Singapore, 30 September 2014

President Obama’s address to the UN last week was the first clear statement made by him emphasising the need for liberal intervention in the Middle-East in order to defeat religious extremism. His speech contained a barely concealed anger at the financial and ideological support that is being given by the Arab nations to the Islamic State (IS), the group creating havoc in Iraq and Syria. That there is sponsorship of such extreme groups propagating religious intolerance within the Arab nations is itself an indication of the difficulty if defeating this scourge that has taken root in the Middle-East. Battle has now been joined with a coalition of 40 nations ranged against the IS. Much has been made of the fact that this coalition also has five Arab autocracies taking part against the Sunni insurgent group. Four of the five are monarchies and all five are repressive regimes.

There is no doubt that the participation of the Arab nations provide a clear boost to the legitimacy of the US-led intervention. However, how these five nations were arm-twisted into joining the coalition is fodder for speculation. What was the quid pro quo offered to these recalcitrant nations? Surely, there is at least some long-term benefits that have been promised to the participants.  Historically Saudi Arabia has been the primary support for Sunni extremism in the region and across the world. Salafi extremism, the cause of all global ‘jihadi’ movements, originated in Saudi Arabia and has been actively cultivated by willing donation of finances by individual citizens and state-sponsored charities that act as the conduit for the dispersal of financial largess. These facts cannot be willed away to create a coalition aimed at fighting the very same insurgents that have so far enjoyed the patronage of these nations.

One is tempted to ask two fundamental questions regarding the US long-term strategy in forming this coalition. At least for the time being there is no doubt that the battle will be fought from the air, there will be no ‘boots-on-the-ground’. This is like treating only the visible symptoms of the disease while almost completely ignoring the cause and not attacking the root of the issue. At least for now the fundamental Salafi extremism is nowhere in the target list! Even if the IS is completely defeated in the battlefield, another group that is equally virulent will take its place in short order—there is almost complete certainty of this fact. It is ironic that the US has always been involved in creating the ‘monsters’ that have subsequently turned on it—in the recent past, it joined with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to support the Mujahedeen fighting the Soviet Union and created both the Taliban and al-Qaeda; it supported Saddam Hussain against Iran and then deposed and killed him because he was anathema to the other Arab states. So, the first question that needs to be asked, and answered, is whether or not the US has a long-term strategy to bring peace to the region or whether the current intervention is also a knee jerk reaction of short-term activism. At least for now, it looks as if the US is incapable of setting and following a long-term vision for the Middle-East (and elsewhere too).

The second question is why are the Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, participating actively in the war against the IS, when they have been the nations primarily supporting the Sunni-Shia civil war, which is actually much broader than one within a nation—the Sunni-Shia divide has both regional and global connotations. The current coalition operating in the Middle-East is a much more complex beast than any other preceding it and only time will testify to its longevity. It can be speculated, with some amount of truth, that the Arab nations’ support for it could be an attempt to keep a US-Iran deal from becoming a reality. In case the Sunni nations did not join the fight, there was a window of opportunity for Iran to put out a feeler to the US-led coalition and perhaps receive a conciliatory response. The Iran-Syria partnership is the foundation of Shia strength in the region and Saudi Arabia would not have ever permitted the alliance to spring into prominence. So the Arab nations are in the coalition for a variety of reasons, all of them self-serving.

Is there a long-term solution to the challenge of Islamic extremism?

A quick and simple answer to the question is yes, there is indeed a long-term solution to containing the spreading Islamic extremism. That is the easy part-making that statement. Developing the details and implementing a strategy for the solution to succeed is a completely different matter. There are a number of barriers to achieving it.

First, what will stop the spread of extremism? The Arab nations suffer from a youth-bulge made up of educated but unemployed youth who do not see any chance of bettering their fortunes. Their fundamental requirement is to have individual freedom and security to pursue their dreams as they see fit. The youth-bulge is a phenomenon across the entire Asian region, although the non-Muslim nations have managed to harness the youth and convert them into resources for nation-building activities. In contrast, the autocratic regimes of the Middle East, where the bulge is the largest, have managed to alienate the youth from the government because of ill-conceived policies and more importantly because of their repressive attitude towards individual freedoms. Here, the youth-bulge has transformed into a demographic nightmare, especially in the poorer Islamic States like Pakistan that are definitely failing states. For these disenchanted youth recruitment into the ranks of the IS is an easy step from this threshold. Therefore, the first step in containing Islamic extremism has to be the peaceful transition of these autocracies and monarchies into democratic forms of government that provides tangible proof to the general public that they have a voice in the running of the State.

