Saudi Arabia's coalition of Islamic countries against terrorism is starting to look like a paper tiger.
A day after the kingdom announced with great fanfare that it would lead the 34-member alliance, a few of those so-called members announced that they weren't necessarily part of it.
"I think it's a blunder on their part," said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. "They assumed that if they called the tune other countries would fall in line."
Pakistan, which was listed as a member, announced that nobody ever called them about it. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry was "surprised" by the news of his country's supposed involvement, according to Dawn, a Pakistani news service. Later, however, the Foreign Ministry released a statement saying "Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy close, cordial, and brotherly relations."
Experts said it's no surprise Pakistan would demur from joining an alliance that might involve sending troops to the Middle East or antagonizing Iran. The bloc notably doesn't include any Shiite Muslim-led countries like Iran, Iraq, or Syria, suggesting the alliance is as much about countering Tehran, Riyadh's rival in the Middle East, as it's about fighting terror.
In Yemen, the Saudis are fighting Shiite Houthi rebels who early this year overthrew a Sunni Muslim regime. Fearing that the Houthis would expand Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudis launched an air campaign against their southern neighbor with the blessing of the United States and the help of other countries throughout the region. While the Saudis have pulverized Yemen, the Houthis remain unbowed, prompting some to describe the war as Saudi Arabia's Vietnam. Pakistan doesn't want to get involved, and rejected a Saudi request for help In April.
"The Pakistani army is so bogged down now with its campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas, it had no stomach for getting involved anywhere else," said Marvin Weinbaum, a Pakistan expert at the Middle East Institute. "They try to maintain good relations with Iran, which can cause them a lot of trouble."
Pakistan wasn't alone in snubbing the Saudis, either. Malaysia also didn't seem particularly enthused about its involvement. "There is no military commitment, but it is more of an understanding that we are together in the combat against militancy," said Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.
'They assumed that if they called the tune other countries would fall in line.'
Lebanon also gave mixed signals. Prime Minister Tammam Salam expressed support for the idea of a coalition, telling the National News Agency that the Saudi coalition was "a forward step in favor of all Islamic peoples against terrorism."
But Lebanon's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying nobody consulted them about an alliance against terror. Given the fact that the country borders Syria, where Islamic State militants have been rampaging for more than a year, it's no surprise that tiny Lebanon's diplomats were irked. "What happened tampers with Lebanon's status and the powers allocated to the Foreign Ministry," the statement said.
Saudi Arabia spends enormous sums on mosques and Islamic schools, or madrassas, in countries like Malaysia and Pakistan, and it has given Lebanon significant military aid. Hartung speculated that Saudi officials might have assumed they could call in favors related to that largesse. "Sometimes they have an inflated sense of their importance in the world because they spread their money around," he said.
Saudi-funded madrassas have been blamed for fomenting exactly the sort of Islamic extremism that the kingdom's coalition would aim to combat, and Hartung noted that that Saudi King Salman was likely yet again creating conditions in Yemen that could lead to more terrorism. He viewed the coalition as a public relations move to answer critics who say that the ultra-orthodox Islamic monarchy isn't doing enough to curb the spread of the ultra-orthodox Islamic State.
But even as the Saudis are talking about anti-terror coalitions, the Islamic State has been making inroads in Yemen, said Hartung. "Not only are they not fighting ISIS in Syria, but they are then inadvertently helping ISIS grow in Yemen," he said, using an alternate name for the militant group. "It's kind of the worst of all worlds."
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr
Watch the VICE News documentary Inside War-Torn Yemen: Sanaa Under Attack: