December 21, 2015 12:30:55 am
What has Saudi Arabia announced?
On December 15, Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that 34 mainly Muslim nations from Asia and Africa have formed a military alliance to co-ordinate efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. The Prince said the counter-terrorism coalition was the outcome of “the Islamic world’s vigilance in fighting this disease (of terrorism) which has damaged the Islamic world…” The Saudi statement said another 10 “Islamic countries”, which includes Indonesia — whose Muslim population of over 200 million is the world’s largest — have expressed their support.
So what is the problem with this?
To begin with, the two big Shia majority nations — Iran and Iraq — are absent, making this a primarily Sunni grouping. This raises the question whether Riyadh has only Shia groups such as Hezbollah or the Zaydi Houthis in Yemen — whom its air force is already bombing — in its crosshairs. Saudi Arabia is also already part of the US-led air campaign in Syria whose target ostensibly is the Islamic State, but Riyadh’s ultimate goal remains the removal of the Iran-backed Alawite Shia President Bashar al-Assad. Afghanistan, one of the hotspots of global terrorism, is not part of the coalition, and it is not clear how any operation that is not covert can be carried out within that country without getting its government on board. The same holds true for operations in Iraq.
Beyond stating that the alliance would have its command centre in Riyadh, the Saudi announcement was sketchy, and no details of military commitment by partners were available. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir subsequently said countries would be free to decide the extent of their participation. It was not clear whether troops would be deployed on the ground, what the likely area of operations might be, or whether there would be coordination with western powers already operating in many terror-hit regions. The first reaction from Pakistan — a crucial player if the alliance is to have any success — was of surprise; only later did Islamabad confirm its participation, even though it still said it was awaiting details. Malaysia and Lebanon too indicated that the alliance was news to them. Some members, such as Gabon, Benin and Togo, are not even Muslim-majority. All this raises questions about the seriousness of the alliance and the commitment of its purported participants, let alone their military capabilities.
But assuming that the operational details can be worked out, is the idea sound in principle?
Much of the international scepticism arises from the Saudi record in matters related to terrorism. Saudi money has for years helped spread the extremist Wahhabi ideology, which has fuelled global terror. To many commentators, at both ideological and functional levels, there is no difference between the Saudi regime and IS – Riyadh is “just a Daesh that has made it”. As the Iraq expert, Hayder al-Khoei of Chatham House London, tweeted: “Saudi Arabia heads a UN human rights council panel and now it leads an alliance against terrorism. This joke doesn’t need a punchline.”
Then, there is the question of defining terrorism itself. The Saudi interpretation extends the definition to even non-violent actors — a recent law defines peaceful opposition activists and reformers, whether online or in the street, as suspected “terrorists”, and a security risk. Amnesty International has expressed concerns that the Saudis could use this coalition to further restrict human rights in the name of fighting terrorism.
So why has Saudi Arabia made this announcement?
There is increasing pressure on Muslim and Arab states to do more against Daesh. As more and more commentators call out the Saudi duplicity in encouraging the Wahhabi clerics, Western governments are under pressure to explain the relationship with Riyadh — and Saudi Arabia could be trying to re-enter the good books of the West. Some commentators have also linked the announcement to the young Prince Salman’s domestic compulsions, and a need to consolidate his hold over the regime’s levers of power. Finally, there is Riyadh’s rivalry with Tehran — the Saudis fear that the imminent lifting of nuclear-related sanctions will boost Iran’s position in the region, and could be trying to block the expansion of Iranian influence, both in the Middle East as well as in places like Nigeria and Sudan.
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