The year 2011 arguably signaled the beginning of a transformative period for the geopolitics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), simultaneously posing new and daunting threats to all the countries of the region.1 The fact that in less than a year protesters toppled the decades-old regimes of Zine al-Abbedin Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Qadhafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen demonstrated the power of popular revolts. In the Arabian Peninsula, the events inspired significant opposition rallies in Oman, Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province and, above all, Bahrain. Moreover, the power vacuum caused by the revolts allowed for the rise, in North Africa, of Islamist factions affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, propped up by Qatar and vigorously opposed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Similar protests in Syria descended into a full-fledged civil war, in which Russia and Iran would fight alongside the regime of Bashar al-Assad, creating conditions for the spread of Iranian influence to an even greater degree than in post-2003 Iraq.
In Yemen, a rebel group known as Houthis, inimical to Riyadh and allegedly supported by Tehran, engaged in a campaign leading them to take the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. In February 2015, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, launched a military campaign against the rebels, with the UAE as his main ally. This perceived Iranian momentum was cemented by the decision of the United States in 2015 to sign the Iran-P5+12 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).3 In exchange for restrains on Tehran's nuclear program, the agreement paves the way for the normalization of Iran's position in the international community for the first time since 1979. The agreement was reached due to the key mediation of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member, Oman. In the same period, the power vacuum in Syria and Iraq allowed the rise between 2014 and 2015 of a new jihadist group, Daesh.4 Over a few months, it managed to proclaim a "caliphate" in large swaths of territory between the two countries, publicly declaring the annulment of the borders between them as drawn in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Daesh's rhetoric soon exposed its plans to destabilize the leaders of the Arabian Peninsula, evinced by a string of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait between 2015 and 2016.
For the first time, challenges of different types, and from different sources, rose contemporaneously on a regional scale — and in the context of major shifts in the regional positioning of Iran and the United States. Such a combination of game-changing events had a transformative impact on the interpretation of "threat" at the level of the individual GCC governments and put into question their security calculus. New questions emerged regarding shared priorities and dangers when they materialize simultaneously at the global, regional and domestic levels. Significant discord has emerged within the GCC regarding Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and the future of regional politics.
In the span of only six years, the GCC was hit by two of the gravest internal political crises in its 36-year history.5 In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain cut diplomatic relations with Qatar for eight months. Just three years later, the same three countries cut all relations with Doha, while closing their land, sea and air borders with their neighbor. The crisis shows no sign of resolution. Both crises unfolded around a narrative of national security; Qatar was accused of supporting actors threatening GCC security such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and even jihadist organizations.6 Notwithstanding the fact that these tensions could be traced back to the so-called Arab Spring, international observers at all levels, including policy makers, were caught completely off guard and unprepared to absorb collateral shocks or enact coherent policy responses. Even the United States, traditional guarantor of regional security, displayed incoherence, President Donald Trump seemingly supporting the anti-Qatar positions while the Departments of State and Defense called for de-escalation.7
A review of the literature on the security of the Arabian Peninsula clarifies how defining terms such as "security" or "threat" has always been a controversial endeavor. Studies on GCC security produced since the early 1980s can be loosely categorized into three waves. First-wave studies, epitomized by Anthony Cordesman's The Gulf and the Search for Strategic Stability,8 tend to prioritize conventional hard security threats, and are heavily based on power metrics — size, population, resources, military capabilities — and geographic features, such as proximity to a threatening big power. Subsequently, David Priess, building on Stephen Walt's The Origins of Alliances, has defined threats as determined by aggregate power, geographical proximity, offensive power and aggressive intentions, thus broadening the traditional interpretation of threat from subversion, terrorism, espionage, and even political propaganda.9 By adopting such perspectives, however, it would be impossible to explain why a small state such as Qatar, with very little military capability, has been identified by a much larger player such as Saudi Arabia and others as a source of instability in both 2014 and 2017. The same might be said of the centrality increasingly attributed by GCC states to nonstate actors such as Islamist and jihadist groups.10
