The appointment of a celebrated Pakistani general to a Saudi-led Islamic military alliance suggests the Saudis are serious about their claims to pan-Islamic leadership. The alliance’s utility at a military level, however, is questionable.
On 15 December 2015, the Saudi Arabian defence minister announced the creation of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (Imaft). The Imaft is an international grouping of Muslim-majority countries concerned with the eradication of non-state armed groups (NSAGs) that pose a threat to their own internal security, with a primary focus on Iraq and Syria. Although the organisation is not expressly Sunni – Ibadi-majority Oman and multi-denominational Lebanon are members – the Shia republic of Iran was not invited to join, and neither was Iraq or Syria, both countries with large Shia populations.
The 41 member-states of the Imaft are spread across a broad region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as well as southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the large size of the group does not accurately reflect its military strength. Several participants, particularly in Africa, lack expeditionary capability. The only substantial military forces in the alliance are Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
The focus of the alliance is mutual defence, rather than full-scale war-fighting, although officials have also indicated a willingness to engage in limited kinetic operations in non-member states. There is an emphasis on developing the capability to launch targeted operations in countries threatened by organised and sustained NSAGs: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. The alliance is as yet untested; Saudi military operations in Yemen, for example, are being conducted in conjunction with a much more limited group of Gulf countries. Saudi Arabian airstrikes in Syria, meanwhile, occur under American auspices. However, the Imaft did hold military exercises within Saudi Arabia near the north-eastern King Khalid Military City between February and March 2016. Over 20 countries contributed to the exercises, codenamed ‘Northern Thunder’, which sources estimate involved at least 15 divisions’ worth of troops, over a dozen air groups-worth of aerial units, and multiple squadrons of armour.
The alliance is as yet untested
On 6 January 2017, the Saudi government formally asked General Raheel Sharif of Pakistan to act as commander-in-chief of the Imaft. Raheel is a popular figure in Pakistan, where he was widely credited for driving militants out of their strongholds in the country’s semi-autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border, after years of prevarication by his predecessors, who were nervous about fighting in such high elevation and rugged terrain. Following internal discussion among the Pakistani establishment, Islamabad approved the move in April 2017. This was the first major indication, Northern Thunder aside, that the alliance is moving towards a more operational organisation.
The Imaft, despite the initial success of Northern Thunder, has done little since its inception to prove it has genuine efficacy. However, the appointment of Raheel, who is a competent and experienced military officer, rather than a member of a Gulf royal family or another politically connected candidate, is a strong indicator that Riyadh intends to translate the alliance into an actual operational force.
The Imaft is to be based in Riyadh itself, where a joint-command centre will oversee the alliance’s activities. However, the internal structure of the organisation has not been fleshed out. For example, whether Raheel will have his own dedicated personal staff, how precisely appointments to command positions will be decided, and how countries will set force contribution levels are all still unanswered questions. Initial indications suggest that troop commitments will be decided at the national level, and the lack of any form of quota system increases the chance that member-states will be unwilling to contribute material assets to the alliance.
Security: The positives
Saudi Arabia’s decision to form Imaft was triggered by a worsening security situation along its borders, and by the suspicion that some of these threats emanate ultimately from Iran, which, like Saudia Arabia, portrays itself as the leading state of Islam and of Shias in particular.
To the north, the Islamic State NSAG still occupies a considerable (though shrinking) area of Syria and Iraq, and retains a kinetic capability to launch cross-border strikes. The group’s imminent defeat in the north-western Iraqi city of Mosul does not translate into an improved security environment for Saudi Arabia, and Islamic State continues to maintain significant operational capability. These risks are also applicable to other regional countries, notably Turkey, which has been beset by multiple IED strikes from Islamic State loyalists. In October 2016 an IED attack on a peaceful rally in the Turkish capital Ankara, for example, led to over 100 fatalities.
Despite ideological similarities between Saudi Arabia and Islamic State, notably their cleaving to an austere interpretation of Sunni Islam, the NSAG regards the Saudi state as one of its highest priority targets. Islamic State regards the Saudi monarchical system as a corruption of the ‘ideal’ Islamic system of governance, the caliphate, and the country’s religious authorities as agents of royal control. Meanwhile, the Saudi government regards Islamic State as a major ideological threat, as its anti-royalist rhetoric undermines the royal family’s theological, and therefore political, legitimacy.
To the east, Iranian naval assets are increasingly assertive in the Gulf – and relations between Riyadh and Tehran appear to have reached their nadir, following years of diplomatic estrangement and strategic competition for hegemony over MENA. This poses security risks for the Gulf countries, particularly Bahrain, which officials from Tehran sporadically claim is a breakaway Iranian province, rather than a genuine state, and which has a mutinous Shia majority population led by a pro-Saudi Sunni monarchy.