Last week, Saudi Arabia announced plans to form a 34-member anti-terrorism bloc composed of Muslim nations, including Egypt, Afghanistan, and Syria, to combat extremists such as the Islamic State. But Saudi Arabia’s own terror-spreading activities, its exclusion of Shia states from the coalition, and its unlawful military actions in Yemen are compromising the integrity of that pledge.
Exactly what role the coalition Saudi Arabia is putting together will play is presently unknown. The move comes following criticism from Western nations that Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations in the Middle East have not been active enough in combating extremist movements. Such criticism came most recently from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who called on Saudi Arabia and Qatar to commit ground troops in the battle against ISIS at Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate.
Not only has Saudi Arabia not been particularly active in combating terror, it has actually funded a great deal of it. While she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton called Saudi Arabia “a critical source of terrorist funding.” Through state propaganda, Saudi Arabia has also spread a great deal of radical Islamic ideology, including to American Muslim communities, according to a report by the democracy-focused think tank Freedom House.
Saudi Arabia also has an abysmal human rights record, which includes severe restrictions on peaceful expression. Just this week, a writer in Saudi Arabia, Zuhair Kutbi, was sentenced to four years in prison for writing in favor of political reform, reports BBC News. But because Saudi Arabia is a longstanding U.S. ally, there has been no meaningful reprimand against the state for its actions.
Saudi Arabia is among the most, if not the most, fundamentalist and radical Islamic states in the world. In fact, Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative political manifestation of Sunni Islam that is the law of the land in Saudi Arabia, is also the strain of Islam believed in and practiced by the Islamic State and other terror organizations, according to the New Statesmen.
Given this history, many commentators are skeptical of Saudi Arabia’s true intent in forming the coalition. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Davidson, a professor at Durham University specializing in Gulf affairs, believed that forming the bloc is a ploy for positive press by Saudi Arabia in the wake of terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino by suspects who spent time there.
“The constituent members of the new coalition mostly fall on the Sunni side of the sectarian fault line and are themselves deeply divided on a number of key policy areas… The probability that it can become an effective international security alliance is therefore almost zero.”
Notably absent from the Saudi-led coalition was Iran and Shia-dominated parts of Iraq, as well as Israel. Salman Rafi writes at Asia Times that the coalition is a way for Saudi Arabia to take the lead in regional security away from Iran.
While announcing its plans for a coalition against ISIS, Saudi Arabia has been waging a campaign against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, launching air strikes in the region since March. On Monday, Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired out of the Yemeni capital Sana’a, which has been held by Houthi rebels since 2014. According to the Independent, some 60 civilians have been killed by Saudi Arabia-backed air strikes in regions that, according to Human Rights Watch, had no military significance.
“Their disregard for the safety of civilians is appalling,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of HRW. “How many civilians will die in unlawful airstrikes in Yemen before the coalition and its US ally investigate what went wrong and who is responsible?”
All the fighting comes at a time when leaders from Saudi Arabia and the Houthi were supposed to be undergoing peace talks in Switzerland, according to Yahoo News. Nothing came of those talks. Meanwhile, thousands of people have been killed in the ongoing Yemeni struggle and, according to the UN, as much as 80 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian aid.
At the same time, the falling price of oil is threatening to undermine the stability of Saudi Arabia, according to the Financial Times. And that stability is Saudi Arabia’s chief asset in the war on terror as neighboring states succumb to extremist violence.
“Whatever you think about the policies of the government, the stability of Saudi Arabia really matters,” said a senior western diplomat based in the kingdom’s capital of Riyadh.
As the price of oil falls, Saudi Arabia is enacting austerity measures, including cutting public spending by 25 percent, that may lead to further instability. But Saudi Arabia, driven by a younger population, is also working toward increasing non-oil revenues. Financial Times reports that despite Saudi Arabia’s free speech restrictions, active social media use is “growing popular awareness of corruption and the excessive spending of the royal elite, which could derail attempts to impose more austerity.”
[Photo by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP]