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Is Saudi Arabia building an 'Islamic NATO?'

Frustrated with weak efforts from the US-led international community, Saudi Arabia has proposed an Islamic coalition in the hopes of defeating terrorism.
Saudi soldiers march during Abdullah's Sword military drill in Hafar Al-Batin, near the border with Kuwait April 29, 2014.  REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: MILITARY) - RTR3N4CO

In Riyadh, shortly after midnight on Dec. 14, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia Prince Mohammed bin Salman surprised the world when he held a press conference — his first — in which he announced the formation of a new Islamic military coalition against terrorism. Predicated on the premise that Muslims have suffered more from terrorism than any other group, Mohammed argued that Islamic countries needed to transform the unilateral counterterrorism campaigns currently being carried out by more than 50 countries around the world into a collective effort to vanquish this “disease.”

While the timing of the announcement might lead some in the West to assume that it was in response to increasing calls from the international community — and especially the United States — for Islamic countries to "do more" in the fight against the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State (IS), Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries may have a different rationale.

From their vantage point, this coalition might in fact be a reaction to what they perceive as the international community's (under US leadership) largely ineffective campaign against IS, which in their eyes, lacks a clear strategy and resolve and neglects the two main factors that have allowed IS to spread: Bashar al-Assad’s brutalization of Syria’s Sunni majority and Iran’s support of Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

It is not clear at this point whether the ultimate objective of this Saudi initiative is to create the Islamic equivalent of NATO, a formal military alliance with binding commitments from its member states. Nevertheless, the announcement is consistent with two prior decisions that suggested that while it is not rejecting the security framework agreed upon by the victorious powers following World War II and which became institutionalized in the United Nations Security Council, Saudi Arabia may be looking to lead alternative security frameworks.

The first decision was Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the United Nations Security Council seat it had won in the fall of 2013. The second was its announcement in March of this year that it would be leading an Arab military coalition in Yemen to restore the internationally recognized president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who had been ousted from the capital Sanaa by Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in late 2014. Taken in total, these three decisions — the rejection of the Security Council seat, launching a military campaign in Yemen and leading an Islamic coalition against terrorism — indicate that there has been a paradigm shift in Saudi Arabia: It is one that has redefined how the kingdom views its role in the Middle East and broader Islamic world as well as how it views the role of the traditional guarantor of stability in the region, the United States.

For much of its modern history, Saudi Arabia has been known as a status quo state — one that used its oil wealth and eminent status in the Islamic world to mediate between warring countries and sometimes between warring factions within a state. Its objective has often been to maintain the political order through quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy. However, the unprecedented turmoil that has gripped the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and which led to the ascendance of Saudi Arabia's biggest regional foe, Iran, and the emergence of its sworn enemy, IS, has compelled Saudi policymakers to adopt a more assertive foreign policy. This new Saudi thinking is also a response to the perception that the United States has elected to disengage from the Middle East and that even when it did decide to act, it seemed to lack a clear strategy; its critics argue that one example of this was its airstrikes against IS strongholds in Syria and Iraq. 

While the Saudis still favor American weapons and are continuing to share intelligence and consult regularly with the United States, they seem to have concluded that the United States has differing threat perceptions than theirs. Saudi Arabia’s two most pressing foreign policy priorities, the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, do not seem to be US priorities. Just as importantly, as the Saudis continued to repeatedly express their concern about what they deemed to be Iran’s destructive role in the region, the United States signed a historic nuclear agreement with Iran that could pave the way for reintegrating it into the international community.

While the United States is providing vital intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, the Saudis launched this unprecedented campaign after it became clear that the international community had no interest in taking forceful measures to reverse the Houthis’ military gains. The Saudis have succeeded in convincing 10 other Arab counties to support the ongoing campaign. The Yemen campaign is the ultimate expression of Saudi Arabia’s new, more assertive and independent foreign policy posture.

Saudi Arabia stunned the international community when it declined its first-ever seat at the United Nations Security Council two years ago. The Saudis issued a strongly worded statement that maintained that the ongoing carnage in Syria and the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians were “irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities.” While out of character at the time, the decision, much like the Arab and Islamic military coalitions since, suggests that the Saudis had become increasingly frustrated with the US-led international community and had elected to forge their own alliances to protect their national interests.

In the days following the Dec. 14 announcement, Saudi civilian and military officials provided some details about the objectives of this coalition. While Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir suggested at a press conference in Paris that a joint force acting under the command of the operations center in Riyadh was a possibility, Saudi military spokesman Ahmed Assiri was later quoted as saying that the coalition would be more focused on “coordinating” its members ongoing efforts rather than establishing a joint force. However both Jubeir and Mohammed were unequivocal in saying that the coalition was not predicated on sectarian considerations, implying that sect would not determine the identity of its members or the terrorist groups that would be targeted by it. The defense minister made clear that the coalition would not only target Sunni terrorist groups such as IS but that it would go after all militant groups that are destabilizing the region. Both he and Jubeir also maintained that the member countries would have discretion in terms of the level of support they provide the coalition. Mohammed also stressed that the coalition would consult with the “legitimate” authorities in the countries involved and that it would coordinate with the international community. While these remarks suggested that the Islamic coalition would complement the US-led effort against IS, the notion that it may be intended to supplant it should be given consideration.

In the weeks and months to come, more details should emerge about what the mandate of the coalition is and how it is supposed to operate. Somewhat ominously, some reports in the Western press have suggested that officials from some of the key member countries have expressed surprise at their inclusion in the coalition. Nevertheless the Saudis did follow through with their decision to reject the UN seat and have managed to sustain the military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen for nine months, defying conventional wisdom in the process. Whether the Saudis will succeed in leading an even bigger coalition to fight the international community’s most daunting challenge — religiously inspired terrorism — remains to be seen.