Saudi Arabia and its anti-terror alliance


On 14 December 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, called a press conference and announced the formation of a new thirty-four nation-strong Islamic military alliance that would be dedicated to countering the threat of terrorism around the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

But the reaction to this initiative was mixed.

There is currently no evidence of any blueprint as to its incorporation, operation, or evolution. Nor is it clear how anything approaching a meaningful, joint military organisation could be forged between the thirty-four countries. Embarrassingly, the foreign ministries of Pakistan and Lebanon subsequently denied that they have even signed up to any such organisation, while the Malaysian minister of defence refused to contribute troops to the venture.

This is not the first time that leaders in Saudi Arabia have made grand announcements on the hoof.

In March 2015 Saudi announced that Pakistan was joining the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which was news to the Pakistani parliament that subsequently rejected the overture. Similarly, in 2011 King Abdullah al-Saud invited Morocco and Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) without consulting any leaders involved. The fact that Muscat, the capital of Oman, a founding GCC state, would have been closer to Shanghai than Morocco’s capital Rabat, seemingly did not strike King Abdullah as problematic. The plan was abandoned in an embarrassed silence in due course.

Another basic problem for the putative alliance is that it includes neither Iraq nor Iran. These are pivotally important states that are crucial to achieving the purported aims. Without these Shia-dominated states, Saudi’s new alliance is wide open to accusations that it is sectarian in nature or even that this is little more than a new, institutionalised way to combat and contain Iran.

The scepticism pervading the announcement of this new military alliance is, therefore, unsurprising and warranted. Indeed, this announcement is better seen as political rhetoric rather than organisational reality.

The announcement attempts to signal that Saudi Arabia is eager to take the leading role fighting terrorism. This comes after years of criticism that seems to have peaked in recent months with unflattering comparisons between the actions of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State, insinuating or plainly claiming that Saudi Arabia has played a key role in the emergence of Islamic extremism in the MENA region.

Yet as fashionable a refrain as this is, it is not necessarily a statement of the obvious.

It is true that Saudi Arabia has long exported its austere, intolerant version of Islam around the world and supported armed Islamically-based resistance movements such as the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s. But it also exported its particular Islamic creed to India, Professor Bernard Hakyel notes, where little subsequent Wahhabi-based extremism has arisen.

The motivations underlying the bouts of extremism that are currently rampaging around the MENA region are complex. Though some of Saudi Arabia’s historic (or current) policies may play a role therein, it would be far too simplistic – and simply not proven thus far – to charge that the state is the root cause of modern-day Islamic extremism.

It is also possible to interpret this announcement as Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to further burnish his reputation at home and abroad. Without much pedigree, he was elevated to Minister of Defence, third in line to the throne, head of the state oil company ARAMCO, and head of the state’s most important economic council.

But despite launching a war in Yemen of unprecedented scale, it is Mohammed bin Nayef al-Saud, the Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior, who enjoys the more prominent reputation at home and abroad (particularly in Washington DC) as the architect of Saudi Arabia’s relatively successful domestic counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorist policies of the late-2000s and 2010s.

Mohammed bin Salman’s rise is a testament to his political skill among the elite in Riyadh, backed by the support of his father, the King. Without the decades of experience traditionally assumed as necessary to rule even ministries in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman must instead find other ways to reinforce his place and his legitimacy.

His unique selling point is his age with which he can signal the start of a new type of politics in the Kingdom that can chime better with Saudi’s population, two thirds of whom are under the age of thirty. A key strand of this must be reformulating the Saudi approach to terrorism and extremism – at the very least making explicitly clear his commitment to countering them effectively, no matter what their origins.

The young prince may yet forge some alliance; certainly, he has proven capable of undertaking ventures of unprecedented scale, as he demonstrated with the war in Yemen.

But this policy announcement did not get off to a promising start.

The lack of planning evidenced by just how quickly the alliance frayed within the first 24 hours carries strong hints of traditional, preparatory-work-free policy announcements that tend to not come to fruition. And on this topic above all others, neither the Saudi government nor Mohammed bin Salman can afford such befuddled, ill-conceived pronouncements.

Image: Air Strikes in Yemen, May 2015, via wikimedia commons.

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