How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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 country. Meanwhile, IMAFT claimed over 30 members on its launch, and the number currently stands at around 40. Over half of IMAFT’s members—22 states—are located more than 1,200 miles away from alliance headquarters in Riyadh.
There are several reasons Saudi Arabia has been so willing to invest its credibility and its financial, political, and military capital in informal frameworks such as IMAFT, whose members are separated by thousands of miles, not to mention radically different interests and military capabilities.
The first is the Saudi failure to transform the GCC into an effective regional security organization under its direction and control. Since the GCC’s birth in the early 1980s, Riyadh has put forward several proposals that would have turned it into a collective security alliance. They have all been rejected by partners, such as Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and even its current ally, the United Arab Emirates, who fear that Saudi Arabia wants to hijack legitimate security concerns to promote its own interests and extend its influence across the region.
This came to a head in the wake of the Arab Spring. In December 2011, Saudi King Abdullah warned GCC partners who didn’t support his proposal for deeper integration that they would find themselves “at the back of the caravan trail” and could “be lost.” Since coming to power in January 2015, two months before the launch of the Yemen coalition, Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman, and his influential son and crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, have been even less willing to tolerate the limits placed by GCC partners on plans for collective security.
It isn’t unusual for Saudi Arabia to try to strike up informal alliances whenever it is frustrated with its traditional partners or is otherwise insecure. In 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the Saudis attempted to strengthen Gulf security by moving closer to Egypt and Jordan. After Iraqi forces were expelled from Kuwait in early 1991, serious consideration was given to inviting Egyptian and Syrian troops into the Gulf under the Damascus Declaration. In 2011, the Riyadh Declaration called for Jordan and Morocco to join an enlarged GCC to deal with the fallout from the Arab Spring. As one expert noted at the time, this move was an attempt to transform the GCC from a “sub-regional bloc into an international alliance.” In 2014, Riyadh put forward another proposal, this time to bring Egypt, as well as Jordan and Morocco, into a more integrated GCC security framework known as the “GCC Plus.” In these terms, Saudi backing for informal security alliances can be viewed as a function of its rising frustration with one of the major constraints of GCC membership—the inability to expand the organization beyond its six founding Sunni Arab monarchies.
Saudi Arabia has the Arab Gulf’s largest population, economy, and army, and much of its oil. But for most of its history, it has been cautious in military and security affairs. The deployment of a Saudi-led military force to Bahrain in March 2011 signaled a new turn. Subsequent involvement in Syria under Abdullah and in Yemen under Salman has also underscored this new Saudi willingness to take risks and project power beyond its borders.
A second reason for the creation of informal coalitions is growing Saudi disillusionment with the United States as a security guarantor since the Arab Spring. According to Saudi officials, Abdullah’s faith in Washington completely “evaporated” once the Obama administration called for Hosni Mubarak to give up power in Egypt after only days of popular protests in early 2011. The public rebuke of Bahrain’s ruling family that followed further antagonized Saudi leaders.
These tensions were compounded by the growing perception of the Obama administration as an unreliable ally, unwilling to stand up to Assad in Syria, Shia militias in Iraq, or Iran on the nuclear issue. The administration’s refusal on the eve of the May 2015 Camp David summit—two months after the birth of the Yemen coalition and six months before the launch of IMAFT—to offer the Arab Gulf a formal security guarantee like the one provided to NATO partners only made things worse.
At home, the Saudi embrace of novel and unprecedented informal security alliances has been a source of national pride. Overseas, in the short term at least, it has had a positive impact on the kingdom’s standing. The decision to exclude Iran, Iraq, and Syria from IMAFT membership earned the praise of those in the Sunni Arab world who feel threatened by Iran and Iranian-controlled or -inspired groups. At least in its early stages, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen also added to Saudi influence in the wider Islamic world. At a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in April 2016, exactly a month after the Yemen war began, the Saudis got the majority of the world’s Muslim leaders to back a resolution condemning Iran’s behavior there and in the Arab world more generally.
Beyond these initial diplomatic and political wins, the key question from the Saudi perspective is whether the informal security alliance option is viable in the longer term. And whether, if it does survive, it can be developed into an effective security solution in the battle against Iran and its proxies, as well as radical Sunni groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS). In theory, this depends on whether Saudi Arabia can meet its obligations as a dominant actor in a security alliance and consolidate political and military control over its flagship project, IMAFT.
The key question from the Saudi perspective is whether the informal security alliance option is viable in the longer term.
On a political level, Saudi success will depend on whether its alliance partners accept its vision. In formal regional organizations, such as the GCC or the EU, the legitimacy of the dominant actor is often enshrined in legal documents, such as treaties or protocols. Such documents rarely exist in an informal alliance such as IMAFT. The lack of formal documents has complicated the efforts of Saudi leaders to elaborate a strategy, demonstrate consensus, or disguise inaction. In particular, it has made it harder for them to point to any concrete alliance military plans going forward.
