by Emily Murphy (Instagram). She is a student in the Political Science Honors and Islamic Civilizations and Societies Departments at Boston College, as well as a Research Fellow for the Political Science Department.The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) provides an example of states in the Middle East increasing their involvement and devotion to international, multilateral agreements in recent years. One of the first major developments in counter terrorism efforts among the GCC was the Muscat Declaration on Terrorism in August 2002.
While the declaration received little press coverage internationally, the Muscat Declaration was significant as a coordinated effort to combat terrorism. As summarized by the Saudi Embassy in Washington, “the GCC states […] have long been aware of the danger of the phenomenon of terrorism, and have called for concerted international efforts to combat it”.
Unfortunately, the initial momentum coming out of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States did not result in a long-term, coordinated counterterrorism plan among the GCC states. While they were participants in several large, UN- or Arab League-based “conventions”, the states did not implement significant counterterrorism legislation for cross-border cooperation. The trend does, however, seem to be changing in favor of multilateral “cooperative security” actions.
The 36th GCC summit in Riyadh took place only last month. The GCC was hit in mid-2015 with a series of attacks by ISIS, and has become increasingly concerned about terrorism as a direct result. The USA’s coalition against ISIS was joined by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain — a clear demonstration of willingness to work in a vastly more multilateral framework. From a constructivist viewpoint, the threats of counter terrorism would theoretically be addressed by increased cooperation among states with similar cultures. Interior Minister of Kuwait Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khaled Al-Sabah noted that terrorism “is now threatening the security of our people and the best interests of our countries and pose a threat to our civilization, economic, and cultural achievements”. Moreover, an article in the Kuwait Times ahead of the 36th Summit observed: “The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) considers that terrorism acts are contrary to the teachings of Islam, its values, morals and humanitarian principles and poses a threat to the Gulf communities and the world.”
Within news and media coverage of the Summit, there has been an emphasis on the GCC’s role in countering terrorism. A Saudi analyst was quoted in an article in The National as saying: “The thinking appears to be predicated on the premise that acting collectively is more efficacious than each member acting unilaterally”. The focus within most articles suggested the meeting was most concerned with the problems in Yemen (likely because of Saudi Arabia’s active participation in the conflict with the Houthis) and the conflict between the Syrian regime and its opposition (again, Saudi Arabia has a stake in its support of the opposition). Interestingly, there has been increased willingness on the part of the smaller GCC members to work towards common goals in these conflicts. Qatar, for example, has recognized that it cannot compete with its larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, while Bahrain has started to comprehend its dependence on the most powerful GCC member.
The same article notes: “The meeting came at a time of GCC unity not seen in years”. The alluded-to previous disunity among the GCC had largely originated from Qatari support to Islamists, such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this began to change around 2013-2014 as noted in an article by Sigurd Neubauer: “For Qatar, supporting regional Islamist groups had previously enabled it to carve out an independent foreign policy by moving it out of the shadow of its mighty neighbor. However, these groups’ failure to seize the opportunities the Arab Spring created has led Qatar to reconsider its approach.” According to Neubauer, Qatar’s new emir was “left with little choice but to overcome its recent public spat with Riyadh. Given Qatar’s limited room to act, Sheikh Tamim will likely over time be forced to follow in Riyadh’s footsteps”.
Thus, Qatar was ultimately persuaded to assume the positions of the GCC towards counterterrorism, as affirmed by its behavior at the 36th GCC Summit last month. Its counterterrorism efforts are influenced primarily by international, rather than domestic pressures, thereby indicating a wide win-set of domestic preferences, or perhaps just a lack of prioritizing to counterterror measures. Though the small country signalled its readiness to work with other Gulf states, it remains to be seen how dedicated Qatar will be to the recent counter terror agreements.
The United States has been able to pursue multilateral agreements for counterterrorism with the Gulf states for several years; what is remarkable is the growing willingness in historically more self-asserting states to work multilaterally. The Gulf states have financial means to counterterrorism, as well as the religious legitimacy to oppose islamically-motivated terrorism, yet they have proved willing and even desirous of joining international efforts.