Sectarianism and Saudi Arabia’s Half-Baked Counter-Terrorism Alliance


Saudi Arabia’s announcement of a new Islamic alliance of more than 30 states, dedicated to fighting terrorism, grabbed headlines. The proposal was intriguing. As Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman noted in his announcement, “every Muslim country is fighting terrorism individually … so coordinating efforts is very important.” But within a day, the initiative was being roundly criticized, as it became apparent that there were no concrete plans for the alliance, and that many members had not even been consulted before their inclusion. In this, the new alliance is reminiscent of the announcement in March of a united Arab League army, another bold proposal which has gone precisely nowhere. The leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, mocked the alliance in his latest message.

Saudi Arabia’s determination to forge a larger regional alliance is just one facet of a shift in Riyadh’s foreign policy over the last several years. Once known for their cautious, diplomatic approaches to regional issues, the Saudis have become increasingly impulsive and interventionist. The rising tensions of the last few days — the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the storming of the Saudi embassy in Iran, and the cessation of diplomatic ties between the two states — simply highlight the extent to which the Saudis are now actively pushing back against perceived Iranian influence in the region. This has poured gasoline on the region’s already volatile sectarian politics, making U.S. goals harder to achieve.

Though it is always difficult to know exactly what drives policy in a system as opaque as that of Saudi Arabia, a potent combination of domestic problems and international misperceptions underlie the kingdom’s foreign policy today. As a result, U.S. policymakers should be wary of this alliance and other similar Saudi policy initiatives.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

It has been an eventful year in Saudi Arabia, with many changes in both governance and foreign policy. The kingdom’s new ruler, Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, had been the governor of Riyadh for 48 years, and played a prominent role collecting Saudi donations for the mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s and for Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. His ascension to the throne in January brought a variety of governmental changes. Salman has not only made at least three major cabinet reshuffles, but has also altered the line of succession to the throne, removing the incumbent crown prince, Muqrin, and placing his own son in the line of succession.

The biggest change under Salman has been the concentration of a substantial amount of power into the hands of this son, Mohammed bin Salman, who personally made the announcement of the Islamic anti-terrorist alliance. Mohammed is barely in his 30s, with no substantial military or government experience, yet now holds the posts of Minister of Defense, Deputy Crown Prince, and various key oil and economic portfolios. He is rumored to have been the key voice pushing for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Not surprisingly, Mohammed bin Salman has a reputation for being aggressive and ambitious, and the announcement may have been motivated at least in part by his desire to appear stronger on counterterrorism. His rival for the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, headed Saudi Arabia’s post-9/11 counterterrorism campaigns, has trained with the FBI and Scotland Yard, and is well-known and liked in Washington for his work on counterterrorism. As such, it seems unlikely this announcement will substantially bolster Mohammed bin Salman’s credentials. Indeed, some Saudi allies are worried about his lack of experience. In May, following a state visit to Pakistan, various leaks in the press indicated strong worries about the kingdom’s new “untested leadership.”

But for all of this, many of the current problems afflicting Saudi Arabia are unrelated to the change in leadership. King Salman must continue to balance the prerogatives of foreign policy against the demands of clerics who hold substantial domestic power. The central paradox in Saudi foreign policy — that the kingdom is threatened by Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, yet nonetheless continues to spread radical Wahhabi teachings around the globe — is a result of this dependence. There is no denying that many of these clerics are extreme. In 2006, more than 30 clerics issued a statement praising the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, calling for jihad against the “Shiite threat.” And the monarchy’s dependence on them undoubtedly prevents the development of a plausible strategy on Syria and inhibits cooperation with Shia states. Indeed, the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr this week, a move probably aimed at placating the monarchy’s domestic Sunni supporters, sparked violent protests in several Shia states, and led to the cessation of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The announcement was suspiciously well timed and framed to distract from Saudi Arabia’s many other structural and economic problems. Though Saudi Arabia is at least partly responsible for the ongoing collapse in global oil prices — aiming to maintain its own market share against insurgent producers in the United States and elsewhere — it is suffering economically. The kingdom is burning through reserves at a precipitous rate: They dropped by $88 billion (or 12 percent of the total) during 2015. This drop is the result not only of falling oil prices and the costly war in Yemen, but also of increased social spending and public sector bonuses, a political necessity for the monarchy in tough economic times.