Indeed, these early studies, arguably adopting a Cold War perspective, fail to appreciate the relevance in the local context of state-society relations and internal threats. Scholars such as Mohammed Ayoob have strongly distanced themselves from the idea of the nation-state as a unitary actor.11 Accordingly, they have found that GCC rulers, like others who have not come into office through a democratic process, perceive threats chiefly through the lens of regime survival.12 Studies in this second wave focus on endogenous, soft security threats. These broaden the notions of threat to incorporate a wide range of economic, societal, environmental and demographic challenges that were not acknowledged in first-wave accounts as threatening societal and, therefore, political stability. Insecure Gulf, by Kristian Ulrichsen, embodies well these ideas.13 Adopting a constructivist approach, Ulrichsen argues that stability in the GCC countries is threatened not only by the conventional "hard security" threats but also by so-called "soft security" challenges. These, in fact, risk eroding the internal consensus and thus the ruling bargain that binds ruler and ruled. Several scholars, interpreting the Arab Spring as uprisings related primarily to socioeconomic grievances, point to the events of 2011 as a demonstration of the fundamental argument presented by this wave of literature.14 Socioeconomic grievances have been referred to as the driving force of protests in Oman and, to a lesser extent, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where the "ruling bargain" is based upon the "rentier" model, the idea that the state doesn't collect taxes but reallocates to its citizens the externally driven oil-and-gas-related rents it receives, accounting for between 80 and 90 percent of total government revenues.15 However, this perspective also leaves some questions unanswered. For instance, why in the midst of a spectacular collapse of energy prices in 2014-16 due to the fall of global demand for oil and increased supply from North America, in February 2015, did Saudi Arabia launch an extremely costly war in Yemen against a rebel group sympathetic to Iran (the Houthis)? Why, despite clear-cut stability implications, when energy prices plummeted, did Saudi Arabia decide not to restrict its oil production to drive prices upwards, prioritizing the opportunity to damage its main geopolitical rival, Iran?16
Third-wave studies might seem to provide an explanation for these questions by giving added weight to ideological factors. Threats based on identity politics were much discussed in the post-Arab Spring context, as some uprisings developed across fault lines of ideology and identity.17 For instance, Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain prioritized balancing against their restive Shia populations, perceived as Iran's "fifth column" and, by extension, against all proximate nonstate groups perceived as connected to Tehran. Thus in April 2011, Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, claimed: "We have never seen such a sustained campaign by Iran on Bahrain and the Gulf as we have seen in the past two months."18 In this sense, for third-wave studies, the capacity of an external power to influence politics in other countries can be based not only upon material resources but also upon ideological power. One notable example is the work of Michael Barnett, who centered his arguments on ideologies and identity politics.19
The existing theories, while they remain valid and applicable to their domains, don't aim at providing a comprehensive theoretical explanation fitting the perspective of the GCC states in the post-2011 context. In particular, the central question that remains unanswered is why it was possible for the GCC — whose members are so similar for history, culture and political-economic structure — to fragment to the extent that occurred in 2014 and 2017, with three countries, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain against one, Qatar, and two neutral countries, Kuwait and Oman, caught in the middle.
A FRAMEWORK FOR THREAT ANALYSIS
This article's starting point is Barry Buzan's eclectic ideas about the comprehensiveness of the concept of security.20 In addition, there is a growing appreciation of cultural and historical specificities and of the contingent empirical reality. I embrace the conflation between "regime security" and "national security" as a feature of local discourse and policy making in the Arabian Peninsula.21 I also embrace a state- and regime-centric definition of security and threats. The term "threat" is hereby used specifically to define dangers that become acute enough to take on overtly political dimensions and hinder state boundaries, state institutions or regime survival. "Security" is therefore taken to concern the ability of regimes to maintain their independent identity and the state's functional integrity against forces of change they see as hostile. However, while the bottom line of security may be survival, this definition also reasonably includes a substantial range of degrees of security.
