Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

The Saudi-Led Sunni Alliance: A Dangerous Stunt?

By Dr. Theodore Karasik
January 20, 2016

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the kingdom’s Defense Minister, held a rare late-night press conference on December 15, 2015, for Saudi journalists only. He announced the formation of a new 34-nation “Islamic military alliance” to fight Daesh (“Islamic State”) and al-Qaeda. MbS’ proclamation of this Sunni religious force, a grandiose project, stunned scholars, diplomats, and armchair pundits.  Many are asking, what is the son of Saudi King Salman thinking?

The “Specific Argument”

MbS argued that the aim of the Islamic military alliance would be to provide mutual anti-terrorism assistance “all over the Islamic world”, specifically in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and beyond. MbS argued, “Today, every Islamic country is fighting terrorism individually.”

Furthermore, the Deputy Crown Prince asserted that the new alliance “emanates from the keenness of the Muslim world to fight this disease, which affected the Islamic world first, before the international community as a whole.” This Islamic aspect is important, as MbS argued that the faith forbids “corruption and destruction in the world” and that terrorism constitutes “a serious violation of human dignity and rights, especially the right to life and the right to security.”

Key Structural Problems

Important questions surrounding the functionality of this Sunni alliance become immediately apparent. How is such a group of countries to organize, train, and equip their forces? Is MbS’s plan to create an Islamic NATO-type organization.

Charts detailing the combined strength of the Islamic military alliance have appeared in the Saudi press. On paper, these charts are impressive. A joint operations center is to be established in Riyadh. Most likely it will be modeled on the Saudi-led coalition operations center running Operation Decisive Storm (later named Operation Restore Hope) in Yemen. It is important to note that the eleven states involved in the Saudi-led alliance perform varying roles, indicating an inequality of participation and resulting in disgruntlement on the part of some.

MbS’s announcement of this 34-nation alliance caught many government officials by surprise. Although Riyadh appeared to have informed the other four GCC states involved (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE), many other countries, including Pakistan and Indonesia, were embarrassingly caught off guard. Other African countries, such as Nigeria, welcomed MbS’ announcement. The Nigerian authorities desperately need help fighting Boko Harom, which declared bayat (allegiance) to Daesh and is making headway into Chad (another member of this Sunni alliance). Mali and Somalia are also part of the coalition. Clearly, the 34-nation alliance is based on the foundation of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The model now exists and the idea is to expand the lessons learned across a number of regions, where terrorists threaten the security of Sunni-majority countries.

The Military Alliance’s Wahhabi Problem

MbS’ announcement was dramatic for numerous key reasons. First, this coalition is religious in nature. Saudi Arabia is calling for Sunni unity against ‘deviants’ within their own Ummah, or community. In the wake of MbS’s announcement, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir further explained to reporters in Paris that “nothing is off the table” in terms of Riyadh’s efforts to combat terrorism, including media and information campaigns to counter extremist ideology. Al-Jubeir even raised the possibility of Gulf states deploying special forces to Syria.

The purported aim of the Saudi-led alliance is to rally forces against not only Daesh, but also al-Qaeda. It appears that this coalition is to offer a new form of resistance against terrorism. This point is important because Riyadh needs to weather threats to Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment, not only from extremist groups seeking to topple Al Saud under their own banner of Sunni fundamentalism, but also from hate-filled Islamophobics in the West.

As for al-Qaeda and its franchise system, MbS and his colleagues likely see that al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) now controls the southern Yemeni province of Abjan and its center Mukalla, a strategically prized port city on the Indian Ocean. The group could now easily control the strategic city of Aden through Abjan province, which would be a severe blow to the Saudis and their GCC allies, particularly the UAE.

A Muslim Military is Not a New Idea

MbS’s call for an Islamic military alliance is not a new idea. In 2011, then-Saudi National Security Advisor Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan (BnS) attempted to build an international Muslim army, which was to be on call for rapid deployment to parts of the Muslim and Arab world where Riyadh saw threats. The purpose of this international Muslim army was primarily to contain the expansion of Iranian influence, not Sunni extremism. BnS purchased arms in China, raised recruits in Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and set up training facilities in Central Asia.

During his first visit to Beijing in March 2011, BnS arrived with a two-part proposition. Saudi Arabia and China would sign a military pact making Beijing the kingdom’s primary arms provider. As relations evolved, Saudi Arabia would grant China at least one naval base in the Persian Gulf and/or Red Sea in lieu of partial payment for its arms purchases. The Saudi prince’s tour also took him to Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia (from whose universities the original U.S.-Saudi Muslim army raised its recruits). There, BnS whipped out draft contracts for military collaboration to establish the units of a Saudi-funded rapid response force.

The deal called for Islamabad, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta to hold these Special Forces on call for intervention in any part of the Muslim world after Riyadh had consulted with those governments.  According to intelligence estimates, the force would number 5,000 men in the first stage. The international Muslim army would establish recruitment centers in Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, while the new volunteers would receive military training at facilities the Saudis planned to erect in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior advisor to Gulf State Analytics. Throughout his career, Dr. Karasik has served as director of research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy, adjunct lecturer at the Dubai School of Government, and director of research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA). He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya.