Saudi Arabia’s attempt to form an umbrella coalition of Muslim nations to combat terrorism is reviving its decades-old failed aspirations to lead the Muslim world while also risking wider Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife, observers say.
Announcing the new 34-member coalition, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir said Tuesday that the alliance would take a “two-track” approach in battling terrorism: militarily and ideologically.
Observers say the second track – the ideological fight at the pulpit – may be the tallest task. Some question whether Saudi Arabia can lead a wider ideological and tactical war against a form of extremism that its own policies have allowed to expand.
More than 2,500 Saudis have joined the self-described Islamic State (IS), according to analysts, while Tashfeen Malik, the wife of the Muslim couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., two weeks ago, had spent extensive time in Saudi Arabia and may have been radicalized while there.
Voice of Islam?
Under the umbrella of the new coalition, Saudi Arabia is looking for Muslim states to speak in one voice and counter terrorist narratives on a grand scale.
Observers say such measures will likely include gathering influential imams from across the Muslim world to issue joint statements and fatwas condemning groups such as IS; using returning fighters as cautionary tales; and reforming Islamic schools or mosques that may espouse extremist dogma.
“In Saudi Arabia, counter-terrorism has never been just a security operation, it has always been a public awareness campaign where they attempt to discredit terrorist narrative, their ideology,” says Fahad Nazer, former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington and an analyst at Virginia-based intelligence firm JTG Inc. “Saudi is looking to replicate its efforts in countries which may not otherwise have the means or funds to do so.
Yet can Saudi Arabia truly present an alternative to ISIS ideology? For decades it has wielded control over religious institutions yet failed to curb extremism, while spreading ultra-conservative Wahabi Islam that has given rise to jihadism.
“There is a sense among many that ISIS is Saudi Arabia’s main ideology on steroids,” says Ebrahim Moosa, professor of Islamic Studies at Notre Dame University.
However, he says, officials in Riyadh are seizing on the coalition as a chance to turn around what some see as decades of sowing hardline Salafist movements.
“There are many Wahabi clerics that are anti-ISIS and anti-Al Qaeda that can be drafted in the theological war against terrorism – and this is Saudi Arabia’s chance to prove it,” Mr. Moosa says.
Saudi Arabia has attempted to organize Muslim states in the past. In 1969, then-King Faisal bin Abdulaziz founded the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an over-arching committee of 57 Muslim states dedicated to further Muslim causes and speak as the collective voice of the Muslim world.
The OIC has noticeably failed in the past to rein in sectarian tensions or present a counter-narrative to jihadis such as IS. It is this very lack of an authoritative voice, free of politics, that has created the ideological vacuum allowing groups like ISIS to emerge.
In practical terms, there remains the question of the members’ appetite for sending the ground troops needed to uproot IS strongholds.
Jubeir stressed Tuesday that “nothing is off the table” in the coalition’s military options against Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
In contrast to the airstrikes-only approach of the US coalition against IS, Saudi palace officials say their coalition will implicitly provide the option of ground troops – Sunni Muslim ground-troops – to fight IS in its strongholds in Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere.
President Barack Obama, in defending his anti-IS strategy, has long called for alliance partners in the region to supply the “boots on the ground” necessary to augment American air power.
But Saudi Arabia and many of its Arabian Gulf allies such as Qatar and the UAE are bogged down in Yemen, where they are trying to oust Shiite Houthi rebels and reinstate a friendly regime.
“The priority right now in Saudi Arabia is Yemen,” says Nazer. “Can they do both at the same time? That has yet to be seen.”
Coalition or crusade?
With a vague mission statement and lack of Shiite members in the new coalition, attention has turned to its potential impact on Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife.
In a press conference in Paris, Jubeir stressed that despite excluding Shiite-majority states such as Iran or Iraq, the new coalition is “neither Shiite nor Sunni.”
Yet in a press statement Tuesday, Saudi military spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ahmed Asiri took a jab at Iran – saying the best way Tehran could serve the new coalition would be to stop supporting “terrorist militias” in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.
The sectarian overtones of the coalition have already given pause to supposed members, including Lebanon. On Tuesday, its foreign ministry, which is led by a sometimes-ally of the Shiite group Hezbollah, denied any knowledge of the coalition. Earlier that same day, Lebanon’s pro-Saudi prime minister, Tammam Salam, welcomed the initiative.
Pakistan, itself host to a sizeable Shiite minority, also distanced itself from the alliance: Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry expressed “surprise” at its inclusion in the coalition.
“If the Saudis are going to try to make this coalition a Sunni force, an anti-Iran force, this will only cause more instability and violence in the region,” says Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer and director of projects at security firm Soufan Group.
“It is just not clear yet what their intentions are.”