New York: Saudi Arabia on Thursday won a UN Security Council seat for the first time in a new show of determination to make its voice heard, joining Chad, Chile, Lithuania and Nigeria in taking places on the key body.
All five countries stood unopposed in an election by the 193 member UN General Assembly. They will replace Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan and Togo on the 15-nation council on January 1.
Saudi Arabia, despite its oil power and standing in the Muslim world, has never competed for a place on the United Nations’ most powerful body which has a key role pronouncing on conflicts such as that in Syria.
The conservative kingdom has several times expressed alarm at what it considers international inaction over Syria. It has been a major backer of the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad. The Saudi government also remains a fierce critic of Israel.
Saudi Arabia is seeking a more active role in key international bodies even though its own record on women’s rights and human rights has been criticized, according to diplomats and observers.
Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador Abdullah Al-Mouallimi said: “Our election today is a reflection of a long-standing policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes in peaceful means.”
He told reporters that Saudi Arabia supported the Syrian people’s struggle for “freedom and prosperity and unity.”
But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal refused to speak or even hand out a copy of his speech at the UN General Assembly in September in anger at Security Council deadlock on Syria and Palestine.
“It was a sign of the frustration felt,” said Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and an advisor to Saudi officials.
“There is a conscious decision to be more aggressive and vocal on the international stage,” he added.
Saudi Arabia, which takes over from Pakistan as an Asia-Pacific representative, deliberately held back from standing for the Security Council in the past. But it wants to be “a voice” for those worried about Assad in Syria, Iran and other issues, Obaid said.
The tightly controlled kingdom has been criticized by rights groups and some governments for its executions, action against opponents of the monarchy and rigid policing of women who are not even allowed to drive.
“Saudi Arabia would inspire greater confidence in its leadership abilities at the UN’s top body if it was to clean house on human rights issues, starting with granting women their rights and ending the crackdown on human rights advocates,” said Phlippe Bolopion, UN specialist for Human Rights Watch.
But Security Council powers have cautiously welcomed having a major Middle East voice on the body.
“Having them on the Security Council allows you to debate those issues in a way which you can’t if they are not on the council,” said one UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Chad is also serving on the council for the first time as one of Africa’s two representatives. It has also been criticized as it is on a UN “list of shame” for using child soldiers. It has promised to take action, though, and diplomats highlighted Chad’s key role in UN peacekeeping.
Five countries have permanent seats on the Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. The other 10 seats are awarded for two year periods by the General Assembly, which holds a vote every year for five of the seats.
This year was the first time since 2009 that there has not been a contest for one of the temporary seats.
Gambia had been challenging Nigeria, which was on the council in 2010-2011. The small West African country withdrew last week in face of Nigeria’s diplomatic weight.
Lithuania will take Azerbaijan’s place for Eastern Europe. As a member of the European Union and NATO its accession will reinforce the western group on the Security Council. Its 187 votes were the most secured by any country in Thursday’s election. Saudi Arabia got 176 votes.
Chile takes over from Guatemala. This will be its fifth term on the council, the last in 2003-2004. It got 186 votes like Nigeria. Chad secured 184 votes.