The announcement also served to distract from the ongoing catastrophe in Yemen. The Saudi-led war was announced with much fanfare in May, with Mohammed bin Salman as the fresh young face of a campaign to roll back the Houthi rebels and reinstall the Hadi government. But it has bogged down in a lengthy air campaign with limited results on the ground. The war has claimed the lives of up to 2,600 civilianslives of up to 2,600 civilians, and undermined a decade of U.S. counterterrorism progress against Al Qaeda in the east of the country. It is unlikely that the idea of an Islamic counterterror alliance will long distract the Saudi population from the mess in Yemen. The conflict is costly and unpopular, and without substantive policy changes, could become a Vietnam-level quagmire for the kingdom.

U.S. Pressure or Policy Differences?

For all these domestic issues, the impetus for Saudi Arabia’s new alliance — and indeed, for its increasingly assertive foreign policy — is international. Indeed, the most common explanation in the press for the new Islamic alliance is that it is a response to U.S. pressure for increased Saudi involvement in the fight against the Islamic State. Such pressure has certainly been increasing in recent months, especially as media began to note that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies had effectively stopped bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq. In Senate testimony late last year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter criticized the Gulf States, noting that their commitment to the air campaign against the Islamic State has wavered as they have become “pre-occupied by the conflict in Yemen.” President Obama even hinted at this, noting in a recent speech that other allies must step up like European nations against the Islamic State, and announcing that he was sending Secretary Carter to the Middle East to “secure more military contributions to this fight.”

The timing of the announcement, as Carter left on his trip, suggested that the alliance is designed to assuage these concerns and relieve pressure from Washington. Carter’s response alluded to this:

Well, we look forward to learning more about what Saudi Arabia has in mind in terms of this coalition. At least it appears that it’s very much aligned with something that we have been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat ISIL by Sunni-Arab countries.

One anonymous Saudi official even ascribed the concept of the alliance to a recent visit to the Gulf by Sen. John McCain, noting his proposal for a joint Arab ground force, backed by 10,000 American troops, to defeat the Islamic State. But some Gulf-based analysts have suggested the opposite, that the alliance is a response to the perceived ineffectiveness of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State — a somewhat hypocritical stance given the lack of support from the Gulf nations — and to a growing schism between the two nations on Syria, including the future of the Assad regime and the role of Iranian-backed militias.

Even if the new alliance is primarily a response to U.S. calls for increased Arab support against the Islamic State, criticisms like these highlight a key factor in Saudi policy: a growing fear of Iranian influence. This is not an irrational fear, but Saudi leaders have a tendency to inflate it, seeing Iranian influence everywhere. In 2011, they accused Iran of fomenting Arab Spring protests inside Bahrain. In reality, protests were primarily motivated by the desire of Bahraini Shiites for greater political representation. Likewise, Saudi leaders presented their intervention in Yemen as necessary to counter Iranian-backed rebels. Yet there is little evidence that the Houthi rebels received weapons or monetary support from Iran prior to the Saudi invasion.

Saudi Arabia was active in Syria as early as 2011, funding and arming rebels with the express purpose of overthrowing the Iranian-backed Assad regime. This involvement undoubtedly contributed to the explosion of sectarian violence in Syria. Saudi leaders have even tried to blame Iran for the rise of the Islamic State, despite the group’s Al Qaeda antecedents and Sunni Salafist identity. Recently, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir ascribed the conflict in Syria to the Islamic Republic, noting that “Iran is playing a negative role in most regional issues.” And in a recent interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Muhammed bin Salman argued that “there was no [Islamic State] before America departed from Iraq. And then America leaves and Iran enters, and then ISIS appears.” This is, however, a chain of logic with little basis in reality.

At its heart, the announcement of the new Islamic alliance is reflective of a Saudi vision of regional security markedly different from Washington’s. While America’s focus in the Middle East remains stability and counterterrorism, the kingdom is increasingly focused on pushing back decisively against Iran across the board, a position described by some as the Salman Doctrine. Saudi fears about the potential rehabilitating effects of the nuclear deal on U.S.-Iranian relations have been expressed less publicly than those of Israel, but were strong enough for King Salman to snub President Obama by refusing to attend the Camp David summit in May 2015.

