Who Should Replace the Saudis at the UN Security Council?

Having won a seat for the first time on the United Nations Security Council, Saudi Arabia turned around a day later and rejected it, citing the Council's double standards and failure to uphold international peace, justice and security.

As UN moments go, this is a classic -- if only for its sheer absurdity. It is precisely because of the UN's double standards that a country such as Saudi Arabia can win a seat on the Security Council in the first place -- with 176 of the 193 members of the UN General Assembly voting yes. As as friend of mine puts it, the Saudi move smacks of Groucho Marx's joke that he would never join any club that would accept him as a member.

Obviously, the real problem is not a sudden Saudi aversion to UN double standards per se. If it were, Saudi Arabia would not still be running for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, in General Assembly elections to be held Nov. 12. As far as I'm aware, the Saudis -- who with no evident concern about hypocrisy have served previously on the Human Rights Council  -- have not dropped their bid to reclaim a seat.

There's a lot of speculation right now on why the Saudis did their about face on a Security Council seat, especially after their ambassador to the UN in New York, Abdallah  Al-Mouallimi, initially told the press that "our election is much to rejoice over." In a statement released Friday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry cited a hodge-podge of reasons for the boycott, ranging from the failure to apply "deterrent sanctions" to the Syrian regime, to such stock stuff as the failure to "make the Middle East a free zone of all weapons of mass destruction," and the continuing failure to resolve "the Palestinian cause" to Saudi Arabia's liking." What makes the most sense to me -- though it's just a guess -- is that the Saudis suddenly realized that in dealing with hot issues such as Syria and Iran, they might be better off dealing in the backrooms, rather than having to put their diplomatic cards on the table in Security Council votes.

But whatever the reasons, if the Saudis want to denounce double standards and demand better behavior from the UN Security Council, why not hold them to it?

Right now it's unclear how the UN might fill that suddenly vacant two-year nonpermanent seat, for 2014-2015. Candidates for the Council's 10 rotating seats are usually nominated by regional blocs in the General Assembly. From these slates, the GA then elects the winners, with a required minimum of two-thirds of the GA's 193 votes. But what Saudi Arabia has just done, in walking away from a win, is highly unusual.