By Angus McDowall
RIYADH, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia, in a display of anger at the failure of the international community to end the war in Syria and act on other Middle East issues, said on Friday it would not take up its seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The kingdom condemned what it called international double standards on the Middle East and demanded reforms in the Security Council, which has been at odds on ways to end the fighting in Syria.
Unlike in the past, when Riyadh's frustration was mostly directed at Russia and China, it is now also aimed at Washington, its oldest international ally, which has pursued policies since the Arab Spring that Saudi rulers have bitterly opposed.
Citing the Security Council's failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, take steps to end Syria's civil war and stop nuclear proliferation in the region, Riyadh said the body had instead perpetuated conflicts and grievances.
"Saudi Arabia ... is refraining from taking membership of the U.N. Security Council until it has reformed so it can effectively and practically perform its duties and discharge its responsibilities in maintaining international security and peace," said a Foreign Ministry statement.
France, a Security Council permanent member, said it understood Saudi concerns. "We share their frustration after the paralysis of the Security Council," a foreign ministry spokesman said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was surprised at Saudi Arabia's move and puzzled by its accusations against the Security Council. "With its decision, Saudi Arabia has removed itself from the collective work of the U.N. Security Council to support international peace and security," the ministry said.
A decision of such magnitude would have to have been taken by King Abdullah or Crown Prince Salman, said a Saudi analyst who asked not to be named.
"Saudi Arabia has been working on (getting onto the Security Council) for the last three years. They trained diplomats, male and female, the cream of the Foreign Ministry, our best talented youths. Then somebody made the decision suddenly to pull out," he said.
The conservative Islamic kingdom has traditionally avoided big political statements, preferring to wield its influence as the world's top oil exporter, birthplace of Islam and chief Arab ally of the United States behind closed doors.
However, immersed in what they see as a pivotal struggle for the future of the Middle East with arch rival Iran, Saudi rulers are furious that the U.N. has taken no action over the Syrian conflict where they and Tehran back opposing sides.
Russia and China have repeatedly blocked resolutions supported by Saudi Arabia to toughen action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces' assault on rebel-held areas has been described by the kingdom as "genocide".
Blood-drenched images of Syria's civil war, in which more than 100,000 have died and in which millions have been displaced, are aired daily on Saudi news and the kingdom has backed the rebels with arms and money.
Saudi anger boiled over after Assad escaped U.S.-led military strikes in response to a poison gas attack in Damascus by agreeing to give up his chemical arsenal.
"There are people being killed every day, every hour. And the Muslim world is very angry because we don't see any action or any strong stance from the Security Council towards this situation," Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the kingdom's quasi-parliament, the Shoura Council, told Reuters.
The Security Council has been split on how to handle the civil war in Syria, with Western powers pushing for stronger sanctions and Russia vetoing resolutions to that end.
Saudi concerns that the U.S. decision to avoid strikes demonstrated weakness were underscored by signs of a tentative reconciliation between Washington and Tehran, something Riyadh fears may lead to a "grand bargain" on Iran's nuclear programme that leaves Gulf Arab states at a disadvantage.
In an earlier sign of mounting Saudi anger, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal two weeks ago cancelled his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in what a diplomatic source said was a response to international inaction on Middle East issues.
It has been sharply critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the Arab Spring, not only on Syria but also in Egypt, where Washington cut off aid to the military after it ousted a Muslim Brotherhood government that Riyadh saw as a threat.
In an interview with pan-Arab daily al-Hayat on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.N. Abdullah al-Muallami described U.S. policy on Egypt as "arm-twisting".
Egypt's foreign minister said relations were in "turmoil" after Washington moved to curtail military aid to Cairo in a row over the way the army ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.
Saudi Arabia, a founding member of the U.N., was one of five countries elected by the body's General Assembly on Thursday to serve a two-year term on the 15-member U.N. Security Council.
The council, which has powers to authorise military action, impose sanctions and set up peacekeeping operations, has 10 rotating members. The U.S., China, Russia, France and Britain are permanent members which wield a veto.
Russia said it hoped Asian countries would swiftly select another candidate in place of Saudi Arabia for election to the council, but it was not clear whether such a procedure would be widely accepted given the lack of historical precedent.
In a single previous example of a council member walking away from the body, the Soviet Union in 1950 boycotted its permanent seat for half a year in protest at Taiwan's occupation of the Chinese place instead of Beijing.
Alongside its anger over inaction on Syria, Saudi Arabia also cited the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the failure to resolve the Palestinian crisis as reasons for declining its first ever seat on the Security Council.
The Saudis have said they were very disappointed at Obama's failure to push Israel to end settlement building in the West Bank and agree to a Palestinian state after he was elected in 2008.
The reference to proliferation appeared aimed at both Iran, which Western and Gulf Arab states fear is using a civilian nuclear programme as cover to develop atomic weapons, and at Israel, which has long been believed to possess a nuclear bomb.
Iran denies it is seeking atomic weapons capability. Israel has never commented on accusations it has the bomb.
Riyadh has previously pressed Washington to "cut off the head of the snake" by striking Iranian nuclear facilities.