The Saudis love coalitions. The Sunni monarchy had the Americans, the British, the French and sundry other oil importers on their side to drive Saddam’s legions out of Kuwait in 1991. Earlier this year, the Saudi military – for which read the youngest defence minister in the world and the ambitious Deputy Prime Minister, Mohamed bin Salman al-Saud – struck at the Kingdom’s Shia Houthi enemies in Yemen in yet another coalition. This included not only Saudi fighter-bombers but jets from Qatar, the Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan.
But now – with all the drama of a new Hollywood franchise – the Saudis have announced their new multinational military epic against the “disease” of Islamic “terror,” starring more Muslim and would-be Muslim states than ever before assembled since the time of the Prophet. Once more, as in the Yemen adventure (already plagued by humanitarian catastrophe and credible accounts of the slaughter of civilians under Saudi air attacks), Prince Mohamed, aged 31, is leading his country.
In all seriousness, he announced that the battle of this latest “coalition” – which includes countries as mythical as “Palestine,” as corrupt as Afghanistan and as powerless as Lebanon, with bankrupt Chad and the Islamic Republic of the Comoros thrown in for good measure – would require “a very strong effort to fight.” Few spotted, however, the curious absence from the 34-strong “coalition” of Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population.
Pakistan is an interesting addition because the last time it was asked to fight for the Saudis, in the present disastrous Yemen civil war, the parliament in Islamabad rejected Saudi Arabia’s request after the Saudis insisted that only Sunni Muslim soldiers in the Pakistani army would be allowed to participate.
All in all, then, a pretty vast “coalition” – most of whom are saddled with massive international debt and face constant economic collapse. So the real figures behind this extraordinary military force is not how many countries plan to participate, but how many millions – or billions – of dollars Saudi Arabia plans to pay them for their fraternal military assistance.
Along with the obvious question: just which strain of the “terror disease” does young Prince Mohamed intend to destroy? The Isis version – albeit spiritually founded on the same Sunni Wahabi purist doctrines which govern the Saudi state? The Nusrah version, which is espoused by the very same Qatar which is now part of this weird “coalition”? The Shia Houthis of Yemen, who are regarded as pro-Iranian terrorists by the Sunni Yemeni President whom the Saudis support? And what kind of relationship do the Saudis envision with the Iranians who are fighting in both Iraq and Syria against the same Isis “terror” which our favourite Saudi prince identifies as part of the “disease”? Neither Shia Iran nor Shia Iraq, needless to say, is part of the new international Muslim army.
So we know there’s a “coalition.” But who will it fight? How much will it be paid? And why is this a largely Sunni Muslim force rather than just a Muslim “coalition”?
Robert Fisk is Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper. He is the author of many books on the region, including The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.