Known for quiet diplomacy, Saudi Arabia is taking an unusual and very public step to protest the international community's failure to resolve the crisis in Syria and other issues that interest Riyadh.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia was elected to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which the Saudi ambassador to the U.N. initially called a defining moment in his nation's history.
But then the kingdom decided to reject — at least for now — the two-year rotating seat on the Security Council, calling the body incapable of ending wars and resolving conflicts.
"It certainly would seem that their ambassador to the United Nations was sandbagged by his own foreign ministry," says Tom Lippman, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He calls the decision self-defeating, given Saudi concerns about Syria, its rivalry with Iran and its hopes for a future state of Palestine.
"The reason you would want to be on the U.N. Security Council is that eventually that's the arena in which these issues are going to be resolved, or in which the solutions of these issues are going to be ratified," says Lippman. "Why then would you not want to be in the arena where the game is being played? I don't get it."
Saudi Arabia explained in a statement that it believes the Security Council is failing to carry out its responsibilities. It hasn't resolved the Palestinian question, and it has stood by — according to the Saudi statement — while Syria's regime killed and burned people with chemical weapons.
Riyadh said it won't take the seat until the Security Council is reformed. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says he wants to work closely with Saudi Arabia on all these issues. A spokesman said he was unaware of another case where a nation turned down a coveted seat on the Security Council.
But Saudi Arabia had given hints of its displeasure with the U.N., and with U.S. foreign policy. During a recent meeting of the U.N. General Assembly — when Iran's new president was on a charm offensive that even resulted in a phone call from President Obama — Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called off his planned speech.
The Saudi foreign minister is due to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris this week as the U.S. tries to ease Saudi concerns.