The announcement that Saudi Arabia is forming an Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism is consistent with the Kingdom’s longstanding efforts to mobilize the Islamic states to address critical global issues. It also reflects Riyadh’s own priorities and concerns.
Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Salman announced the new alliance in a rare press conference. The new organization has 34 members, and will have a secretariat and operations center in Riyadh to coordinate counterterrorism operations. Saudi Arabia is already leading an Islamic coalition fighting to restore the elected government of Yemen to power against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Something for everyone?
Saudi Arabia has sponsored the development of Islamic institutions to push Islamic causes since the 1960s. Then-King Faysal bin Abd al Aziz believed that the Islamic states should unite to oppose international communism and Soviet aggression, as well as to back Palestinian independence. Faysal created the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Muslim World League. He sponsored the first Islamic summit in Morocco to press for an end to Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1969.
The new Saudi effort is designed to appeal to the same constituencies as Faysal’s efforts both in the Islamic world and inside the Kingdom. An effective Islamic counterterrorism military entente could mobilize Islamic states against al-Qaida and the Islamic State. It could also be a platform for more effective counter measures in the ideological battle by mobilizing Islamic clerics. It will also be popular at home with Saudis who want a more energetic foreign policy.
The Saudis undoubtedly also hope the announcement will help silence criticism that the Saudis and their allies are doing too little against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq because of their commitment in Yemen. President Obama implicitly made that criticism in his speech at the Pentagon this week.
The new organization does not include Iran or Iraq. Riyadh sees Iran as a patron state sponsor of terrorism for backing the Houthis, Hezbollah and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. The Saudis accuse Iran of promoting terrorism in Bahrain and other Gulf states. The Iraqi government, for its part, is regarded as a pawn of Tehran. For Riyadh, the battle against Iran is as important as the battle against al-Qaida and Islamic State, perhaps even more important.
Several other countries are notably absent from the Saudi-led alliance. Oman refused to join the war against the Houthis last March and it is not among the new allies. Oman is determined to try to broker sectarian reconciliation among Sunni and Shia states, and brokered the ceasefire in Yemen that started this week.
The largest Muslim country in Africa, Algeria, is also not a member. Algeria has been fighting al-Qaida for over a decade and has the largest and most modern army in Africa. Its absence weakens the clout of the alliance.
Afghanistan and the Central Asian states are also absent. Afghanistan is at the front of the war against Islamic extremists. Pakistan and Bangladesh are traditional Saudi allies and members of the new alliance, although Pakistan pointedly refused to fight in Yemen against the Houthis.
Prince Muhammad bin Salman probably also wants the alliance to bolster his credentials as a military leader. Some Saudis have had second thoughts about the Yemen war, which has not produced the decisive victory promised early on. A high-profile diplomatic and military event may quiet those doubts, at least for a time.
Of course what really matters is creating an effective alliance. The Arab world has been talking about military alliances since the 1940s, but has yet to produce a serious arrangement. This latest move may be a step in that direction.