Saudi Arabia has announced an impressive Muslim coalition to fight radical Islamism. But it’s most likely bluff to protect Riyadh’s political interests if a diplomatic solution is found in Syria.

A Saudi military parade in Mecca, 17 September 2015. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy, File)
A Saudi military parade in Mecca, 17 September 2015. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy, File)

By Rashad Mammadov

Saudi Arabia has announced it will lead a coalition of 34 Muslim countries with a single, proclaimed goal — to fight radical Islamism.

The geography of the new alliance is impressive: it extends across three continents, from the Atlantic Ocean to Pakistan.

The notion that Muslims should solve the Islamic State problem with minimal western involvement has lately gained ground. All of the leading U.S. presidential candidates have urged the Muslim world to take greater responsibility for problems besetting their communities.

While some kind of alliance was expected, Saudi Arabia’s initiative begs questions about the Gulf monarchy’s motivations.

Riyadh is one of the West’s strongest allies in the region, but it is an anomalous relationship. Saudi Arabia is one of the strictest modern theocracies. Very few nations in the Muslim world receive as much criticism in the area of civil rights.

While religious institutions dominate in Iran, it is nonetheless a republic with a complex political sphere and elections. Even Pakistan — the birthplace of the Taliban — keeps its most conservative religious leaders under constant surveillance.

The coalition will isolate Saudi Arabia’s main political foe, Iran.

In monarchic Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, an extreme, conservative form of Islam that is banned in many Muslim countries, is a state-supported ideology. There are parallels between religious practices in Saudi Arabia and some of those adopted by Islamic State.

Ideologically, Saudi is closer to Islamic State than to secular members in the new coalition. The main ideological difference between Riyadh and the aspiring caliphate is probably the conflict of generations – Islamic State is the new, aggressive blood while Saudi Arabia is the elder parent.

The conflict between the two has never been primarily ideological but rather political. For a long time, the Saudi army mostly ignored Islamic State, limiting its involvement to air strikes. At the same time, the Saudi army has led an aggressive military intervention in Yemen against mainly Shia rebels.

Still, while the Muslim coalition initiative coming from Riyadh might seem contrary to its theology, there are potential political benefits.

First, the coalition will isolate Saudi Arabia’s main political foe, Iran. For Saudis, Iran is a much bigger threat than radicals who have mostly ignored its borders so far. One of the main reasons that Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen was to protect the current pro-West government from Tehran’s influence.

For these two powers, Syria and Iraq are the battlefield, with regional dominance the big prize.

We are unlikely to see a massive civil war inside the Muslim world.

Second, if the Syrian conflict is slowly coming to an end, Riyadh wants to have some kind of control over the situation there.

It seems that the biggest stumbling block in talks between the U.S.-led coalition on the one hand and Russia and Iran on the other — Bashar al-Assad — is being actively discussed these days. Assad’s future was one of the main topics in talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian leaders recently in Moscow.

Saudi Arabia wants to make sure its interests in the region are defended during coming political games. The best way to make its voice heard is to lead 34 Muslim countries. But the goal is not that easy to achieve.

The new Saudi-led coalition is not likely to intervene aggressively in Syria. Islamic State is not a direct threat to most coalition members, except for some countries neighboring Syria and Iraq. Turkey, in particular, has its own reasons to be pro-active. Only three out of 34 states — Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey — take part in the current U.S.-led air strikes.

The others in the Saudi-led coalition have not participated directly in the conflict and do not have clear interests in the region. Pakistan and Malaysia have not even officially agreed to join Riyadh’s coalition yet.

So, Saudi Arabia’s initiative is most likely a bluff, and we are unlikely to see a massive civil war inside the Muslim world.


Rashad Mammadov

Rashad Mammadov is PhD candidate at Indiana University’s Media School, with a research focus on political communication. He holds a master’s degrees in journalism and mass communication. He worked as a reporter and editor for almost a decade in newspapers and magazines covering international politics and media economics.

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