Doubts about membership of Saudi coalition

Pakistan's foreign minister, Aizaz Chaudhry, was taken by surprise yesterday when he read in the newspapers that his country has joined the new Saudi-led military coalition against "terrrorism". He then contacted the Pakistani ambassador in Riyadh to try to find out more. 

"This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has named Pakistan as part of its military alliances without Islamabad’s knowledge and consent," Dawn newspaper reported. "The Saudis earlier named Pakistan as part of the coalition that carried out operations in Yemen and a Pakistani flag was displayed at the alliance’s media centre. Pakistan later declined to join the Yemen war."

Questions are also being asked in Lebanon, another country which the Saudis say has joined their coalition. This is a sensitive issue in Lebanon, divided as it is among Sunni, Shia and Christian communities. 

The Saudi coalition's stated aim is to defend "the Islamic world" against terrorism (thus ignoring Lebanese Christians) but its exclusion of Iran and Iraq also makes it look like a Sunni attempt to combat Shia Islam under the guise of fighting terrorism.

It appears that in Lebanon the Saudis approached prime minister Tammam Salam – a Sunni Muslim – about joining the coalition and he accepted their invitation without consulting others. Challenged about this yesterday, Salam said it was only "a preliminary decision" which he felt entitled to take because the cabinet is not currently meeting.

He also sought to justify joining the military alliance on the grounds that membership does not actually require Lebanon to take any military action – which raises questions about what, if anything, the alliance is actually supposed to do. 

It is still unclear how many of the coalition's alleged members were consulted or have formally agreed to join. Palestine is said to be a member, although it doesn't have an army, and the inclusion of Togo, in West Africa, is rather baffling. Only 20% of its population are Muslims and the majority have "indigenous beliefs" which are anathema to the Saudis.

The flimsiness of the coalition and its apparent lack of substance reinforces suggestions that it is mainly intended as a public relations stunt. Writing in the Guardian, Ian Black says

"The surprise announcement appeared to be aimed for primetime TV in the US, where Barack Obama has presided over a sharp decline in relations with Riyadh amid mounting western criticism of Saudi policy on human rights, Yemen, Wahhabi intolerance and allegations of support for Isis."

Black also quotes an unnamed former diplomat as saying: 

"It looks like a bit of positioning. There’s been so much stuff saying the Saudis and Daesh are the same. This is one way of saying they are not. It is pretty thin. It doesn’t make sense in terms of its stated aims."

Aside from the PR aspect, though, the coalition may be seen as part of a Saudi effort to build support for what the kingdom regards as he main threat in the region – Iran.

"At the end of the day this is a political message, not an operational strategic one," Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute told the Guardian. "It seems very ad hoc. But as well as coming up with an initiative that puts them back in western good books, it is aimed at blocking Iran – not just in the Middle East but on the periphery in places like Nigeria. It builds options."

Needless to say, the practical difficulties of getting countries to cooperate in an anti-terrorism alliance led by Saudi Arabia are enormous – not least because the kingdom has such outlandish views about terrorism. In the eyes of the Saudi authorities, terrorist acts can include driving a car (if you are female), attending conferences that the authorities disapprove of, and "promoting atheist thought".

Even in more conventional areas there can be problems, as we have seen in Yemen where the Saudis regard the Islah party as an ally in their war against the Houthis. However, the Emiratis, fighting alongside the Saudis in Yemen are far from happy about that. Islah is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed by in the UAE.

David Ottaway writes:

"In Yemen, Emirati soldiers found themselves obliged to work with al-Islah militiamen both in Mareb and Taiz provinces because they are the chief Saudi allies there. The Emirati state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, on November 22 put out a tweet claiming Taiz would already have been 'liberated' from the Houthi siege 'had it not been for the failure of al-Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood to act'.

"As a result, the UAE has cut in half the number of its troops engaged in the ground war to 2,000, most of whom have withdrawn from the front line and are now concentrated in and around Aden."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 16 December 2015