Threats or Risks?
While Buzan explicitly suggests that to attempt formulating a precise definition of security would be to disregard the set of "contradictions latent within the concept itself," 22 I am going to argue that, in the context crafting a security agenda, contradictions are daily occurrences that call for an even more detailed definition — in degrees of security — and a constant effort to establish priorities. There are always only partial chances of success and, thus, security. I therefore define "threat" as those dangers that can hinder or significantly weaken state structures and regimes, as they exploit and leverage structural vulnerabilities and are accordingly perceived and described by the ruling elites. Thus, different types of dangers become full-fledged threats only when they become acute enough to take on overtly political dimensions and hinder state stability or regime survival. Otherwise, they are defined in this paper as risks. State vulnerabilities and decision-makers' perceptions are thus the two key variables in this framework. While they interact with one another, arguably, in the GCC context, perceptions prevail and structural vulnerabilities are usually interpreted by decision makers.
The Role of Perceptions
The decision-making process in the Arab Gulf states is largely limited to the ruler and his closest family members, who are also regarded as the ultimate representatives of the national interest.23 A tight circle of decision makers in the Gulf monarchies is thus ultimately responsible for operationalizing the difference between risks and threats, described by Ole Waever as securitization.24 The core idea is that security can be analyzed as a speech act, which brings certain referent objects and threats into existence by being uttered as such by securitizing actors.
The function of perceptions is key. Gregory Gause, in this regard, has written, "Each state's behavior is rooted in perception of both the international situation and its own status as a state."25 This implies that the actual threat matters less than the perceived threat, making the understanding of perceptions particularly meaningful. Central to the study of threat perception is the rationalist argument that leaders perceive threats as such because they do not have complete information.26 The problem in this approach is that, with its focus on the source of threats and information on intention, it largely neglects the role of interpretation of signals by the targets themselves, what critical theorists would call the "cultural perspective."27 This includes a country's identity and political culture as well as collective memory.28 It applies, arguably, to the perception of Iran among Bahrain's decision makers. The history of Iranian claims on Bahrain as its province, first under the Safavids, then the shah, and later the Islamic Republic, cannot but influence the perceptions of Manama's ruling family.29 Arguably, Iran will indefinitely be perceived as a threat rather than a risk in Bahrain. Collective memory might have an equally substantial impact, though opposite results, on the perception of Tehran by Omani leaders. Many scholars point to the correlation between a more benign perception of Iran's regional role in Muscat and the military assistance given by the shah to the current sultan during the Dhofar War in the 1960s and 1970s, which was instrumental for the consolidation of his reign.30
Finally, individual cognition and other "human factors" can be particularly relevant in the context of Gulf Arab politics where the role of leaders is widely understood to be central.31 A particularly interesting case is that of perceptions towards the Muslim Brotherhood: the differing policies of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the period after 2011, and the different approach of Saudi Arabia before and after the change of leadership in 2015. When the Arab Spring erupted and Muslim Brotherhood groups began to challenge and obtain power, the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad, a long-standing practitioner of the art of international politics, saw it as an opportunity to strengthen Qatar's reach via Brotherhood-affiliated local groups, while the de facto leader of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince and deputy commander of the armed forces, a man of military culture, perceived it as a burgeoning threat.32 The Brotherhood, having won elections in Egypt and Tunisia, looked on the verge of becoming a regional power. While Qatar financed several regional affiliates to seize the opportunity to become the main patron of this emerging power, the UAE "launched a full-fledged attack…against the Muslim Brotherhood…locally and regionally," over 100 were arrested and sentenced, and the organization was declared a terrorist group.33
Several scholars have analysed the roots of such different perceptions in countries that are very similar from a political, social and economic perspective; frequently, a determining role has been attributed to the personal preferences of the leaders.34 This factor's influence can also arguably be spotted in the different attitudes towards the Brotherhood by the former king of Saudi Arabia, Abdallah, and his successor, King Salman. Under King Abdallah, Saudi Arabia, in full alignment with the UAE, supported and financed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the leader put forward by the Egyptian military after it staged a coup d'état against the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohammad Morsi, in July 2013. Saudi Arabia even designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in March 2014.35 When King Salman ascended to the throne in January 2015, the approach seemed to change. Arguably the Brotherhood appeared to the new king more as a risk, unable to meaningfully challenge the regime's functional integrity. Although it was still formally designated as a terrorist organization, shortly after King Salman's coronation, then-Foreign Minister Saud Bin Faisal famously said: Riyadh has "no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood."36 In seven months, the king had met with key figures from the Brotherhood's regional affiliates, including Rachid al-Ghannouchi of Tunisia's Ennahda party, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani of Al-Islah, Khalid Meshaal of Hamas and Hammam Saeed of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood.37 When Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince of Saudi Arabia in June 2017, the Brotherhood was again identified as a threat and one of the main issues driving the 2017 GCC crisis.38 The fact that dramatic policy changes happened so swiftly, and coincided with the leadership change, means the leaders' personal thinking cannot be ignored.
