A combination of wealth, culture, and iron-fisted governance has largely staved off terrorist threats in the GCC.
The member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have enjoyed relative prosperity and peace in recent decades, thanks in large part to stratospheric hydrocarbon revenues. To be sure, their incredible wealth has not completely shielded them from threats in their own backyard—Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and recent Houthi attacks on Saudi and Emirati infrastructure are but a few examples of the dangers these states face. By and large, however, the GCC states seem to have escaped the worst aspects of insecurity—particularly terrorist violence—that has consumed its neighbors. What explains the GCC’s remarkable safety?
Peace Amid Pandemonium
The GCC states revamped and intensified their internal security measures in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Alarmed by the destruction wrought by the attacks (and the involvement of their own citizens in their planning and execution), officials across the GCC feared other Gulf nationals enmeshed in international jihadist networks could wreak havoc across the region and abroad. They also worried that disillusioned segments of their ballooning youth populations were ripe for radicalization.
The return of seasoned khaleeji extremists from jihad in Afghanistan—and later Syria and Iraq—was especially concerning. Indoctrinated by the Wahhabist-Salafist strain of Sunni Islam advanced by groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, these fighters antagonized GCC governments and their Shia minorities. They also recruited heavily from the Gulf’s ultrareligious and disaffected populations. The civil wars that erupted across the Middle East in the years after the Arab Spring created power vacuums jihadist groups promptly filled. Gulf states’ involvement in the Arab Spring paved the way for more failed states, new terrorist attacks, and more involvement of their citizens in terrorist groups. Data from Global Terrorism Database shows that terrorist attacks peaked between 2012 and 2016, from the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to the peak of its power. Drawing from Sunni and Shiite radicalism and capitalizing on traditional popular uprisings, terrorist attacks caused hundreds of casualties. To give a few examples, ISIS attacked a Shiite mosque in Saudi Arabia, killing 20 people in 2015. That same year, ISIS attacked a Shiite mosque in Kuwait, where 27 people died. The participation of GCC citizens in ISIS enabled the group to carry out attacks in these countries. In fact, more than 1,000 Saudi citizens joined the terrorist organization, perhaps assisting with the planning and execution of these attacks. The presence of GCC citizens allowed them to revisit their country and carry out attacks.
Despite the regional turmoil that surrounds the six GCC states, most member states have remained relatively immune to terrorist attacks. Close to 42,000 terrorist attacks took place in the Middle East between 1970 and 2019, accounting for 24.9% of global totals. The majority of these attacks occurred in Iraq (56%), Yemen (9.4%) and Turkey (8.2%); comparatively few occurred in the GCC’s borders. The years between 2012 and 2016 were unusually deadly for GCC citizens; 414 nationals, expatriates, and security personnel died in attacks across Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Bahrain. Still, these figures pale in comparison to the carnage occurring elsewhere during this period.
According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Index, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE experienced no terrorist attacks in 2020. Saudi Arabia suffered 70 that year, though terrorism in the Kingdom was less prevalent than in 53 other countries. Bahrain, which suffered fewer than five attacks, ranked 65th. These ranking indicate that the GCC states are more secure from terrorist violence than many developed countries, including the United States, Greece, Israel, Germany, France, Canada, and Austria. The GCC states’ relative safety is even more remarkable when considering the environment they inhabit. Iraq, whose capital city Baghdad is only a 7-hour drive to Kuwait City, experienced close to 1,000 terror attacks in 2020.
Why So Safe?
Several factors help explain the GCC’s success in limiting terrorist violence within its borders. The first is the strength of state surveillance systems. Each GCC state is ruled by a wealthy, centralized ruling family well-versed in monitoring the citizenry and crushing dissent. The GCC states are therefore highly capable of sniffing out extremist elements and crushing them. Movement in and out of the Gulf monarchies is tightly regulated. The Gulf monarchies stifle the spread of extremist content on social media through tight controls on the internet. Regimes throughout the GCC have enhanced official punishments for praising and supporting extremist groups or ideology, further deterring deviant behavior by their citizens.
Socioeconomic conditions in GCC countries also disincentivize individuals from joining violent groups. For instance, the Ibadi school of Islam, the predominant theological doctrine in Oman, urges believers to practice non-violence and tolerate the presence of different faiths. The wealth enjoyed by many Gulf citizens—especially Qataris, Kuwaitis, Emiratis, and many Saudis—also dissuades would-be extremists from latching onto destabilizing ideologies (and, in turn, abandoning their comfortable lives). Lavish social benefits, such as heavily subsidized education, housing, utilities, and other perks, help alleviate social tensions and anti-government sentiment. Former Saudi King Abdullah, for example, forestalled potential political instability during the Arab Spring by fattening state benefits packages. Those relatively few who do stray into extremism are either killed, imprisoned, or forced to undergo well-funded deradicalization programs.
Embracing, instead of antagonizing, vulnerable religious minorities can also help prevent domestic terrorism. While Shiite communities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia face considerable oppression, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait have economically and socially integrated their Shiite populations, thereby depriving terrorist groups like Hezbollah the opportunity to exploit Shiites grievances and persecution to form cells and inspire terrorist activity in the region by some members of the community.
A combination of wealth, culture, and iron-fisted governance has largely staved off terrorist threats in the GCC. The ethics and sustainability of their methods is debatable, but the peace they have achieved is hardly questionable.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.