What’s wrong with UK’s approach to the Middle East?
The Gulf states have repeatedly been in the international spotlight in the context of the spread of terrorism and radical Islam. But not as much is said about their efforts to counteract these trends. In this regard, I found a report issued by the Henry Jackson Society, a renowned British think-tank, to be of interest. The paper, published last month, studies in detail counterterrorism policies of each of the Gulf states. Indeed, Arab governments cannot stand idly by in the face of allegations that they are making an insufficient effort to combat radicalization. Inaction is damaging to the reputations and long-term welfare of the Gulf states.
So, Saudi Arabia has launched a massive counseling programme for prisoners to assist with the rehabilitation of jihadists; the UAE is involving a number of think tanks in the promotion of public debates aimed at raising awareness of extremism; Qatar has improved its legislative framework; Bahrain is bolstering civil initiatives encouraging tolerance; and Kuwait, being an entertainment hub in the region, employs “soft power,” turning soap operas into a counterterrorism tool.
Bahrain is bolstering civil initiatives encouraging tolerance
But there is one thing that raises questions. The report calls on the British government to widen its cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), focusing largely on civil initiatives. The declared goal is not just “to achieve better outcomes against terrorism” but also “strengthen Britain’s global influence.”
The report says: “The UK should increase its anti-terrorism cooperation with the GCC, beyond intelligence and security information sharing, by creating more joint initiatives and collaborative programmes to prevent radicalization… The UK government should continue to support existing regional and local counter-extremism initiatives in the Gulf countries, especially the newly established centers, and encourage support for civil society initiatives.”
In a sense, the paper echoes a December speech by UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. He called for a renewed diplomatic push in the Middle East to deal with the threat of radical Islam. “We need more engagement,” he said. Hardly anyone would argue with the assertion that international cooperation is crucial for combating terrorism. However, it is not that simple.
Actually, there are a number of obstacles or, to be more precise, ambiguities Britain should address. Mohammed Issam Laaroussi, the senior international relations researcher at TRENDS Research & Advisory, a think-tank based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, commented on the issue, highlighting three problems Britain faces:
“I believe that the UK can contribute to enhancing of counter-terrorism policies in the GCC countries. Regardless of the UK coordination to share its counterterrorism experience with its partners in the region, it faces many obstacles to achieve that goal. First: the misunderstanding of radical Islam. In this context, the UK does not consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, which does not meet with the GCC countries’ view, particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE`s legislation putting the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah on the terrorist organizations’ list. Secondly: private sectors and NGOs’ shortage dealing with counterterrorism awareness internally and internationally, participating as well in the debate about how to counter terrorism while still protecting human rights. Thirdly: The national and international overlapped GCC’s strategies and the presence of other counterterrorism allies such as the United States of America make the UK counterterrorism agenda more complicated. At the micro level counterterrorism is a political cover used by international and regional actors to step in the region seeking for a strategic relevance. Some reports have indicated that ISIS was supported by many regional and international actors.”
Indeed, the UK government has not banned the Muslim Brotherhood, despite repeated calls for it to clamp down on the group. So, in January, Colonel Tim Collins declared in the House of Commons that the Muslim Brotherhood, funded by Turkey and Qatar, posed a threat to Britain because its members are involved in violence. However, last year, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee released a review of the Muslim Brotherhood policy, stating that it is a non-violent group whose “international structure comprises a loose and vague affiliation of like-minded groups.” Really? Does mere decentralization mean it should not be designated as a terrorist group? As a reference, ISIS has a loose structure as well but this fact doesn’t make it legal.
‘One of the UAE’s most far-reaching regional policies is its opposition to Islamists’
The situation in the Gulf region is complicated. As Laaroussi put it, the GCC countries’ efforts to counter terrorism are largely influenced by political conflicts, the divergence of views in defining terrorism sources as well as the lack of collective strategies. And this difference can be observed in the region’s counterterrorism policies:
“The GCC countries are members of the international coalition fighting against ISIS, but their experiences and background are different from each other. Saudi Arabia has developed its own counterterrorism strategy based on moderated Islam, eradication of the virulent terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, interfaith activism, promoting and encouraging tolerance, have not made very much progress. Bahrain and Kuwait counterterrorism programs are linked to a Shia cells threat supported by Iran. The government in Bahrain is currently endeavoring to approach the subject of interfaith and cultural cooperation through civil societies and NGOs. Instead of that, Qatar is not aligned with other GCC countries in fighting terrorism. Moreover, Doha has never considered Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, but the other GCC countries do.”
Laaroussi added: “The UAE believes that violent extremists will not be defeated by military force alone, opting for the soft power as well, implementing strict counterterrorism laws and a strong counterterrorism partnership with the United States, preventing the use of religious centers to radicalize and recruit effective and fair counterterrorism efforts actually align and integrate with the goals of sustainable development and human rights. One of the UAE’s most far-reaching regional policies is its opposition to Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and efforts to instead promote pro-Western and moderate policies in the Arab world.”
The situation isn’t so simple, is it?