Certainly, shared Islamic identity could potentially provide Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and home to Islam’s most sacred shrines, with the means to consolidate its legitimacy and its vision. Of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s 57 members, 33 joined IMAFT on its launch. Oman, also an OIC member, joined a year later. That said, not all members of IMAFT are Muslim. Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Gabon have Christian majorities. Non-Muslim communities account for half of the populations of Nigeria and Chad. Togo has a Muslim minority, but the majority of its population follow indigenous beliefs.
This raises the question of whether some members view participation in IMAFT in transactional rather than ideological terms. This possible motive is not limited to members with a relatively weak Islamic identity. Senegal and Sudan are over 90 percent Muslim. Both countries are members of the Yemen coalition and IMAFT. They explained their decision to send troops to Yemen in terms of their commitment to defend the land of the Two Holy Mosques, Saudi Arabia. Yet they also received Saudi support worth billions of dollars in return for their military participation there.
Apart from providing an opportunity to cash in on Saudi largesse, an informal alliance can also appeal to weaker members precisely because its informality means that there are no institutions or formal agreements that bind them to the dominant Saudi actor. Here the case of Oman is instructive. The sultanate has repeatedly blocked or opted out of any Saudi moves toward deeper GCC security, political, or economic integration. In 2013, its top diplomat, Yusuf bin Alawi, responded bluntly to a Saudi call for GCC union. “If it happens,” he explained, “we will not be part of it…we will simply withdraw.”Since then, Oman has also adopted policies on the crises in Yemen and Syria that challenge the Saudi position.
And yet, in December 2016, Oman, the only GCC member to refuse to join either the Yemen war coalition or IMAFT when they were launched, finally joined IMAFT. Some observers explained this move as cash-strapped Oman bowing to Saudi pressure. On a deeper level, it points to an Omani calculation that IMAFT was safe to join because its informality prevented Riyadh from imposing its security preferences on fellow members. And that is especially important for Oman. For years, Oman (and Qatar) frustrated Saudi policy makers by hedging their formal partnership with Riyadh inside the GCC with wide-ranging links to Tehran. IMAFT’s informality makes it likely that subordinate members of the alliance will hedge against Saudi Arabia more than they did in the GCC.
At the same time, IMAFT’s informality does provide Saudi Arabia with some advantages in its quest to consolidate political control. The lack of rules provides Saudi Arabia with significant freedom of action. At the height of the Gulf Crisis, Riyadh was able to expel Qatar from the Yemen coalition without any thought to procedures or regulations. No similar move would have been possible inside the GCC. Similarly, in a formal alliance like the GCC, NATO, or the EU, even the weakest member has a veto on key policy issues. In an informal alliance like IMAFT, such a veto does not exist. In theory, at least, this enables Saudi Arabia to use IMAFT to promote its own goals and agenda. But members are wary of being trapped. Malaysia, for example, has agreed to cooperate with Saudi Arabia inside IMAFT to fight radicalism but is completely unwilling to be drawn into any Saudi-initiated military conflicts in the Arab or wider Islamic world. Pakistan is even more wary. In the past, its troops have deployed on Saudi territory to secure the kingdom’s borders with Iraq and Yemen and help in the fight against al Qaeda. But Pakistan has no interest in being part of a Saudi-led anti-Iranian military alliance. It shares a border with Iran and has between 15 million and 25 million Shia citizens.
The role of a dominant actor in an informal security alliance is to offer leadership and security aid to junior parties. To fulfill its role, Saudi Arabia needs financial resources and a committed group of leaders at home who are willing to build the alliance’s security architecture and provide additional benefits—including aid and military hardware—to those who volunteer to join. And on those terms, Saudi Arabia has yet to demonstrate to its partners that it is up to the task.
Saudi Arabia has skillfully used its wealth to win over key players.
In the case of the GCC, few of its members had the capacity or ambition to act “out of area” and Saudi Arabia was never able to set the group’s agenda sufficiently to satisfy its own security requirements. In theory, informal multilateral frameworks such asIMAFT and the Yemen coalition could overcome these deficiencies. Their mandates may not be written in legal documents, but they are quite clear. They include members with the hard power capabilities required to initiate and sustain militarily action across the Arab and Islamic worlds. Saudi Arabia, for its part, is the world’s fourth-biggest defense-spender and its second-largest arms importer. And four of the Arab world’s other key military players—Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and the UAE—are also members of IMAFT. So is Turkey, the second-largest military force in NATO after the United States, and Pakistan, which has the Muslim world’s largest army and only nuclear bomb. On paper, at least, these impressive capabilities provide Saudi Arabia with the opportunity to achieve strategic depth.