However, in spite of the vast power GCC rulers enjoy, they are usually most mindful of maintaining domestic consensus. Often, their perceptions are either informed by or, at the very least, interact with, the structural vulnerabilities of their country.
Borrowing the definition from Fabien Nathan's environmental studies, vulnerabilities are described as conditions thought to determine the incapacity of the state to contain, cope with, adapt to and recover from a damaging phenomenon and thus raise the susceptibility of decisionmakers to its impact.39 Nathan characterized vulnerability as context-dependent, dividing them between physical exposure and insufficient capacity. The GCC countries can be considered physically exposed, given their location in one of the most volatile regions in the world. As for "insufficient capacities," Nathan categorizes them as physical, legal, organizational, technical, cultural, political and socioeconomic.40 The last two are pertinent here: political vulnerabilities consist of an institutionalized low level of sociopolitical cohesiveness, and socioeconomic challenges are large inequalities or imbalances in the national economy. Politically, the countries of the GCC, often no more than a few decades past independence and usually having socially exclusive rather than shared founding ideologies, show contested legitimacy and dynamics of group fractionalization.41 On the economic front, a dysfunctional political economy on the rentier model has over time blended with this exclusive ideology and contributed to major inequalities and imbalances.42 While some of these vulnerabilities are largely shared across the six Gulf monarchies, some indicators present key differences from one country to another.
Although specific data on the GCC countries are often outdated or unavailable — and substituted with approximate estimates by international organizations or independent researchers — clear trends still emerge. Major socioeconomic imbalances can be uncovered in demographic data: the GCC as a whole has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, more than 50 percent of which is under 25.43 At the same time, notwithstanding the high GDP per capita of these countries, youth unemployment was estimated in 2014 at 20 percent in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and a staggering 27 percent in Oman, and around 10 percent in the UAE and Kuwait and at less than 2 percent in Qatar.44 High youth unemployment is correlated with political instability in 2011: chiefly in Oman, followed by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, while the UAE and Kuwait saw minor protests and Qatar had none. An interesting case is represented by economic inequalities within the UAE. While Abu Dhabi's GDP per capita is estimated at $70,000, in Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Quwain, it is thought to be around $20,000.45 The latter are the emirates, where Abu Dhabi's authorities focused their post-2011 campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which traditionally leverages political and economic inequalities for its cause and was identified by the government as the main threat to political instability in the aftermath of the limited dissent voiced in the country in 2011.46
In another major imbalance, the overwhelming majority of GCC nationals in all six countries, on average above 80 percent, work in the public sector; the private sector is dominated by foreigners.47 The preference for an undemanding public-sector job is closely related to these countries' rentier economy and a culture of entitlements correlated with citizenship. Arab Gulf citizens have for decades been entitled to cradle-to-grave welfare in exchange for political quiescence.48 Often, however, more benefits are granted to groups that are closer to the rulers or play a role in their patrimonial politics; hence, a more favorable economic status is also related to belonging to a specific sociopolitical group, tribe or sect.49 This unequal access to opportunities and benefits institutionalizes ethno-sectarian cleavages, one of the main political vulnerabilities of the GCC countries.
