Fighting ISIS may not be the core of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition

Fighting ISIS may not be the core of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition of 34 countries announced on Tuesday seems to represent a real change in the country’s foreign policy; however several factors lead to think it is another attempt by the Kingdom to identify itself as the leader of the region.

On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia announced a Saudi-led coalition of 34 Muslim countries, to coordinate a fight against terror organisations. The coalition seems to have come into place to fight ISIS, currently the most important terrorist organisation in the region.

Amongst the countries joining the Saudi-led coalition in the fight against ISIS are Turkey, Malaysia, Egypt, the UAE and Qatar.

Saudi Arabia announced that the aim of the coalition is to train and arm forces that will fight against ISIS militants, as well as to cooperate in the field of intelligence. Saudi Arabia officials claimed the coalition’s boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria is “not off the table”.

The Kingdom will host a united operations centre to synchronize efforts. Adel Al-Jubeir, foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, said:

“It is time that the Islamic world take a stand, and they have done that by creating a coalition to push back and confront the terrorists and those who promote their violent ideologies.”

A purely symbolic coalition

Many experts have characterised this coalition as simply symbolic and nothing more. It is purely a response to the criticisms Arab countries have had about their inaction towards ISIS from Western nations.

The lack of organisation and precise definition of the coalition undermine the threat it could represent to ISIS.

There was no conference to put down the foundations for the coalition. Not a Western country was informed of the alliance ahead of time. Moreover, comments from countries within the coalition revealed the lack of preparation of Saudi Arabia’s coalition. For instance, Mr. Nasir, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that his country had been asked to join a “centre to coordinate against terrorism” but was not informed that it is taking part in a military coalition.

This lack of preparation from Riyadh does not reflect an effective group ready to fight ISIS militias. It confirms that the coalition is more symbolic than anything.

Moreover, many nations of the coalition have questionable military capabilities, which undermine the weight of the alliance.

With this coalition, Saudi Arabia may set its sights on Iran

The initial aim of the coalition announced by Saudi Arabia is the fight against terrorism. However the Kingdom does not define what it means by “terrorism”.

If this confirms the fact that destroying ISIS is not the real core of the coalition, it also suggests that the alliance could target other groups.

One must pay attention to those who were not invited to join the alliance. The absence of Shia nations like Iran, Iraq and Syria suggests that the coalition is about Shia terrorism.

It also implies that the coalition might turn against Iran and pro-Iranian groups.

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are involved in a proxy conflict in Yemen, and support opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War.

Saudi Arabia’s strategy to position itself as the region’s leader

Saudi Arabia is threatened by Iran’s growing influence in the region. The nuclear deal Iran signed with the US brought the Shia nation back into the community of nations. This pact has empowered the enemy of Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Leading the coalition is a way for Saudi Arabia to fight for leadership in the region against Iran.

This strategy started when the Sunni Kingdom refused to decrease oil production, maintaining low oil prices and thereby squeezing Iran’s finances and ability to oppose the Sunni state’s aims in the region.

The coalition is therefore another instrument for Riyadh to position itself as the region’s leader, undermining Iran.

Terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda thrive in the context of conflicts that create ungoverned territory and power vacuums, such as the ones in Yemen, Syria and Libya. These sectarian wars have left populations without food and terrorised civilians. This situation is gold for ISIS.

Ending the sectarian war in Yemen, in which the Kingdom is heavily involved in, would be an effective action to harm ISIS.

A diplomatic solution to the conflict in Yemen is in the works, as both parties have agreed on a framework for ending the war at talks in Geneva. UN Yemen envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has noted progress.

The end of these sectarian conflicts would be effective in hampering ISIS. On the other hand, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition may be purely symbolic and used as a tool for the Kingdom to identify itself as a leader in the region, against Iran.

About Author

Assia Sabi

Assia Sabi has previously worked in strategic foresight for several organisations related to the Middle Eastern economic and business environment, such as the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and MEC International Ltd. She holds a double degree with a BA in Politics and International Relations from University of Kent and Sciences Po Lille, a master degree from Sciences Po Lille and has just completed an Msc in International Management for the MENA from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).