Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the offer of a seat on the UN Security Council is a warning sign that Riyadh’s dismay at Western policy towards Syria and Iran could lead it in an isolationist direction. The move comes amid wider chatter in Saudi policy circles that Arab states need to adopt a more activist and independent stance on regional issues.

On 18 October, a Saudi foreign ministry statement said Riyadh was refusing to accept the seat on the 15-member Security Council despite being elected to hold it, citing the UN’s allowing of the Syrian regime “to kill and burn its people”.

The decision stunned the diplomatic community and jarred with the traditional low-key diplomatic language deployed by Saudi officials. However, it had been telegraphed by veteran Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who on 7 October announced he would not deliver a planned statement at the UN General Assembly, in protest against the UN’s perceived leniency towards Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Initial reaction in the West suggested Riyadh’s move could backfire. The danger is that the prize of instant media attention on the kingdom’s displeasure with the UN will be quickly dissipated, leaving the Security Council bereft of the most powerful Arab voice at a critical time in the Middle East’s history.

Saudi policymakers clearly see things differently. With Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani establishing contacts with a White House that is out of sync with Saudi opinion, they feel the time has come for a major break with diplomatic protocol. Recent comments from an influential Saudi foreign policy adviser, Nawaf Obaid, highlight this shift in thinking.

In an opinion editorial issued on the Al-Monitor website the day before Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the seat, Obaid said it was time for Arab states to “assume responsibility for their own region and work together to increase their collective security”, shifting away from Western dependency and toward more local interventionism. “Through ever-growing Saudi leadership, a revitalised Arab alliance can and must rise to the challenge and prepare for a new paradigm in the security of the Arab world,” he wrote.

The kingdom’s controversial UN move may come to be seen as an ineffective display of pique. It may also be the starting gun on a radical shift in policy that will reverberate across the region.