ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A prominent Saudi prince said Sunday that Muslim countries need to take the lead in fighting terrorism and that a recently announced Islamic counterterrorism alliance of 34 nations should have been created sooner.
Prince Turki al-Faisal's comments come as the kingdom hosts an 18-day military exercise with 20 members of the new alliance, which includes Pakistan, Sudan, Jordan and neighboring Gulf states. Defense Ministers from the coalition of Muslim-majority countries are scheduled to hold their first meeting in Saudi Arabia sometime in March.
"I consider this a leading and commendable step that should have happened sooner and thank God it has taken place," he told reporters in Abu Dhabi.
"It's no secret, unfortunately, that in our world today the majority of terrorism-related acts, its victims are Muslim," he said. "Therefore, it is our responsibility as Muslim countries to play the primary role in fighting this disease that has impacted us all."
Notably absent from the coalition is the kingdom's regional rival Iran, as well as Syria and Iraq, which are battling to win back swaths of territory controlled by the Islamic State group.
Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran are fiercely divided on a host of issues and support opposite sides of the wars in Yemen and Syria.
Relations worsened after the execution of a popular Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia last month, which triggered protests in Iran and the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy and another diplomatic mission there. The two countries then severed diplomatic and trade ties.
Prince Turki said "the ball is in the Iranian court" when it comes to any hope of improving ties.
"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has expressed publicly that Iran's interference in the affairs of Arab states is a situation that is unacceptable," he said.
The prince, who does not hold an official position in the government, is an influential and outspoken member of the Saudi royal family. He headed Saudi Arabia's General Intelligence Directorate for more than two decades until Sept. 1, 2001, and held ambassador posts to the U.S., the U.K. and Ireland.