UNITED NATIONS — Just hours after winning a coveted place on the U.N. Security Council for the first time, Saudi Arabia did a stunning about-face Friday and rejected the seat, denouncing the body for failing to resolve world conflicts such as the Syrian civil war.
The unprecedented move at the United Nations appeared largely directed at Saudi Arabia’s longtime ally, the United States, reflecting more than two years of frustration.
The oil giant and the world’s superpower are at odds over a number of Mideast issues, including how Washington has handled some of the region’s crises, particularly in Egypt and Syria. It also comes as ties between the United States and Iran, the Saudis’ regional foe, appear to be improving somewhat.
Saudi Arabia’s reversal surprised U.N. diplomats and officials who had just welcomed the kingdom to a two-year term on the powerful body for the first time.
Britain, Pakistan and other countries said they wanted explanations, particularly as Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, had told reporters after Thursday’s vote that his government took the election “very seriously” and saw it as “a reflection of a long-standing policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes in peaceful means.”
Mouallimi’s comments stood in sharp contrast to the strident tone of Friday’s Saudi Foreign Ministry statement, which accused the Security Council of failing on multiple fronts in the Middle East — especially in ending the Syria conflict but also in failing to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and rid the region of weapons of mass destruction.
“They should have thought of that before competing for the seat,” said Guatemala’s U.N. ambassador, Gert Rosenthal, noting that the Saudis were lobbying for support right up until the vote.
Several diplomats speculated whether there was a split in the leadership of Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah has the final word.
Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the United Nations — joining on Oct. 24, 1945, the day the U.N. Charter was unanimously adopted in San Francisco. In recent years, it has won seats on the Human Rights Council and other bodies.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky, asked whether the Saudi rejection of the seat was unprecedented, said: “As far as we are aware, there isn’t another case like it.”