LONDON -- Saudi Arabia stunned the United Nations and even some of its own diplomats on Friday by taking the unprecedented step of rejecting a highly coveted seat on the Security Council it had won for the first time just a day earlier.
The sudden reversal was a decision made at the highest levels in the Saudi monarchy. It appeared to reflect a deep-seated anger over what the monarchy regards as a failure by the Security Council to deal effectively with the major problems in the Middle East: the Syrian war, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival.
The decision, made known in a statement issued by the Saudi Foreign Ministry and carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, seemed to suddenly invalidate extensive planning by Saudi diplomats who had expressed excitement that their country was about to assume such a prominent position.
At the least, the rejection revealed a sharp internal divide in Saudi Arabia's hierarchy over how the oil-rich kingdom should be wielding its influence in the world.
"The manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities toward preserving international peace and security as required," the Foreign Ministry statement said.
The Saudi monarchy has expressed growing exasperation at the Security Council's record on the conflict in Syria, where Russia and China, two of the five permanent members, have blocked Western efforts, broadly supported by Saudi Arabia, to pressure President Bashar al-Assad. The other permanent members are the United States, Britain and France.
The Saudi statement came a day after Chad, Chile, Lithuania, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia were elected to seats on the 15-member Security Council for a two-year term starting in January. They replace Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan and Togo. The seats are prized because they give officials access to high-level diplomacy and offer a rare opportunity to influence events.
Diplomats at the United Nations said they were taken aback by the Saudi move and could not recall a previous time when a member state elected to one of the nonpermanent seats had rejected it.
Saudi officials did not explain why such a reversal had been decided on with such short notice. But many Saudi diplomats and political observers appear to have been shocked by the decision.
The Saudis had assembled a team of seasoned diplomats in preparation for their new role, and the Saudi political elite had seemed thrilled at the prospect of a shift toward a more assertive diplomatic stance.
Late Thursday, the spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Osama Nugali, forwarded a message on his Twitter account celebrating the kingdom's election to the Security Council and written by Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent journalist with links to the ruling elite. Many other prominent Saudis also forwarded the message, which congratulated the kingdom for winning a seat it had sought for more than two years with the help of "a team of the best Saudi diplomats to represent the kingdom."
"This is very bad for the image of the country," said one Saudi political insider, who, like several others, requested anonymity because the decision was assumed to be by the king, whose judgment is rarely questioned in public. "It's as if someone woke up in the night and made this decision. It would be one thing if the kingdom had a plan for how to act outside of the Security Council. But I don't think there is a plan."
But some others in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, said they were not entirely surprised, given the kingdom's long ambivalence about assuming a position that would strain friendships and alliances, particularly given the high profile and volatility of the Security Council's recent decisions.
"The Saudis no doubt quickly realized that being on the U.N.S.C. would mean they could no longer pursue their traditional back-seat and low-key policies and therefore decided to give it up," said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and an authority on Saudi Arabia.
"Regardless of the short-term costs, a seat on the U.N.S.C. may have also meant that Saudi Arabia would be more constrained in backing the Syrian opposition," Mr. Haykel said in an e-mail.
It is unclear whether the Saudi decision is reversible. Also unclear is whether the 193-member United Nations General Assembly needs to convene again for a special election to replace Saudi Arabia on the Security Council.
The council has met before without a full membership. Diplomats recalled that in 1950, the Soviet Union refused to sit at the council table, but the U.S.S.R. did not repudiate its seat and the council still convened with 14 members.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, stopping to talk with reporters after a meeting, said he was aware of press reports on the Saudi decision. "But i would like to caution that I have not received any official notification in this regard," he said in remarks posted on the United Nations Web site.
Mr. Ban said the United Nations looked forward to addressing the Middle East conflicts raised by the Saudis. But Mr. Ban declined to answer whether he would personally contact King Abdullah. "I will just very closely follow how Member States will decide on this matter," he said.
Russia was sharply critical of the Saudi gesture. "We are surprised by Saudi Arabia's unprecedented decision," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement from Moscow carried by news agencies. "The kingdom's arguments arouse bewilderment, and the criticism of the U.N. Security Council in the context of the Syria conflict is particularly strange."
The United States, one of Saudi Arabia's strongest Western allies, also appeared to be caught off guard. On Thursday evening, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, issued a statement congratulating the five new nonpermanent members. Officials at the United States Mission to the United Nations had no immediate comment.
Saudi Arabia's rejection of the seat was a sharp departure from its preference for quiet diplomacy to advance its aims, particularly at a time of great regional uncertainty, with the civil war in Syria affecting neighboring countries and with the United States pursuing what seems to be a cautious and untested opening toward Iran, the Saudis' main regional adversary.
The Saudi decision seemed all the more surprising because its efforts to seek representation had been taken by experts as a reflection of the kingdom's wish to be more assertive in resolving the Syrian civil war and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah Y. al-Mouallimi, was clearly elated after the General Assembly vote on Thursday.
"We take this election very seriously as a responsibility to be able to contribute to this very important forum to peace and security of the world," he told reporters. "Our election today is a reflection of a longstanding policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes by peaceful means."
The statement on Friday struck a far different tone, calling for changes to enhance the Security Council's contribution to peace. It did not say what those should entail.
Saudi Arabia supports the rebellion against Mr. Assad and has criticized the council in the past over what it describes as an inadequate response to turmoil in the Middle East. In an apparent display of displeasure last month, the Saudi foreign minister canceled a speech to the General Assembly. It was the first time the Saudis had done so.
The Saudi Press Agency quoted Friday's foreign ministry statement as saying, "First of all, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is pleased to extend its sincere thanks and deep gratitude to all countries that have given their confidence to elect it as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the next two years.
"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a founding member of the United Nations, is proud of its full and permanent commitment to the purposes and principles of the charter of the United Nations, believing that commitment of all member states, honestly, truthfully and accurately, as agreed upon and stipulated in the charter is the real guarantee for world security and peace."
But the statement went on to accuse the Security Council of enabling Mr. Assad to press his military campaign against rebels with impunity, including through the use of chemical weapons. It also accused the body of failing to find a "just and lasting solution" to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In an apparent reference to Israel's presumed arsenal of nuclear weapons, the statement also criticized the Security Council for failing to free the Middle East of "all weapons of mass destruction."
Turning to Syria, it said, "Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stands idly, without applying deterrent sanctions against the Damascus regime, is also irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities."
"Accordingly, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, based on its historical responsibilities toward its people, Arab and Islamic nations as well as toward the peoples aspiring for peace and stability all over the world, announces its apology for not accepting membership of the Security Council until the council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security," the statement said.
The development comes as international weapons inspectors inside Syria seek to dismantle its stocks of chemical weapons under a deal brokered last month by Russia and the United States to avert American military action in reprisal for poison gas attacks on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21.
Additionally, a Syrian official said on Thursday that long-postponed peace negotiations under international auspices would be held in Geneva in November.
Alan Cowell reported from London, Rick Gladstone from New York and Robert F. Worth from Washington.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 18, 2013 2:01 PM