All the states in these groups are willing to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in many areas. But none are willing to acknowledge Saudi preeminence. Nor can Saudi money convince them to act in the security sphere in a way that directly threatens their own interests. For example, opposition in Pakistan to the country’s involvement in IMAFT (and the Yemen coalition before it) has largely been framed in terms of throwing off Saudi dominance and regaining sovereignty. Yet Saudi Arabia has skillfully used its wealth to win over key players. Pakistan is a major recipient of Saudi aid and investment and Riyadh is also the top buyer of Pakistani weapons. This influenced the government’s decision to join IMAFT and allow Raheel Sharif, a celebrated former army chief of staff, to serve as the alliance’s military head despite vociferous domestic opposition and the looming threat of entrapment. However, a year earlier, the Pakistani Parliament voted unanimously against joining the war in Yemen and, despite intense pressure from Riyadh, the government in Islamabad only promised to get involved if Yemeni insurgents attacked Saudi territory.
Similarly, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rise to power in Egypt was financed by billions of Saudi dollars. Yet his government also refused to join the initial air war in Yemen, although it did provide naval support in the Gulf of Aden. Egypt was far more enthusiastic about the IMAFT; soon after the alliance’s launch, Saudi Arabia announced a plan to invest billions of dollars in Egyptian projects.
Malaysia likewise agreed to provide logistical support for IMAFT and to open a joint counterterrorism center with Saudi Arabia around the same time that Aramco announced a $7 billion deal with Malaysian oil company Petronas, which will make the Saudi oil giant the biggest investor in the country. Yet even then, Malaysia refused to side with Riyadh in the blockade and isolation of Qatar last summer. Morocco and Sudan—other IMAFT members who receive significant Saudi investment and financial support—also refused to back Saudi Arabia over Qatar. Turkey went even further. It openly supported Qatar and sent troops to Doha to counter any Saudi military threat to the tiny emirate.
Riyadh’s two closest allies, the UAE and Egypt, share their Saudi partner’s hostility to Qatar, as well as its distrust of Iran and deep aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood. But the current Gulf crisis has served to illuminate significant strategic, political, and even ideological differences between Saudi Arabia and almost all of its major IMAFT partners. Some are attempting to balance Saudi Arabia through nonmilitary tools, especially diplomacy, to slow down or undermine its contentious strategies. Pakistan, for example, is using IMAFT, which is headed up by its former top soldier, as a framework to engage rather than isolate Iran in the Sunni Muslim world. The current chief of staff, Qamar Javed Bajwa, has improved bilateral strategic cooperation with the Iranian military and foreign minister Khawaja Asif has promised that IMAFT “will not act against Iran.”
Saudi Arabia’s smaller partners are not able to balance against the kingdom as much, but they have also refused en masse to sign up for the campaign against Qatar. For them, the Gulf crisis calls into question Saudi Arabia’s strategic judgment and seems to indicate, somewhat worryingly, that Riyadh is willing to destabilize the wider region to achieve its goals.
To gain the loyalty and goodwill of the smaller states, Saudi Arabia must now provide them with security options unavailable elsewhere. But even if it can deliver on this difficult task, it will still have to deal with the operational limitations of many among this group and the difficulty of convincing them to commit either money or guns. Indeed, research by Kjell Inge Bjerga and Torunn Laugen Haaland on the evolution of the Norwegian army’s joint doctrine shows that the practical contribution of lesser partners to multilateral military and security operations tends to be too small to make a real difference militarily.
This raises the question of whether attracting and retaining the participation of weaker partners in an alliance is worth it for the dominant Saudi actor. But as the American experience in Kuwait in the early 1990s and in Afghanistan and Iraq more recently have shown, building big alliances can have an important political function and may also have a positive influence on public opinion, if not warfighting capabilities.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has had great success turning its place at the heart of Islam, its status as the world’s leading oil producer, and its wealth into influence across the globe. It has had less success building a collective security capability in its immediate neighborhood. Now it is engaged in the process of developing and sustaining a network of informal alliances that can use force to promote its security interests across the Arab and Muslim world.
The complexity of this challenge makes the recent talk of a Saudi-led “Muslim” or “Arab” NATO extremely premature. These alliances are a long way from playing a stabilizing role similar to that undertaken by NATO. It is just as likely that they will add to existing sectarian divides and further destabilize an already fragile region. They may even end up undermining Saudi credibility as a military and security leader. After all, the current crisis in Yemen is a direct consequence of the Saudi embrace of this kind of alliance option in early 2015.
Until that happens, and as long as the kingdom feels threatened by Iran and its proxies, it will continue to search for ways to reestablish a security balance. Absent an alternative that offers Riyadh the same opportunities to claim leadership of the Arab and Muslim world, informal alliances will remain a central, although not necessarily effective, component of Saudi security thinking.