ISLAMABAD - A Saudi-led Muslim military coalition, commanded by a former Pakistan army chief, was officially launched Sunday in Riyadh where defense ministers of the participating nations met for the inaugural meeting.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia, opened the meeting of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition or IMCTC.
An official statement explained the “pan-Islamic coalition” of 41 predominantly Sunni Muslim countries will coordinate and multiply their individual efforts in the global fight against terrorism and violent extremism.
“The meeting [in the Saudi capital] marks the official launch of the IMCTC and strengthens the cooperation and integration of member countries in the coalition,” it reads.
The coalition’s formation specifically has been the focus of debate in Pakistan after former Pakistani military chief Raheel Sharif was appointed as IMCTC’s first commander.
Addressing Sunday's meeting, Sharif explained the IMCTC will act as a platform to assist member countries in their counter terrorism operations through intelligence sharing and capacity building.
“A number of our member countries are under tremendous pressure while fighting well established terrorist organizations due to capacity shortages of their armed forces and law enforcement agencies,” the Pakistan general noted.
While supporters dubbed the Saudi-led coalition the “Muslim NATO,” skeptics, including those in Pakistan, continue to question its objectives and see it as a sectarian-based grouping against rivals - Shi’ite Iran, Syria and Iraq.
Saudi officials announced formation of the coalition in 2015, headquartered in Riyadh, with a mission to fight terrorism, particularly to counter the threat of Islamic State.
Tehran has opposed the move from the outset and has been lobbying against it, believing it is aimed at increasing Saudi influence in the region.
Critics warn Islamabad’s participation could upset the country’s minority Shi’ite community and undermine bilateral relations with Iran, which shares a nearly 1,000-kilometer border with Pakistan.
The Pakistani Senate, the upper house of parliament, witnessed another heated debate on the issue last week when opposition members urged the government not to give any undertakings in Sunday’s meeting in Riyadh without taking the parliament into confidence.
Senator Farhatullah Babar, in his speech, noted the coalition encompasses four key areas, including ideology, communications, counter-terrorism financing and military. Those areas, particularly ideology, present potential pitfalls and challenges with possible consequences for Pakistan, local media quoted Babar as saying.
On Monday, Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the head of the country’s main spy agency, ISI, among others, are scheduled to visit Riyadh at the invitation of the Saudi leadership for important consultations, although it is not known exactly what the issues are.
“If the IMCTC turns out to be a Saudi platform to bash geopolitical enemies and advance sectarian narratives, then this country [Pakistan] would best stay away from such a misadventure,” warned the leading English language newspaper, DAWN, in an editorial Saturday.
The newspaper noted with concern the Saudi crown prince’s statement issued Friday in which he dubbed Iran’s supreme leader “the Hitler of the Middle East.”
In its announcement before Sunday’s meeting, the IMCTC quoted General Sharif as saying that terrorism is the biggest challenge confronting the Muslim world.
The general retired in November 2016 and is credited with effectively countering terrorist groups operating in Pakistan during his three-year tenure as the chief of the powerful military.
But Shi’ite community leaders and independent critics in Pakistan have criticized the government, as well as Sharif, for accepting the assignment, fearing it would fuel domestic sectarian rivalries.
Pakistan has always walked a tightrope while trying to maintain a balance between its immediate neighbor, Iran, and also Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Kingdom hosts hundreds of thousands of Pakistani expatriates, and is a key source of oil supplies to Islamabad on deferred payments and cash grants to help Pakistan’s traditionally struggling economy.
The Pakistan government, under extreme domestic pressure, had refused to join Saudi-led military operations against Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen in 2015.
The parliament barred then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif from joining the operation, saying Pakistan's involvement in a foreign conflict would exacerbate sectarian tensions at home and upset its friends in the Muslim world.