The different economic statuses of different sociopolitical groups in the Arab Gulf is at times entrenched, even in national narratives and the public discourse. Those are frequently exclusive, highlighting differences among citizens and privileging certain population segments over others.50 This provokes a lack of sociopolitical cohesiveness, arguably, the main sociopolitical vulnerability of these countries. The marginalization of ethnic and sectarian minorities in countries with a diverse social fabric such as Saudi Arabia (around 15 percent Shia) and Bahrain (around 60 percent Shia), but also other types of divides, such as that between citizens and bidoons (Arabic for "without") in Kuwait (about 10 percent), can make the state more vulnerable to instability.51
This perspective is validated by scholars of the so-called "security of the Third World." For example, Azar and Moon emphasize what they call the "software" side of security.52 They argue that not enough time has been available to state makers in MENA countries to develop the intangible ingredients of security, including the identification of the people with the state (legitimacy) and of people with each other (integration). What Azar and Moon term "integration" is referred to by Barry Buzan as "the variable of sociopolitical cohesiveness" and by me as sociopolitical vulnerability. Buzan also accords primary explanatory power to this variable, which he considers the defining feature in the distinction between strong and weak states. He also relates this difference to the time available to states to complete the processes of state making and nation building.53
In addition to the historical depth, Buzan also speaks of the importance of founding ideologies.54 A state whose founding ideology is not shared, or is contested, he argues, is automatically weaker and more vulnerable, especially to threats to its own identity. The countries of the GCC, no more than a few decades past independence and at times having socially exclusive founding ideologies, fit Buzan's description and can be very susceptible to their national identity and "ontological security."55 For instance, as opposed to other Arab states, where nation making was based on ethnic elements (Arabism) combined with territorial affinities related to the struggle against colonialism, Saudi Arabia was formed on the basis of the forced aggregation of several clans, tribes and Bedouins — thus not allowing the rapid emergence of a state around a collective national identity.56
The kingdom's territory was rarely unified until the forces of the Al Saud family succeeded in conquering the country in the early twentieth century. A fundamental role in this conquest was played by a network of clerics led by Abd Al Wahhab, who traveled across the peninsula to convince the different tribes of the righteousness of Al Saud's mission. In exchange, Wahhabism — a socially exclusive doctrine, hostile to both other religions and other sects — became the kingdom's founding ideology and a fundamental feature in a peculiar form of national identity.57 The economic and political discrimination against Shia citizens who revolted in 2011, documented in a number of studies, has therefore long been entrenched in the country's religious discourse and education system.58 The ruling family, who established the country, gave it its name and has ruled it ever since, also became an integral part of the national identity, a process encouraged in the public psyche and national culture through symbolism and narratives.59 This juxtaposition between the Al Saud family and the national identity of Saudi Arabia encourages the country's leaders to perceive as utterly alien movements that question their legitimacy. In the context of the 2011 protests, focused in the oil-rich Eastern Province, the fact that they were mainly carried by Shia citizens who also fully reject Wahhabism drove the perception of the threats as exogenous to the country's security.
The case of these protests is particularly significant for a number of reasons. As briefly discussed, it exposes the relevance of a country's sociopolitical vulnerabilities and leadership perceptions. On the other hand, it has been perceived as both external and domestic, an idiosyncratic combination.60 Finally, this issue has more than political and social implications: the Eastern Province is the epicenter of Saudi oil resources.
WHICH KIND OF THREAT?
