Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s announcement that Saudi Arabia will lead a global coalition of 34 nations to combat extremism is a significant step in international counter-terrorism efforts to roll back terrorism's cancerous spread. This Coalition is critically a military grouping and was founded on the principle of collective self-defense, along the lines of organizations such as NATO which have guaranteed European security since the end of the Second World War.
This Coalition’s scope appears to be truly global- not limiting itself to challenges in the Middle East and North Africa. Instead, this Coalition will address terrorist threats ranging from Afghanistan to security in Africa and in South Asia. For example, Gabon is a member of the Coalition. It’s not only ISIS on the radar of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but Boko Haram and al-Qaeda and its worldwide affiliates.
A first in history
Riyadh’s focus underscores an important difference from Washington’s focus, which is predominantly on building a coalition against ISIS. Without confronting the broader challenges of Islamic extremism worldwide, ISIS and any successor organization will continue to gain recruits and Riyadh recognizes this.
Importantly, a military coalition of this size (the first in its history), led by Saudi Arabia, carries more legitimacy than purely another U.S. and Western lead counter-terrorism intervention in the Muslim world. In the long-term, this Coalition, has a better chance at winning the hearts of minds of those who have turned towards terrorism.
New leadership for common challenges
Prince Mohammed has taken substantial steps to put Saudi Arabia and its partners on stronger footing to confront growing security challenges both from Iran and its growing regional proxies and extremist groups. Importantly, the Yemen campaign highlights the new emerging defense architecture that King Salman has been building since he took office. This Coalition, which took months of careful diplomacy, is a further step.
Nearing the anniversary of King Salman’s rule, this global coalition of nations represents both Riyadh’s new leadership and the recognition that these challenges require new, innovative, and robust solutionsAndrew Bowen
With Washington’s perceived re-balancing to Asia and pull back (most notably, the President’s own retreat on his “red lines” regarding Syria), Riyadh couldn’t wait anymore for Obama to deliver on the rhetorical promises he has made and broken at times, including most recently at Camp David. Prince Mohammed recognizes that the Muslim world is in the best position to confront these challenges.
At the same time, the Deputy Crown Prince believes in the importance of working with global powers and international organizations. In his final months in office, President Obama has an opportunity to follow through on his commitments. He should move quickly to bolster his support for the Coalition including deepening military assistance and broadening intelligence sharing.
A number of challenges on the horizon
The challenges the Coalition faces are great. It will have to robustly address the civil war in Syria, ISIS, Libya, Yemen, to name a few regional challenges. More broadly, groups such as Boko Haram continue to plague the stability and security of West Africa.
While this is first and foremost a military coalition, the Coalition will need to pair a military strategy with a sustainable political and economic strategy to both rebuild societies torn apart by war and conflict and to support states struggling with their own socio-economic, political, and security challenges. Riyadh can play a unique role in marshaling international economic investment to ensure that these gains are sustained.
While Iran has been a source of deepening sectarianism in the region and beyond, it would be a mistake to allow Iran to cast this new coalition as purely a Sunni sectarian military coalition. Extremist groups profit the most on decisive sectarian rhetoric.
It’s critical then that this Coalition remains diplomatically engaged in bringing an end to Syria’s civil war, but more broadly, addressing challenges such as Lebanon, which require sustained diplomatic engagement with opponents. Ideally, Tehran can move from posture of confrontation and antagonism to one of engagement and cooperation.
Nearing the anniversary of King Salman’s rule, this global coalition of nations represents both Riyadh’s new leadership and the recognition that these challenges require new, innovative, and robust solutions. Importantly, for this Coalition to succeed, all members will need to contribute.
Andrew Bowen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle Eat Studies at the Center for the National Interest.