Both the alliance announced in December, and the previously announced Arab League army, appear to be attempts to build a larger military coalition of Sunni states which share these concerns. Though equipped with the latest weapons, Saudi Arabia’s armed forces suffer from a lack of personnel — it is estimated that they have too few troops to secure their borders, man all weapons systems and properly man their forces — a flaw common to the GCC. By including larger states in the new alliance, the Saudis may hope to build a type of “Arab NATO,” a Sunni Arab self-defense pact. Yet this feat may prove difficult: Even some GCC members, notably Oman, are friendly to Iran, and states like Pakistan remain loath to commit troops to such an endeavor.

An Islamic Anti-Terrorism Alliance

As with the Arab League army and other such initiatives, the alliance announced in December is a paper tiger. It will do little to achieve Saudi goals. Several weeks after the initial announcement, it remains unclear exactly what form it will take, with Foreign Minister al-Jubeir suggesting that the alliance could have a joint military force — including an operations center in Riyadh — while Ahmad Assiri, a Saudi military spokesman, instead described it as a method for coordinating members’ existing counterterrorism efforts. Participation likewise remains unclear. The bumbling inclusion of states in the alliance before they had been consulted — Pakistani, Lebanese, and Malaysian officials all expressed surprise — led many to question what preplanning had gone into the announcement.

Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria have not yet made decisions about membership, while Pakistan committed only to non-military involvement. Much like the Pakistani decision to refuse to send ground troops to Yemen earlier this year, their absence from any joint military action will be a blow to this alliance. Saudi leaders have been vague about the group’s goals, noting only that “nothing is off the table.” Yet in the absence of large states like Pakistan, the alliance will struggle to project force. Indeed, it may be no more effective than the GCC, which has never successfully integrated into a fully functional military alliance, and lacks common doctrine, training, and interoperability standards.

Those states that aren’t included are also concerning, though perhaps unsurprising given the Saudi focus on working against Iran. Despite Muhammed bin Salman’s description of the alliance as representative of the “Islamic world,” there are few Shiite states included. Iran’s absence is hardly surprising, but the absence of Iraq and Oman raise concerns about sectarianism, and about the practicality of fighting the Islamic State. Perhaps more confusingly, several of the countries named are not even Muslim-majority countries: Uganda, Gabon, Benin, and Togo only have Muslim minorities. Even some Sunni countries we might expect to be included, such as Algeria, are not.

The most problematic part of the alliance is the lack of any definition for terrorism. While the announcement mentions the Islamic State, it provided little information on other groups. Saudi Arabia has a long history of treating even peaceful protestors as terrorists, while ignoring convenient extremists in other countries. Likewise, the Saudis consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist threat (after decades of supporting them), while other alliance members like Qatar actively support the movement. And if the focus ends up being primarily on Iranian-backed groups in Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere, it will only reinforce the idea that this is no true counterterrorism alliance, but rather a sectarian one.

What Does This Mean for the United States?

Given the growing strategic differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia, it should come as no surprise to U.S. policymakers that their request for increased support in the fight against the Islamic State instead yielded a half-baked sectarian initiative. Even ignoring sectarianism, it seems unlikely that this alliance will be able contribute to the fight against the Islamic State in the near future. The flaws in the alliance and in Saudi foreign policy in general highlight the fact that our interests are simply diverging in the Middle East. The tensions of the last few days further illustrate this problem: While the United States is seeking diplomatic solutions to Syria and Yemen, Saudi Arabia chose to execute a Shiite cleric and political prisoner, causing sectarian riots throughout the Middle East. With both sides ratcheting up tensions, U.S. diplomatic goals will be substantially harder to achieve.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance has never been without controversy, ranging from human rights issues to their export of fundamentalist Islamic ideas, but it is clear that Saudi Arabia is not a good partner in the fight against the Islamic State. The country’s foreign policy is hobbled by domestic economic problems, young and inexperienced leadership, and the monarchy’s dependence on the clerical establishment. And Riyadh’s blinkered focus on Iran only makes it more difficult to engage the kingdom on the fight against the Islamic State. As a result, the new alliance is unlikely to be successful, and risks deepening existing sectarian fault lines in the region. U.S. policymakers should encourage Saudi Arabia to contribute to the fight against the Islamic State through the existing coalition structure instead. And Western policymakers should be wary of similar Saudi-led initiatives in the future.


Emma Ashford is a Visiting Fellow in Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Follow her on twitter: @emmamashford