the United States continue with diplomatic talks with Iran, they would be recognizing de facto legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, which would pose a direct threat to Saudi royal family. Underlying the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry are religious differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. This coalition of political and religious differences has been most tense since the end of the U.S.’s two-pillar policy (promoting regional security through military assistance) in Iran and Saudi Arabia after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.[7] In terms of lasting relationships with the West, Saudi Arabia has been the victor of an internationally ostracized Iran, but Saudi Arabia’s honeymoon period with the U.S. cannot last forever.

Consequently, the United States must now consider whether or not it will further strain its alliance with Saudi Arabia by pursuing an improved relationship with Iran. Saudi Arabia’s dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy in the region has only been increasing since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and this recent public condemnation of the UNSC underlines the seriousness of the issue. Historically, U.S. interest in maintaining a relationship with Saudi Arabia has been twofold: monopolizing the export of Saudi oil in to the market, and power projection in the region. But the 2003 Iraq War significantly damaged the U.S.’s standing in the region, effectively making the second objective a moot point.

In sum, a shifting U.S. influence in the Middle East is now undeniable, the only possible exception to this being bi-lateral relations with Israel. Given increased instability in the Middle East recently, perhaps a changing U.S. role will have an overall positive influence on the region. Furthermore, the flaws that Saudi Arabia drew attention to in their original claim are indeed valid, even if Saudi Arabia’s motivations are specific to their interests. Thus, taking the Saudi’s complaints regarding the UNSC seriously would likely make it a more productive body.


Chloé A. Maiers is a first year graduate student in the International Affairs program at the Pennsylvania State University. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of New England in Political Science with minors in Economics and Women’s & Gender Studies. Chloé’s interests include U.S. security, strategy, and women’s empowerment in the Middle East.


[2] Rick Gladstone, “Security Council Elects 5 New Members,” The New York Times, 17 October 2013.

[3] “Saudi Arabia Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Statement on Security Council Membership, October 2013”, Council on Foreign Relations, 18 October 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Each of these individual statements can be viewed on Saudi Press Agency website:

[6] Joseph Kechichian, “The Role of the Ulama in the Politics of an Islamic State: The Case of Saudi Arabia,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 18:1 1986.

[7] David Long, “U.S.-Saudi Relations:  A Foundation of Mutual Needs,” Arab-American Affairs, Spring 1983.

Leave A Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Skip to toolbar