DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Saudi Arabia on Friday rejected its seat on the U.N. Security Council hours after it was elected to it, in a rare and startling move aimed at protesting the body's failure to resolve the Syrian civil war.
The Saudi discontent appeared largely directed at its longtime ally, the United States, reflecting more than two years of frustration. The two 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 U.S. and Iran, the Saudi's regional foe, appear to be tepidly improving.
Saudi Arabia showed its displeasure last month when Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal declined to address the General Assembly meeting. Days later, the kingdom's unease with Washington appeared to manifest when President Barack Obama spoke to Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani in a groundbreaking telephone call.
The kingdom was given one of the rotating seats on the 15-member council in a vote Thursday.
On Friday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement rejecting the seat, saying the U.N. Security Council had failed in multiple cases in the Middle East. Particularly, it said U.N. failure to act has enabled Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime to perpetrate the killings of its people, including the use of chemical weapons. The Syrian regime denies using chemical weapons.
"Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill its people and burn them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment is clear proof and evidence of the U.N. Security Council's inability to perform its duties and shoulder its responsibilities," the ministry said in the statement carried on the state news agency.
Saudi Arabia backs the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad in a war that has killed some 100,000 people since early 2011. Repeated attempts by the U.N. Security Council to address the conflict have fallen apart, usually because Assad's ally Russia has blocked strong resolutions. Still, in a rare consensus, the council passed a resolution on destroying Syria's chemical arsenal after an Aug. 21 chemical attack.
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab leaders have backed the Syrian rebels with weapons and financing in part to counter their regional rival Iran, which has strongly thrown its weight behind its ally, Assad. At the same time, the friendly gestures between the U.S. and Iran's new government have made Saudi Arabia uneasy.
Russia said it was "surprised" and "baffled by the reasons that the kingdom gave to explain its position" -- particularly after the chemical weapons resolution. That resolution was passed after Russia brokered Damascus' consent to surrender its chemical arsenal, which it had long kept secret.
There appear to be some efforts under way to get the Saudis to recant. Britain's deputy U.N. ambassador Peter Wilson told reporters his team is looking at what precisely the Saudis meant by their statement and are talking to them "to get a little bit more background on what lies behind this."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he has "taken note" of the media reports of the Saudi rejection, "but I would like to caution you that I have received no official notification in this regard."
"We also are looking forward to working very closely in addressing many important challenges with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," particularly the Syrian war and other issues, including combatting "terrorism and nuclear proliferation," he said.
He said member states are holding discussions on how to deal with the Saudi move. Ban talked to a senior official in the Saudi government after the news broke, a U.N. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussion was private.
U.N. diplomats and officials said the Saudi rejection of the seat appears to be unprecedented. U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said U.N. officials were going back through Security Council records to check whether this was the first time a nation rejected a seat.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry statement was a sharp change in tone from comments by the kingdom's U.N. ambassador the day before. At the time, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said his country's election to the council was "a reflection of a longstanding policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes by peaceful means."
He also said his country takes its election "very seriously as a responsibility."
The Saudi statement Friday also blamed the Security Council for failing to transform the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction -- a reference to Israel, which has never confirmed or denied possession of nuclear weapons. It also said the Council has not been able to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the past six decades.
While Saudi Arabia and the United States share core strategic interests regarding mutual worries over Iran, cooperation in counter-terrorism and support for Syria's rebels, they have differed in their approach.
Most recently Saudi Arabia's leaders were furious when the United States pulled back from possible military action against the Syrian regime in exchange for the Russian plan to dismantle Syria's chemical arsenal.
Editorials in Arabic newspapers over the past several weeks have reflected the Gulf's concerns. In an opinion piece published in the Al-Hayat daily Arabic newspaper, columnist George Samaan wrote that if the Gulf states feel Washington is turning its back on them by improving ties with Iran, the Arab states could always look east to other countries.
Another columnist, Abdel-Rahman el-Rasahd, wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily that rather than Obama striking the Syrian regime, he struck U.S. allies by calling Iran's president and pushing Gulf states to pursue their own defense policies.
Washington-based analyst Frederic Wehrey said the recent U.S.-Iranian overtures were a "shock" to Saudi rulers..
"It's not really a question that the U.S. is pursuing relations with Iran, but that Saudi Arabia feels left out in the cold," said Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They felt "the rug had been pulled out from under them" and saw it as American "betrayal."
The kingdom easily won the Security Council seat in Thursday's vote in New York, facing no opposition because there were no contested races for the first time in several years. The Council seats are highly coveted because they give countries a strong voice in matters dealing with international peace and security, in places like Syria, Iran and North Korea, as well as the U.N.'s far-flung peacekeeping operations.
Saudi Arabia was nominated by the Asia group for an Arab seat on the council, so Asian nations would have to select a new candidate -- or candidates. The entire 193-member General Assembly would then have to hold another election to choose a new council member.
The 15-member council includes five permanent members with veto power -- and 10 nonpermanent members elected for two-year terms.