Will such a transition to even a directed democracy be easy to achieve in the nations concerned? Unfortunately all pointers indicate that such a peaceful transition is unlikely to happen. First, Saudi Arabia, by far the most influential and rich nation in the neighbourhood, is totally opposed to and inimically hostile to any kind of Islamic democracy. Secularism is anathema in this nation that openly supported a military coup in Egypt against a democratically elected government run by the Muslim Brotherhood. The ruling monarchy functions in fear of losing control and cracks down with alacrity on any real or perceived threat to their autocratic rule. The other reason for the failure of democratic experiments in the Middle East is the inability of Islamic States to separate religion from the executive. Islam as a religion is one that is prescriptive to the minutest detail of an individual’s personal life and when this prescriptive attitude intrudes into the functioning of the State, the result is an automatic shift to autocracy. Unless a historic and decisive point, similar to what the democratic Western nations experienced at the Peace of Westphalia, erupts in the Islamic world, democracy as globally understood will remain a pipe dream in the orthodox Islamic States. With the Arab monarchies failing to understand this, there is no chance of the youth-bulge feeling a sense of belonging and enfranchisement. Embracing the youth remains an unattainable goal.

On the other hand Saudi Arabia and the other nations of the region have come to realise that Islamic terrorism, purely a Sunni enterprise, is no more only a threat to the stability of the Western nations, but a direct challenge to their own well-being.  Saudi Arabia and the other States now face an existentialist threat from the viewpoint of the ruling monarchies. There is tacit understanding in these monarchies that the Western world, that has so far secured their nations for them, will not be able to contain the IS. Further, it seems that their own population will not try to oppose the IS unless democratisation and participatory governments are assured to the general public.

The one point of agreement between the Western democracies and the Middle Eastern monarchies is that the IS cannot be allowed to spread. But do these monarchies and autocracies have the appetite to face the IS in combat and subsequently in the fight for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the disgruntled population? At least for the moment they are demonstrating their ability to employ their showpiece military forces, acquired and maintained at great cost, perhaps because of the fact that their own security and survival are at stake. How far these rulers will go in trying to appease their indigenous population is open to speculation. The Saudi Arabian monarchy, particularly, faces a peculiar challenge of re-establishing their credentials. Their credentials have so far been built on continuing support for a puritanical version of the Wahabi interpretation of Islam that has been exported across the globe with the often overt assistance of the government. The IS embraces the same religious ideology and surpasses the Saudi monarchy in propagating a much more orthodox and virulent version of Islam. Their claim as the rightful rulers of the Islamic Caliphate has credibility in the minds of a majority of the population, demonstrated by the on-the-street support for the IS. Further, the IS is seen to be fighting the Shias and plays right into the Sunni-Shia divide, a passionate cause close to the hearts of the Sunni Muslims.

The Softly-Softly Approach

Since the IS and the Middle Eastern monarchies both support the same religious ideology and are both Sunni enterprises, the governments feel the need to approach the conflict with as little discussion as possible of the ideology involved. In an initial attempt to be seen to be moving in a different direction, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its efforts to curtail their support to religious extremism and is also regulating the charities that have so far been actively financing the IS. Similarly, Qatar is trying to stop their territory being used as safe havens by extremists by expelling some of them, at least in an outward show of anti-jihadist fervour. Sceptics question these moves as too little too late and cynically claim that this is only an attempt to drum up more international (read Western) support for the combat phase of the war. However, what the world is witnessing now is only the beginning of the battle for religious ideological legitimacy in the Middle-East.

The Final Solution

As with any other ‘conflict’, the final solution can only be political. The on-going (at the time of writing) military action against the IS can at best provide a short respite to the Arab States in this battle for the very soul of Islam and sovereignty of the nations involved. In order to succeed, the political solution to the challenge must adopt a three-pronged approach—firstly, rebut the IS claim of religious superiority through stamping out the extremist propaganda that is even now emanating from the madrassas of their own countries and those of their client nations like Pakistan; secondly, institute socially inclusive policies that would propel the youth-bulge towards the government, which can only happen through the gradual liberalisation of the government and ensuring people participation; and thirdly, put an end to the prevalent hypocrisy in dealing with this global threat and stop ‘all’ moral and materiel support, not pay only lip service as is happening now. Do the monarchies of the Middle East have it in them to embrace these rather difficult steps, only time will tell. If their past record if anything to go by, the answer would have to be an emphatic NO.


There are some inevitable conclusions that can be drawn from the almost unnoticed arrival of the IS on the scene. The rise of such an extremist group, one that even al-Qaeda condemns as being un-Islamic, is the result of decades of failed policies being imposed on the Middle East, both from within and externally. The Arab civilisation is currently staring at its possible death in the form that the world has known it for at least a century, brought about by short-sighted leadership of ‘small’ men who have created untenable policies in their sublime hubris. This is self-destruction at its best. Political Islam, a religion controlled process, is untenable as a governing ideology. Freedom and security, as understood globally, the only twin pillars on which a robust nation state can be built cannot be delivered in the required measure within this flawed process.

The Middle Eastern monarchies now face a stark option, irrespective of the outcome of the current conflict against the IS—either be swept away violently in some near future day or give way gracefully to the inevitable. Unfortunately such grace is a quality that is in deficit in the Arab monarchies.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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