Islamic ‘NATO’: Strategic repercussions for India
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan working on ‘NATO-like’ military alliance of Islamic countries
Abhishek G Bhaya
Gulf regional power Saudi Arabia and nuclear-armed Pakistan are working on a proposal to form a ‘NATO-like’ military alliance of Islamic countries, British newspaper The Independent reported on 15 March citing a report on Pakistani TV channel Dunya News a day earlier.
While the report credited Saudi Arabia to be the brain behind the initiative, it said Pakistan had been entrusted to develop the framework for the proposed military alliance of 34 Muslim majority nations.
“The Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] has requested Pakistan to lead the initiative. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have agreed to continue consultations on the proposal. This remains uncertain whether the proposed alliance will be a further upgradation of the already established 34-nation alliance or a different initiative altogether,” said the Dunya News report.
The development gains significance as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is poised to visit Saudi Arabia early next month with maritime security and increasing military cooperation placed high on the agenda.
Reports suggest India will be taking diplomatic steps to ensure greater cooperation in the Middle East with its latest plan to hold joint naval and military exercises with Saudi Arabia.
Let us explore the factors that led to the emergence of this proposed Islamic ‘NATO’ and the strategic repercussions of this regional coalition for India.
The genesis of an Islamic ‘NATO’ alliance appeared to have emerged during the recently-held war games in Hafr al Batin region of Saudi Arabia, the closing ceremony of which was attended by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Shareef and Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Shareef.
Billed as the region’s biggest-ever military exercise, the 12-Day ‘Northern Thunder’ manoeuvres, which concluded on 10 March, saw participation from over 20 nations from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. These included: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Senegal, Sudan, Maldives, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, Comoro Islands, Djibouti, Malaysia, Egypt, Mauritania, and Mauritius.
It is important to note that in December 2015, Saudi Arabia announced a military alliance of 34 Muslim nations (all Sunni-majority) including Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey. The Islamic Military Alliance was envisioned with the mission to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. The command centre of the 34-nation military bloc was planned to be based in Riyadh.
Pakistan, at that time, had reacted with surprise saying its consent was not taken for the alliance, but later Islamabad welcomed the initiative and confirmed its participation in the ‘anti-terror’ alliance.
The ‘Northern Thunder’ war games were the first collective show of strength for this newly-formed alliance which saw over 350,000 troops, 2,500 warplanes, 20,000 tanks and 450 helicopters in action. The subsequent proposal of an Islamic ‘NATO’ appears to be a logical extension of this new military coalition.
While both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have asserted that the proposed alliance would not be against any particular country but would combat terrorism and threats coming from extremist groups like Islamic State; the composition of mainly Sunni-majority nations makes it amply clear that the Saudi-led coalition is a consolidation of forces against the regional Shiite rival Iran.
Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran earlier this year after mobs ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran following the execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen where they are backing opposing sides. Riyadh is also concerned about a resurgent Iran, which is increasingly asserting itself in the region post its nuclear deal with the world powers that ended the sanctions against Tehran.
Iran does not seem to shy away from a belligerent display of its military prowess every now and then, as was evident again in its latest series of ballistic missile tests last week and also by its audacious detention of US Navy sailors in January just before the nuclear deal was implemented.
Seen from the perspective of Saudi Arabia and its allies, the Tehran regime has gone beyond its periphery, posing a serious threat to the stability of the region. This has made the Sunni bloc try to overcome its divisions and forge a common front that can deal with the Iranian threat.
The Russian factor
Also, Russia’s military intervention in Syria and its close alliance with the Iran-led Shiite troika (including Syria and Iraq) seems to have prompted the major Sunni countries in the region to form such a military alliance.
On the other hand, after Turkey downed the Russian military plane, the wedge between the two countries reached a serious point. It can be reasonably said that Russian military intervention in the Middle East has sowed the seed of this counter-alliance to deal with the emerging situation.
Weakening US influence in the Middle East has also contributed to the emergence of this alliance. With this new Islamic Military Alliance, the regional players will have more vital roles in Middle East affairs. Countries like Turkey and Egypt have long been supporters of regional solutions to regional problems.
The formation of this broad-based alliance is certainly aimed at checking Iran’s regional aspirations and stall increasing Russian influence that run contrary to the interests of Riyadh and its friends.
Bulwark against India
With Pakistan playing a leading role in the formation of this Islamic ‘NATO’, it wouldn’t be out of place to imagine that Islamabad would eventually use the alliance as a bulwark against India.
Just like the NATO was founded as an alliance against the erstwhile Soviet Union and eventually encircle and target Russia, Pakistan – with its India-centric foreign policy – is bound to lead the alliance into an anti-India trajectory.
Although India has strategic ties with several Muslim countries – including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman – that are, or may become, part of this coalition; in the event of a future conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbours, these member countries would be bound by the principle of collective defence (as in NATO), wherein an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies.
A military alliance on doorsteps, in all likelihood, will trigger a dangerous arms race and a realignment of forces in the region. Countries like Russia, Iran and India that may feel targeted by the Islamic ‘NATO’ alliance may eventually be compelled to form their own coalition as a strategic counterweight.
It will be interesting to see what line Israel takes.
Impact on Indo-Saudi ties
Meanwhile, the current ties between India and Saudi Arabia are on the upswing. In 2014, the two countries signed an MoU on defence cooperation, which allows exchange of defence-related information, military training and education as well as cooperation in areas varying from hydrography and security to logistics.
According to reports, the Indian Army has also agreed to hold joint military exercises with the Royal Saudi Land Force. In fact, there are talks of India establishing a mountain warfare training school to help Riyadh improve their offensive and defensive capabilities. These issues are expected to come up for discussion during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit next month.
Acknowledging India’s growing status as a major power in the region, Saudi Arabia has allowed New Delhi to carry out hydrographic surveys off the Saudi coastline. Such surveys, which facilitate the operation of submarines, had until now been outsourced only to the US.
Modi must candidly share India’s concerns about the proposed military alliance during his talks with Saudi officials. Only time will tell what impact will the Islamic ‘NATO’ have on the robust bilateral relations between India and Saudi Arabia.