The most basic distinction in security studies is that between external and internal threats. The modern history of the foreign and defense policies of the GCC countries constantly shows consideration of two external threats: Iraq and Iran.61 Later on, constructivist scholars pointed to the existence of ideological threats that could be of external or internal nature.62 As mentioned, this was the case also for the GCC countries. Ideologies such as Iraq's pan-Arabism and Iran's Khomeinism emerged as even graver threats with respect to the subversive measures these ideologies triggered within the GCC's own population.63 These facts and their explanations opened up consideration of threats that weren't exclusively external or internal, material or ideological in nature, something that applies very well to a region where transnationalism is so strong and security interdependence so solid.
It was only after the Cold War that the categorization of threats has widened, moving away from traditional assumptions. Buzan identifies five types of military threat: 1) seizure of territory, invasion, occupation — directly or against the external interests of the state; 2) economic — export or import restrictions, default on debt, economic instability; 3) societal — damage to domestic stability and cohesion; 4) ecological — environmental deterioration; and 5) political — penetration by a hostile party or ideological competition, whether international and exogenous or structural and endogenous.64 As Buzan points out, the "five sectors do not operate in isolation from each other. Each defines a focal point within the security problematique, and a way of ordering priorities, but all are woven together in a strong web of linkage."65 Ecological threats, for instance, can trigger societal or economic ones, such as when desertification threatens the resources of a country or endangers the livelihood of a community. Societal threats can easily spill over into military and political threats. Some have convincingly argued that a severe drought, substantially eroding economic conditions in Syria, is to be included in the broad set of factors triggering the conflict.66
The growing transnationalism of threats makes boundaries between internal and external dangers increasingly blurred, yet this interrelation, hereby tentatively referred to as "intermestic," has not yet been fully conceptualized. Each type of threat can then manifest itself in the five dimensions indicated by Buzan: political, military, economic, societal and environmental, depending on the object of the threat. The sixth, which is gradually emerging, although in limited instances, is the cyber dimension.
Jihadi terrorism has increasingly shown a strong cyber angle: hacker groups sympathetic to the terrorist organization Daesh — the Caliphate Cyber Army, the Islamic Cyber Army or the United Cyber Caliphate — attacked a number of business, government and security websites in Saudi Arabia during 2015-16, not only tampering with their functionality but taking possession of sensitive data.67 In a world where many of the state's functions are executed online, and cyberspace is vital for strategic and confidential communications in politics, business and the military, cyber attacks can do real harm to any government. In fact, the threat posed by jihadi groups, Daesh in particular, to the GCC countries and their perception, can serve as a representative case that possibly hasn't yet been thoroughly investigated.
THE GCC AND THE JIHADI THREAT
When asked in 2016 what he considered the biggest threat to Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, immediately pointed to terrorism.68 Kuwait's interior minister, Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, affirmed at the 33rd session of the Arab Interior Council that combating terrorism was the greatest challenge facing Arab security apparatuses.69 Many other officials would agree.70 Most would make reference to the suicide attack a Daesh cell carried out in June 2015 in the historic Shiite Imam Sadiq mosque in Kuwait City, killing 27 people and wounding 227, one of the bloodiest in the country's history. Kuwait was the only GCC country other than Saudi Arabia where Daesh was able to complete an operation. Within the GCC, it ranks third in the number of recruits; official estimates indicate that approximately 70 Kuwaitis have joined Daesh, as opposed to around 2,500 Saudis and over 100 Bahrainis.71 A unique feature of Bahrain is that these volunteers include officials from the security services, the police and the military, something that prompted a government source to declare: "The threat is real, the issue is very serious. We have people who want to turn Bahrain into part of the new caliphate. And they see the al-Khalifas as the enemy."72
