Amid widespread derision, Saudi Arabia has announced that it will lead a new military coalition to protect “the Islamic world” against terrorism.
Speaking at a news conference in Riyadh, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – the king’s favourite son and chief architect of the military disaster in Yemen – said the move stems from “the Islamic world’s vigilance in fighting this disease which has harmed the Islamic world first and is now harming the international community as a whole”.Saudi Arabia has put itself in charge of the coalition and, according to Prince Mohammed, “There will be an operations room in Riyadh for the coordination and support of efforts to fight terrorism in many parts of the Islamic world.”
More than 30 predominantly Muslim countries have allegedly signed up to join the coalition (full list here). They include the other Gulf monarchies, but with the notable exception of Oman which also previously declined to get involved in the war in Yemen.
The move seems partly intended as a response to complaints that Saudi Arabia is not doing enough to combat terrorism and that it is more interested in pursuing its quarrel with Iran than fighting ISIS. There has also been growing criticism of its efforts, over many years, to promote the intolerant religious ideology that now fuels ISIS and similar organisations elsewhere.
However, it looks as though the anti-terror coalition may nevertheless be designed to pursue a sectarian agenda. Judging by its reported membership, the “Islamic world” does not include Iran, the main representative of Shia Islam, or Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria – though it does reportedly include Lebanon which has a large Shia population along with large numbers of Sunni Muslims and Christians. Asked at the news conference if the coalition would only be targeting ISIS/Daesh, Prince Mohammed replied: “No. To any terrorist organisation that appears in front of us, we will take action to fight it.”
This is especially alarming because the Saudi regime has some very strange ideas about what constitutes terrorism and will presumably now be pressing other countries to accept them. Under a law introduced last year, virtually any criticism of the kingdom’s political system or its interpretation of Islam counts as terrorism:
Article 1: “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
Article 2: “Anyone who throws away their loyalty to the country’s rulers, or who swears allegiance to any party, organization, current [of thought], group, or individual inside or outside [the kingdom].”
Article 4: “Anyone who aids [“terrorist”] organizations, groups, currents [of thought], associations, or parties, or demonstrates affiliation with them, or sympathy with them, or promotes them, or holds meetings under their umbrella, either inside or outside the kingdom; this includes participation in audio, written, or visual media; social media in its audio, written, or visual forms; internet websites; or circulating their contents in any form, or using slogans of these groups and currents [of thought], or any symbols which point to support or sympathy with them.”
Article 6: “Contact or correspondence with any groups, currents [of thought], or individuals hostile to the kingdom.”
Article 8: “Seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion, or calling, participating, promoting, or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings, or group statements in any form, or anyone who harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means.”
Article 9: “Attending conferences, seminars, or meetings inside or outside [the kingdom] targeting the security of society, or sowing discord in society.”
Article 11: “Inciting or making countries, committees, or international organizations antagonistic to the kingdom.”Last December the cases of two women who defied the ban on driving cars were also referred to the special anti-terrorism court.