Last night, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a coalition against terrorism. 34 countries will jointly form an Islamic military alliance, which will have its headquarters in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. As some cheer for this apparent third front against the Islamic State (next to the U.S.-led coalition and the Russian faction), the goals and means of the coalition remain dubious. So what does this coalition really mean?
Why Did the Saudis Create the Coalition?
The move to create this coalition came at the perfect time. Riyadh’s international image (and influence) has been gradually diminishing. Following the rise of the Islamic State (IS), the Saudis were immediately accused of fueling jihadists with their extreme interpretation of Islam called wahabism. The recent Saudi-led war in Yemen further exacerbated criticism about their behavior abroad. Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia’s internal human rights violations received more international publicity.
The Saudis are incredibly sensitive about their influence abroad and they must have felt the repercussions of these allegations. Their main concern is the deterioration of their prominent Islamic position. While oil interests reassure the Saudis a minimum of influence on the broader international scene, the risk of losing their place in the Islamic world is a far greater problem. Possessing the two holiest places of Islam, Mecca and Medina, and ruling with the Quran as its officious constitution are just two examples of Saudi Arabia’s allure as the most (Sunni) Islamic country in the world. It offers them a chance to influence 1,6 billion Muslims worldwide and grants them significant leverage over the dozens of countries that they live in. It is not difficult to imagine that messages of Saudi Arabia supporting terrorists, killing Yemeni civilians and suppressing its own population did not bode well among these devotees.
Taken together, the Islamic coalition against terrorism is a cunning Saudi attempt to shift attention away from its weaknesses to its strengths.
The coalition announcement comes amidst the first Saudi municipal elections in which women were elected and the peace negotiations in Yemen. These events, even if they turn out as symbolic gestures, undeniably improve the Saudi image abroad. The creation of an Islamic alliance fits that same logic. By gathering and leading the impressively large coalition, the Saudis reaffirm their Islamic leadership. It also allows them to highlight another trump card: their expertise in counterterrorism. Ever since the domestic fight against al-Qaida between 2003 and 2006, Saudi Arabia has emerged as a (if not the) world leader in such strategies. Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef has come to personify this leadership. Taken together, the Islamic coalition against terrorism is a cunning Saudi attempt to shift attention away from its weaknesses to its strengths.
Who Is (Not) in the Coalition?
The coalition gathers an impressive number of countries with a large Islamic population. These are not necessarily “Islamic countries” as Islam is often not the state religion and Islam may in fact be practiced by a minority. There are many similarities with the membership of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)1, one of the largest international bodies on Islam. Strikingly absent from the Saudi coalition are many central Asian and South Asian countries which are a part of the OIC. Accordingly, the majority of the world’s Muslim population live in these countries.
The ‘Islamic’ nature of the coalition is thus limited and, instead, it appears that the coalition has a distinct geographic focus. Middle Eastern states joined together with North- and West-African states. It should be noted that, according to the Saudi press release, ten other Islamic countries have offered their tacit support. These supposedly include Indonesia, but it remains impossible to guess the other nine. These may still include several African and Asian states. Perhaps war-torn Iraq is among them, but tries to keep its options open as it also receives support from the U.S.-coalition and Iran. Although it seems improbable, these may even include Iran – itself concerned with terrorism, but in no position to publically support a coalition led by its enemy Saudi Arabia.
The coalition contains some very interesting signatories. Palestine was likely included as a symbolic gesture to stress that the coalition members consider it a state. It is an odd inclusion that should not go unnoticed as it comes amidst increased Israeli-Palestinian tensions and a deadlocked peace process. Then there is the participation of Pakistan. Keen on keeping its relations with both the Saudis and Iran, a rift emerged over the war in Yemen 2 in the otherwise excellent relations between Riyadh and Islamabad. Pakistan now clearly signals that the ties have been mended. The participation of Lebanon is especially astonishing.3 Generally known as an Iranian ally, with its Shiite organisation Hezbollah actively supporting Assad, it seems the most unlikely of Saudi allies. An odd bunch, but apparently set on fighting a common enemy.
What Will the Coalition Fight?
Yet it remains unclear what the Saudi coalition wishes to fight precisely. When asked by the press, the Saudis stressed that it was not just about fighting IS. “Any terrorist organisation that appears in front of us” was the term used to describe the target(s) of the coalition. The large number of African states involved, suggests that IS-affiliate Boko Haram could be included. In Egypt, the affiliate called Wilayat Sinai is also very likely to be a target. But what about other groups that do not cover the category of Islamic jihadists? ‘Terrorism’ is a very ambiguous term after all, as its meaning depends on who uses it against who. The inclusion of Turkey in the coalition suggests that the Kurdish PKK, which they consider terrorist, could become a target. Similarly, for both the Saudis and Egypt, it would be convenient to try to root out the Muslim Brotherhood under the banner of an Islamic coalition. Conversely, Turkey and Qatar are considered allies of the Muslim Brotherhood – will such divides create a status quo, in which such groups are not targeted, or drive the coalition apart?
Even in the fight against IS, it remains to be seen how this coalition will perform. It contains several countries with a strong military, such as Egypt and Pakistan, but also poor and weaker ones such as Yemen. It would also be the first time such a coalition fights together. Arab countries in particular are not known to be very cohesive when it comes to military undertakings. These questions of capacity and willingness are supplemented with tactical concerns: how will the coalition coordinate with the U.S.-led coalition and with the Russian-led faction? It might very well be that Russia, on bad terms with the Saudis, responds hostile. As a result, the conflict might just exacerbate due to the rise of this coalition.
While there has been an international call for an Islamic coalition to fight IS and its affiliates, it is far from sure that this is the dream team everyone’s hoping for.
A lot remains to be seen as the Saudi-led coalition moves into action. The next coming days and weeks will show to what extent the coalition is capable of tackling terrorist threats and the Islamic State in particular. While success of the coalition can demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is still the “leader of the Islamic world”, a healthy dose of skepticism remains advisable. The fact is that, while there has been an international call for an Islamic coalition to fight IS and its affiliates, it is far from sure that this is the dream team everyone’s hoping for.