It is the sort of news that packs a jaw-dropping wallop in 140 characters or less. If you don’t read beyond the headline — Saudi Arabia unveils 34-nation Islamic military alliance against terrorism — a resounding ‘wow’ is in order.
Yay. No more Islam versus the crusaders, ISIS just got trumped by the truer believers. Surely everyone else can go home and let the neighbourhood sort itself out. Saudi Arabia and friends, they’ve got this now. Vive la Paris, la guerre c’est fini.
But you need only go a few characters deeper — Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s remarks Tuesday in Riyadh will do — to begin to see how Saudi Arabia’s supposed line in the sand is dotted with doubts.
No strategic plan, no declared objectives, no apparent mechanisms, troop or budget commitments, no sign of the other 33 countries on the Saudi list. The visual worthy of the headline — an image of dozens of leaders of the allies named by the Saudis — did not arise. Instead, there was Mohammad bin Salman, the 30-year-old royal-in-waiting, standing all by himself, offering an idea without detail.
He took a few questions. He was asked whether ISIS will be the alliance’s lone target. No, came the answer, we will fight “any terrorist group in front of us.”
Ah. OK then. Some may recall that the Saudi definition of terrorism expanded dramatically last year with a series of new laws and royal decrees that effectively criminalized all dissent. Human Rights Watch, among others, sounded the alarm, calling the sweeping new regulations an assault on the kingdom’s already tiny space for free expression.
“Had we seen actual resources committed by 34 Muslim countries to this coalition, it would have been meaningful,” he wrote. “But we saw none of that — and although it’s too early to make a decisive judgment, I’m not holding my breath.”
The absence of detail raised questions about the extent to which the nations listed intend to involve themselves. Turkish officials spoke with fulsome praise Tuesday, but Turkey is already involved in the bifurcated mess beneath its borders, both militarily and as a neighbour subsumed by refugees.
Look deeper down and you will find Libya on the Saudi coalition list. All well and good, except Libya has yet to establish a viable national government to fill the post-Gadhafi void, let alone join international military partnerships.
The Palestinians are there, too. But they don’t have a country, and have difficulty going anywhere without Israeli permission. Pakistan is also listed — but some reports from Islamabad later Tuesday suggested the news came as a surprise to the Pakistani foreign ministry.
Let us not, however, underestimate the Saudi powers of persuasion, which likely include the leverage to deliver a coalition of some sort, if they want it badly enough. Cash-strapped Egypt, for example, was listed among the signatories to the new Saudi effort. And in a separate announcement Tuesday, Saudi King Salman announced his kingdom would pump $8 billion over the next five years to help meet Egypt’s petroleum needs.
But the Saudi ruling family has other, arguably more pressing needs.
The kingdom has also come under increasingly withering scrutiny for an all-powerful religious clergy that makes radical Wahhabist ideology a primary export, right alongside oil.
The French author Kamel Daoud, in an essay published last month in the New York Times, was especially searing, writing that ISIS “has a mother: the invasion of Iraq. But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex.”
“We have to make it clear to the Saudis that the times of looking away are gone.”
With that sort of reputation-damaging backdrop, there can be no doubt the impulse for damage control is an element of Tuesday’s Saudi announcement. Let’s watch for something other than words before assessing whether it is anything more.