Members of Saudi security forces take part in a military parade.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The greatly hyped new Saudi-led Islamic coalition against terrorism is meant more for Western ears rather than actual action on the ground against Sunni jihadist groups Islamic State and al-Qaida.
The expectation that Sunni Saudi Arabia is going to lead a 34-state coalition against fellow radical Sunni groups when it sees them as a bulwark against advancing Iranian and Shi’ite allies across the region, should not be great.
Predictably, Shi’ite-ruled Iran and Iraq were not part of the new alliance, and of course Syria was also absent.
The centuries-deep Sunni-Shi’ite divide is raging across the region and is much more important than any intra-Sunni rivalries or threats.
US administration officials admitted this difficulty, saying they want more contributions from the Saudis, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey, according to a report in The New York Times
Arab allies have pulled back from the US-led campaign, and one Pentagon official involved in the fight against Islamic State told The Washington Times
in a report at the end of last month that the Saudis have not used their air force against the group in nearly three months.
The official said Jordan also stopped flying missions against the group in August and UAE since March.
It is more likely that attacks by the coalition, if it is even able to get off the ground, would target Shi’ite forces in the region, and less Sunni ones.
David Andrew Weinberg, a specialist on Gulf affairs and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Jerusalem Post
the idea that the Saudis are going to lead an anti-terrorism alliance with what the Saudi defense minister says is a focus on Syria and Iraq is downright outrageous given that the kingdom almost entirely dropped out of coalition airstrikes there against Islamic State since March.
“All this talk about a more assertive Saudi foreign policy is also somewhat hard to believe,” he said, noting that the country is already bogged down in Yemen, preventing any major military assault elsewhere.
“Saudi Arabia got Sudan to deploy hundreds of troops to Yemen, after pledging billions in aid and investment to Khartoum, but what else has it elicited in terms of Arab unity against shared threats?” The Yemen war has allowed al-Qaida and Islamic State the space to enjoy a new renaissance inside Yemen, continued Weinberg.
Of course the Iran-backed Houthis pose a risk to the region, Israel and the US, “but that doesn’t excuse Riyadh dropping all of zero bombs against al-Qaida on any of their round-the-clock air-strikes inside Yemen,” he said.
Similarly, Saudi policies in Syria are turning a blind eye to the threat posed by al-Qaida, which is part of the Army of Conquest, which also includes other Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham.
Weinberg pointed out that Riyadh has refused to arrest Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani and Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, who are prominent Yemenis who have been sheltering in public view on Saudi territory.
They have been under sanctions for years by the United States on charges of funding or providing other logistical support to al-Qaida, and Zindani is also supposed to be under a travel ban due to similar sanctions from the United Nations.
“Just because Saudi Arabia decrees new measures against terrorism doesn’t mean it is really doing anything about it,” he added.
“Despite Saudi pledges to combat the ideological underpinnings of ISIS, the regime continues to embrace clerics who propagate open hatred toward Shi’ites, Christians, Jews, women, homosexuals and the West,” noted Weinberg, arguing that “there has to be a cost for allowing such ongoing incitement.”