On 14 December, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and defence minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is to all intents and purposes the country’s strongman, announced in a rare press conference in Riyadh the formation of a Saudi-led anti-terrorism coalition of 34 Islamic countries. The next day, in Paris, Saudi foreign minister Adel Jubeir met reporters to give additional details about this unprecedented initiative.
In the past few months, Saudi Arabia has increasingly been under pressure from adversaries and allied governments alike, notably the U.S., to take more active action against Sunni jihadis in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. The western press abounds with negative articles about the kingdom. Column after column points out that the Wahhabi doctrine, which is the basis of the Saudi regime, is akin to the ideology of the Islamic State (ISIS). One commentator boldly asserted that Saudi Arabia was “an ISIS That Has Made It”.
Saudi Arabia has felt the heat, and the rising number of beheadings in the country, as well as the death toll of the Saudi bombings in Yemen, have done little to improve the kingdom’s image among its western allies.
The recent initiative appears to be a response to this, and the published list of collaborating countries is remarkable; for any country to be able to align 34 members in a coalition is no small achievement. But behind the projected image of a united front of Islamic countries, which have purportedly rallied behind the Saudi flag, the reality is far less impressive.
Not surprisingly, Iran, Iraq, and Syria are absent from this list for two obvious reasons. From the Saudi perspective, these Shia-dominated countries are at best unreliable and, at worst, enemies. Besides, the stated aim—to rally the Sunni world at large against jihadis—ensures that no Shia country should be included. Evidently, support from the Sunni states in the fight against ISIS will be difficult to garner if the coalition appears to have the support of Shia states. This is due to the fact that the very success of ISIS is because it is fighting Shia militias or Assad’s Alawi army.
Equally unsurprising is the refusal of some important Muslim countries to join the new grouping. One is Algeria, which has political differences with Saudi Arabia. Since Algeria’s independence, and especially under Houari Boumedienne’s presidency (1965-1978), the country was promoting socialism and non-alignment, while Saudi Arabia was a conservative, pro-western monarchy. At the time, Algeria was allied with Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and others.
The exclusion of Oman is equally interesting. It is a sultanate at odds with its powerful neighbour on a range of issues, mostly over the war in Yemen. Oman has refused to join the 10-country coalition led by Riyadh against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion; its offer to act as an honest broker between the warring factions was scornfully rejected by Saudi Arabia. The bombing of the residence of the Omani Ambassador in Sanaa by Saudi planes on 19 October, 2015 did not improve the already tense relations
Other countries are retreating from the coalition too. Within a day of the Saudi communiqué, three countries on the list— Pakistan, Lebanon, and Malaysia —denied being consulted beforehand. Indonesia, which was quoted in the communiqué as eager to join at a later stage, quickly denied any such plans.
In Lebanon, the prime minister verbally agreed without consulting with the ministry of foreign affairs. More importantly, he did not consult the Iranian-backed Hezbollah—two of his cabinet ministers belong to Hezbollah, Hussein Hajj Hassan, who holds the industry portfolio, and Mohammad Fneich, who is in charge of parliamentary affairs.
The case of Pakistan deserves some special attention: it is the second time in less than a year that this country, a long-time and close Saudi ally, has declined to be part of a Saudi-led military alliance. In April 2015, Saudi Arabia listed Pakistan as a member of the coalition against the Houthis in Yemen. A Pakistani flag even figured prominently in the alliance’s media centre. It took a vote from the Pakistani Parliament to clarify its refusal to be dragged into the Yemeni war.
For a country whose army has long been associated with Saudi Arabia’s security, and whose budget largely depends on the Gulf’s financial support, the meaning of the repeated rebuffs is unmistakable: Pakistan will not be drawn into conflicts whose agenda it cannot control, even at the risk of incurring its benefactors’ wrath and likely financial retaliations.
These refusals from key potential members of the coalition have turned the initiative into a double-edged sword now hanging directly over the Saudi crown. Instead of deflecting American and western criticism of Saudi inaction against Sunni jihadism, and asserting Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the Sunni Muslim world, the hastily-announced endeavour has been weakened by the swift denials by would-be members.
And after such a high-profile announcement, if, as is widely expected, this coalition of the unwilling doesn’t prove effective in combatting jihadi terrorism, Saudi credibility will be severely damaged—at a time when it is desperate to prove its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the U.S., whose support remains as vital as ever for the survival of the Saudi monarchy.
The real effects of this coalition on the ground remain to be seen, as the assistance its members give to one another will be on a “case-by-case basis,” the Saudi foreign minister said. Clearly then, whatever else the coalition turns out to be, it is not the advent of an ‘Islamic NATO’.
Olivier Da Lage is editor in chief at Radio France International. He contributes to Gateway House in his personal capacity.
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