In December 2015, Saudi Arabia’s defence minister and then-deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) – now the kingdom’s crown prince – unveiled the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), a 41-member Saudi-led alliance made up almost entirely of Sunni-majority Arab, African, and Asian countries.
One of the pan-Sunni alliance’s projects is the Ideological Warfare Center, which the Ministry of Defense launched with the aim of addressing the root causes of violent extremism and promoting dialogue, tolerance, and moderation throughout the Islamic world.
To be sure, IMAFT’s purpose is to combat terrorist threats in several continents, yet Iran, Iraq, and Syria’s omission from IMAFT speaks volumes about the alliance’s sectarian colors and geopolitical orientation against the Islamic Republic and its Shia/Alawite allies.
Put simply, MBS launched IMAFT as part of his vision for eradicating Salafist-Jihadist forces such as Daesh and Al Qaeda, while simultaneously ejecting Iranian influence from numerous Muslim countries.
However, amid the Qatar crisis that has brought many longstanding political ideological divisions among IMAFT members to the surface, this pan-Sunni alliance’s future is unclear. Evidenced by how numerous IMAFT members such as Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Sudan, Tunisia, and Turkey have maintained diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar, refusing to toe Riyadh’s line, the Saudis have failed to convince key members of this alliance to see Iran, Qatar (itself a member), and scores of Sunni Islamist factions through Riyadh’s lens.
Put simply, although Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states view Iran as a grave menace that must be isolated and countered geopolitically, a host of IMAFT members have vested interests in keeping the door open to better relations with Tehran for various reasons such as present and future energy, trade, investment, and security requirements.
There is mounting pressure in Islamabad for Pakistan to exit IMAFT, largely an outcome of disagreements with Riyadh over Qatar and concerns that Pakistani membership in the alliance – which Pakistan’s former army chief Raheel Sharif heads – will raise sectarian temperatures in Pakistan and dim the prospects for it deepening ties with neighbouring Iran.
Even within the GCC, Kuwait and Oman share Qatar’s interest in promoting a “gulf détente” between Saudi Arabia and Iran while disagreeing with fundamental aspects of MBS’ increasingly sectarian, anti-Iranian, and hawkish approach to regional affairs, underscored by different approaches toward countering Tehran’s influence in Syria, Yemen, and most recently Qatar.
Convincing more countries that the benefits of severing relations with Iran in exchange for stronger Saudi support outweigh the costs and risks of cutting ties with Tehran will be difficult because of the extent to which their national interests and threat perceptions diverge from Riyadh’s. Applying pressure on more IMAFT members to conduct an increasingly anti-Iranian foreign policy risks damaging Riyadh’s relations with Muslim governments that it may put on the spot.
Regarding Sunni Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, there is no consensus among IMAFT members that such factions represent terrorist threats. Although Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, the movement has political wings in Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia; and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has friendly relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. In contrast to Riyadh, these governments believe that Islamist parties which play by the ‘democratic rules’ have a legitimate right to participate in the countries’ political systems.
Unquestionably, due to domestic political realities in these IMAFT member states, joining the “Riyadh consensus” by designating the entire Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation would fuel new tensions, especially in countries where the leadership receives support and loyalty from local Muslim Brotherhood parties/figures. For example, Islamist parliamentarians in Khartoum who support Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir have vocally condemned the Sunni Arab states taking action against Doha, arguing that their government must replace its “neutral” stance on the row with a “pro-Qatari” position.
Given that IMAFT’s purpose is to fight terrorism in line with Saudi Arabia’s political objectives of pushing back against Iran’s expanded and consolidated influence in the Arab world while weakening the Muslim Brotherhood, the Qatar crisis has underscored the challenges that Riyadh faces in terms of convincing the alliance’s members to reach a consensus about which entities and individuals represent terrorist threats and which governments in the region are to blame for patronizing violent extremism.
Ultimately, given that Saudi Arabia views its neighbour and fellow IMAFT/GCC member, Qatar, as a supporter of terrorist groups that the Riyadh-led alliance was launched to combat, it would be difficult to imagine Doha remaining an IMAFT member without capitulating to demands from the states seeking to isolate the Arabian emirate.
Qatar’s ejection from the IMAFT would likely also prompt Turkey to exit the alliance in solidarity with Doha, which is Ankara’s closest GCC ally. At minimum, the loss of these two IMAFT members would mark a setback to the pan-Sunni alliance. Worse scenarios for the kingdom could involve more IMAFT members leaving as well due to political disunity when it comes to counterterrorism approaches, disagreement with Riyadh’s anti-Iranian/anti-Muslim Brotherhood foreign policy, and negative outlooks on Saudi Arabia’s efforts to pressure more Muslim countries into staunchly supporting MBS’ vision for the Middle East.