LONDON — Saudi Arabia stunned the United Nations and even some of its own diplomats Friday by taking the unprecedented step of rejecting a highly coveted seat on the Security Council it had won for the first time just a day earlier.
The sudden reversal was a decision made at the highest levels in the Saudi monarchy. It appeared to reflect a deep-seated anger over what the monarchy regards as a failure by the Security Council to deal effectively with the major problems in the Middle East: the Syrian war, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival.
The decision, made known in a statement issued by the Saudi Foreign Ministry and carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, seemed to suddenly invalidate extensive planning by Saudi diplomats who had expressed excitement that their country was about to assume such a prominent position.
At the least, the rejection revealed a sharp internal divide in Saudi Arabia’s hierarchy over how the oil-rich kingdom should be wielding its influence in the world.
“The manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities toward preserving international peace and security as required,” the Foreign Ministry statement said.
The Saudi monarchy has expressed growing exasperation at the Security Council’s record on the conflict in Syria, where Russia and China, two of the five permanent members, have blocked Western efforts, broadly supported by Saudi Arabia, to pressure President Bashar Assad. The other permanent members are the United States, Britain, and France.
The Saudi statement came a day after Chad, Chile, Lithuania, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia were elected to seats on the 15-member Security Council for a two-year term starting in January. They replace Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan, and Togo. The seats are prized because they give officials access to high-level diplomacy and offer a rare opportunity to influence events.
Diplomats at the United Nations said they were taken aback by the Saudi move and could not recall a previous time when a member state elected to one of the nonpermanent seats had rejected it.
Saudi officials did not explain why such a reversal had been decided. But many Saudi diplomats and political observers appear to have been shocked by the decision.
The Saudis had assembled a team of seasoned diplomats in preparation for their new role, and the Saudi political elite had seemed thrilled at the prospect of a shift toward a more assertive diplomatic stance.
Late Thursday, the spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Osama Nugali, forwarded a message on his Twitter account celebrating the kingdom’s election to the Security Council and written by Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent journalist with links to the ruling elite. Many other prominent Saudis also forwarded the message, which congratulated the kingdom for winning a seat it had sought for more than two years with the help of “a team of the best Saudi diplomats to represent the kingdom.”
“This is very bad for the image of the country,” said one Saudi political insider, who, like several others, requested anonymity because the decision was assumed to be by the king, whose judgment is rarely questioned in public. “It’s as if someone woke up in the night and made this decision. It would be one thing if the kingdom had a plan for how to act outside of the Security Council. But I don’t think there is a plan.”
The United States, one of Saudi Arabia’s strongest Western allies, also appeared to be caught off guard. On Thursday evening, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, issued a statement congratulating the five new nonpermanent members. Officials at the US Mission to the United Nations had no immediate comment.