The participation of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) in Syria serve to reveal the seriousness of the concerns shared by them over the rise of terrorism – the sort that doesn’t serve them – in the region. It also signals a clear shift in their foreign policy, which may include the use of violent proxies to achieve goals, but till now has remained averse to the idea of employing direct military force. Gulf kingdoms face both an ideological and security threat from al Qaeda and IS, which accuse them of betraying Muslims for vested interests and Western allies. There are great risks involved with joining this campaign such as retaliation from terrorists and opposition from sympathetic sections within the population. However, their assessment of the situation appears to have concluded in favour of dealing with short-term threats over aforementioned possible implications. Whether this marks the beginning of an era for powerful Gulf players – such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt – of an assertive foreign policy implementation mechanism with direct military intervention at its core, is difficult to ascertain at this point in time.

To be able to truly appreciate the level of concern held particularly by the Saudi monarchy over IS and al Qaeda, one ought to go over the Friday sermon delivered by the Saudi Grand Mufti. No greater opportunity is available to communicate with Muslims from all over the world than the occasion of Hajj. That Sheikh Abdul Aziz’s sermon had ‘the need to fight terrorism and protect Islam for terrorists’ as the main theme tells us plenty. The Grand Mufti is not known for expressing personal opinions over such matters. Nor has he earned a reputation for being easily riled up by pleas concerning human rights and suffering in general, during the course of his service at the religious-political office he occupies. If it was the case, he would have quit in protest against his employer(s). It may be his voice and his mouth, but the words come from somewhere else. And those words were clear and unforgiving. Not only were terrorists strongly condemned during the sermon, but additionally an appeal was made to Muslim leaders to “hit with an iron hand the enemies of Islam”. Chickens are coming home to roost, and the Saudi monarchy is fully aware of it. While it remains embroiled in a regional power struggle primarily against Iran, for which purpose it has played a devastating role in promoting extremist ideologies and terrorism, it is also mindful of the fire burning too close to home. In any case, it is difficult to imagine a scenario or a policy which would prove equally accommodating to both grand regional ambitions and neutralisation of IS, al Qaeda and the larger issue of terrorism. Will it be compelled to lose on one front to win on the other?