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Saudi Coalition Could Lead To Greater Conflict

Sky News logo Sky News 15-12-2015
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A coalition to fight terrorism, led by the custodian of the two most holy sites in Islam, including nations so eye wateringly rich they could buy off most terror groups with pocket change - what's not to like? 

At first look, Saudi Arabia's announcement that there are 34 countries signed up for military action against "terrorism" worldwide, and another 10 waiting in the wings is good news. They're all culturally Muslim nations. And it's in Muslim nations that terrorism has been able to grow and where jihadism poses the greatest threat to the status quo.

So, clearly, there is every reason why the nations most threatened by extremism should take the lead in dealing with it. There is a geographical imperative here. If so-called Islamic State expands its borders, it will be into Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey long before it poses any kind of a real threat to Europe - much less the US. 

Saudi Arabia's new King Salman is in the vanguard of a much more aggressive clutch of Arab monarchs, many of them educated in Western military academies, now fired with martial enthusiasm and a strong sense that the previous generation was sitting on its haunches, counting petrodollars, while the sands of political time shifted beneath them.

So, amid Western calls for the Middle Eastern nations to do more to save themselves from the scourge of jihadi terror, this coalition makes good sense. Add to that the acknowledgement from the United Arab Emirates that IT would provide ground troops for a war in Syria against so-called IS - and the alliance looks like it may have some teeth.

An Airman from the Emirati armed forces gives a thumbs up to a colleague during a flight from a base in Saudi Arabia to the frontline Yemeni province of Mareb © Reuters An Airman from the Emirati armed forces gives a thumbs up to a colleague during a flight from a base in Saudi Arabia to the frontline Yemeni province of Mareb

But many experts will argue that Saudi Arabia is at the heart of the problem when it comes to Islamist extremism. As one very senior Middle Eastern government figure told me recently: "The Saudis are underpinned by a theology that in the end may destroy them."

He was speaking of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam - the officially sanctioned Saudi kingdom's view. David Cameron has announced plans to tackle extremist views that could in the end lead to violent action - Wahhabism would be a good place to start in that campaign.

Its more extreme and potentially violent strand, Salafism, is being spread around the globe by Saudi and Qatari-funded organisations, mosques and religious schools and there are no signs that a more liberal religious view of the world will emerge from Riyadh.

Meanwhile, the Saudis and the Qataris are bitter rivals. And both are accused of funding extremists in Syria. Turkey has been accused of being soft on Islamic State smuggling of oil, people and weapons. Pakistan's intelligence services have a long history of supporting terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A positive by-product of the coalition might be to smooth over these problems by ending support by nations of terrorism organisations and understanding that, while rich nations might rent militants, owning them is a fantasy.

But the major danger with this coalition is that it has excluded Shiite's Iran, plus its client regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. Tehran and Damascus have form in backing terror groups - notably Hezbollah in the Lebanon and offshoots around the world.

If the Saudi coalition, with its HQ in Riyadh, is seen (and it will be) by Tehran as a formal Sunni military bloc then Iran can be expected to try to forge a similar alliance among Shiite dominated countries.

This could lead to greater conflict. Or perhaps, in the end, a sense that sectarian rivalry is more mature than war.

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