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What impact would Saudi Arabia have had on the U.N. Security Council?

By Paul Crompton, Al Arabiya | 18 Oct 2013

For the first time, Saudi Arabia on Thursday won a seat as a non-permanent member in the U.N. Security Council. 

The kingdom  joined Chad, Chile, Lithuania and Nigeria who took seats in an election.

However, only a few hours after winning the seat, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement announcing that the kingdom will not be accepting the two-year membership at the Security Council, citing failures of the U.N. body in resolving regional issues such as the ongoing massacre in Syria and its inability to rid the region of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Even prior to the Saudi announcement, experts speaking to Al Arabiya News  mentioned that the kingdom, despite its religious and economic prominence, would have faced many obstacles at the Security Council. All five new seat-holders have fairly limited power as they do not have the right to veto decisions, a right claimed exclusively by the five permanent members of the Security Council, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.

Afshin Molavi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank and public policy institute, said that “On the big ticket item issues, such as Iran, Syria, and chemical weapons, I think that the big five still call the shots in many ways”.

Despite this, seats on the 15-member council are highly prized because member states can sway the debate on international hot topics such as the Syrian crisis and sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

“Saudi Arabia’s impact could be considerable because of its economic and political weight in the Middle East and on economic issues in the world,” David Ottoway, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., told Al Arabiya News.

Restricted influence

However, just how powerful can Saudi Arabia be – had it stayed in the Security Council - considering it occupies just one seat in the 15-member body?

For the Security Council to pass a resolution a total of nine votes in favor must be passed, including all of the five permanent members.

Ottoway stated that the power of each non-permanent member such as Saudi Arabia is “really limited.”

“Each UNSC member can raise issues of specific concern to it but it has to persuade all the permanent members with a veto vote to go along with it and that is not easy,” he said.
Lippman noted that the five permanent members exert “overwhelming dominance” over the other members.

“If 14 members vote and the Russians don’t, that’s the end of the story,” said Lippman.

Alon Ben-Meir, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, believes that Saudi Arabia’s power in the council may come from forming likely alliances with other states elected alongside it.

Four other nations, namely, Nigeria, Lithuania, Chile, and Chad were elected to the Security Council with the kingdom.
Of the four, Nigeria, Lithuania and Chile “see more eye-to-eye with Saudi Arabia,” Ben-Meir told Al Arabiya News.

“As a result, they will probably be able to form a sort of a group and as a group, they will be able to have an even greater impact on the deliberation of the Security Council,” said Ben-Meir.