Saudi Arabia’s Security Alliances

Can Riyadh Dominate the Middle East?

Saudi King Salman at a metting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Riydah, October 2017. Reuters

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has sought to bolster its regional power by establishing a number of informal multilateral coalitions and alliances in which combinations of various Arab, Muslim, and other nations participate under its leadership. The first was the Arab Coalition in Yemen, launched in March 2015. This was followed in December 2015 by the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). The most recent is the Anti-Qatar Coalition, established in June 2017 to force Saudi Arabia’s longtime rival in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to fall in line with its strategic worldview.

Last week, in cooperation with the Arab Coalition in Yemen and IMAFT, Bahrain hosted the first-ever Middle East Military Alliance and Coalition Conference. The conference, known as MEMAC, was intended to highlight the “critical role” of alliances in “defense and collective security in the region,” in the words of the event’s chairman. Scheduled speakers included current and former senior military figures from Bahrain, Jordan, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of CENTCOM, and Wesley K. Clark, the former NATO commander, who also served as cochair of MEMAC.

All three Saudi-led alliances are highly flexible, and their participants have no expectation that being involved will lead to an enduring institutional relationship. Although not limited in scope, their operational tasks are issue-specific. The mandate of the Yemen coalition is limited to waging war against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Houthi rebels, who are viewed to be proxies of Iran. And IMAFT, according to Saudi Defense Minister Mohamed bin Salman, is meant to help coordinate and support military operations in the fight against terror. Finally, though not limited in duration, these “coalitions of the willing” can also be easily disbanded once they have achieved their objective.

These alliances share another important characteristic besides informality: their membership transcends any particular geographic region. The Yemen coalition includes Morocco, Senegal, and the United States, which are located between 3,500 and 5,000 miles away from the war-torn

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