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The Saudis: brave and moral or manipulative and self-serving?
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The Saudis: brave and moral or manipulative and self-serving?

In an unprecedented move, the Saudi kingdom refused to assume its seat on the UN Security Council, the world’s most powerful forum, charged with protecting international security and even authorized to declare war on countries violating its decisions. Why did Saudi Arabia refuse to join the forum, which is perhaps the only body able to contend with Iran’s military nuclear program? Why did the Saudis reject an opportunity to influence events in Syria from within the Security Council?

The apparent reason is the one given by the Saudi foreign ministry, expressing a moral stand: the kingdom will not join the Council until it undergoes reforms that will enable it to fulfill its duty of preserving world peace; currently, the outdated mechanisms and double standards prevent the Council from doing its job. The examples cited include failure to resolve the Palestinian problem created 65 years ago, despite the fact that the wars generated by the problem threatened world peace. The Council enables Syria’s ruler to continue butchering his citizens without imposing effective sanctions, and the Council failed to turn the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction given its inability to put into place effective monitoring mechanisms for nuclear programs.

Although the Saudis did not mention Iran by name, it’s clear they were not referring to Israel, by which they don’t feel threatened. But the Iranian nuclear issue, which is of grave concern to them, should have pushed the Saudis into Security Council membership, where they could have been at the heart of decision making against Iran. So why did they not join?

The reasons have to do with the Middle Eastern culture of honor, without which one cannot understand the behavior of the Saudis, proud children of the desert. First of all, a proud man will not join a club which views him as a second class member. The Security Council is made up of first class members – the permanent five (US, Russia, UK, France and China), which have nuclear weapons and veto power, and second class members – 10 countries whose membership is temporary, who are prohibited to acquire nuclear weapons and have no veto power. A Saudi will not accept second class membership. He would rather remain on the outside because his honor is more important to him than anything else.

Secondly, a proud man does not want to serve as a rubber stamp for policies with which he doesn’t agree, and does not want to be dragged along by others. The Saudis know that in the Security Council they will have to behave according to US dictates, although they do not approve of President Barack Obama’s policies on a wide range of issues. They do not want to be identified with US support for Israel, with Obama’s appeasement toward Iran and the West’s turpitude vis-à-vis Syrian President Bashar Assad, the heathen butcher of Muslims. The Saudis also disagree with the US support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt because they are staunch supporters of Defense Minister al-Sisi, the man accused of mass killings and mosque burnings.

But the main reason for their refusal to join the Security Council is the fact that Saudi Arabia continuously undermines the security of many countries: it funds Sunni terror in Iraq, its billionaires grease the operations of hundreds of Jihadist militias operating in Syria, and the Saudis use their many petro dollars to spread radical Wahabi Islam throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. A seat on the Security Council contradicts such activity and could place the Saudis in embarrassing positions. And embarrassment is the last thing a Middle Easterner can tolerate, except shame.

The Saudi regime prefers operating behind the scenes, wielding influence in secret, away from the public eye. That is where its strength lies. A seat on the Security Council will place Saudi Arabia in the spotlight, and this, too, goes against the grain of their preference for wielding influence without exposing themselves. They have everything, and they have much to lose. Membership in the Security Council will not enhance their reputation and will only create friction with the countries of the world, a friction with which they are uncomfortable given their traditional and sectarian world view.

The culture of the Middle East plays an important role in the international arena. It’s important to learn it.

Mordechai Kedar is Director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation) at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

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