Around 15 suspects allegedly joined the group from the UAE and Qatar and even fewer from Oman.73 Oman is widely assessed to have very low vulnerability to terrorist attacks — a recent IHS Jane's report ruled out the risk of a Daesh attack74 — and this is reflected in the scarce mention of the topic as a national threat in public discourse and the media. To both Oman and Qatar, Daesh remains a risk rather than a threat capable of damaging the regime's stability, given its lack of domestic relevance.75 In the UAE, a country that received a similar assessment to Oman's, the threat of terrorism has been described as less critical than others.76 However, a single attack, perpetrated in 2014 by a deranged Emirati woman who murdered an American expat, still had an impact, driving the perception of terrorism as an incumbent risk with a clear-cut societal and economic dimension.77 Emirati leaders have exerted considerable effort to portray the country as safe to investors and talented expats, who are vital to its economic model. Addressing Kuwait, the same reports revealed that, while Daesh's ability to establish active cells is likely to be constrained, there is an elevated risk of one-off suicide attacks, as well as shootings.78
Over the past few years, Kuwait has emerged as a financial and organizational hub for charities and individuals supporting extremist and rebel groups in Syria and Iraq.79 A number of sources, including U.S. government agencies, have listed prominent Kuwaitis as financiers of terrorism, including university professors and imams featured in official media.80 With Shiites comprising roughly one third of the population, Kuwait — like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — is exposed to the Daesh narrative regarding the need to clear the Arabian Peninsula of Shiite Muslims. In contrast to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Kuwaiti Shiites represent a politically engaged community centered around a merchant elite that has often allied with the ruler to counterbalance opposing centers of powers in Kuwait's complex semi-democratic system.81 This picture is strikingly different from the condition of marginalization that characterizes the status of approximately 110,000 bidoons, residents without the citizenship, political rights and access to public services granted to Kuwaiti citizens.82 As a marginalized community, the bidoons' serious sociopolitical and socioeconomic grievances make them susceptible to Daesh recruitment logic. Back in 2011, the bidoons were even protagonists in the modest protests taking place in Kuwait. The leadership's hesitant and inconclusive response to their grievances — partial naturalization or citizenship from a third country — exposes the magnitude of the vulnerability the treatment of such a community embodies.83
All things considered, jihadi terrorism in Kuwait can be described as a full-fledged threat aimed at destabilizing the regime and damaging its functional integrity.84 Other than this political dimension, the threat has security and societal dimensions, as the group's mission and major attack had a strong sectarian connotation. It also has an economic dimension, as it hijacks resources that could be invested in the country's economic development and enhances the risk to international investors. In fact, the perception is not very different in Saudi Arabia. According to the Ministry of the Interior's official statistics, on average, the country witnessed one attack every 12 days from May 2015 until May 2016, overwhelmingly attacks on Shia mosques or other targets in the Eastern Province.85 In both cases, Daesh can be described as an intermestic threat. It emerged directly out of the state disintegration, widespread violence and geopolitical vacuum characterizing Iraq and Syria, developing a distinct domestic shape, dimension and impact. It is remarkable that not even the threat from jihadi terrorism, often described as a unifying menace, is perceived equally across the GCC or prioritized as the most pressing danger to Gulf security.
Some scholars have recently pointed out that hyper-securitization by GCC states is an attempt to accrue political support.86 By exaggerating the level of threat and emphasizing their ability to guarantee security, Gulf states reinforce domestic backing and guarantee political quiescence. However, although heightening security concerns in a population or rallying it against a common enemy have long been considered effective techniques to guarantee quiescence, the magnifying of sectarian threats and the hypersecuritization of domestic policy responses in the long term could deepen the sociopolitical cleavages that constitute the main political vulnerability of GCC countries and increase their exposure to threats.
Because of the multitude of transnational links that connect people across borders in the wider Gulf region, the GCC states find in their history and collective memory reasons for a heightened perception of exogenous threats to regime stability. However, while there is certainly room for future research to investigate the nature and weight of intermestic threats in the Arabian Peninsula, it must be acknowledged that threat prioritization across the GCC is increasingly diverging. The analysis has shown a strong correlation between threat perceptions by the country's leadership and country-specific socioeconomic and sociopolitical vulnerabilities. Therefore, the substantial discrepancies and differences in these vulnerabilities at a national level exacerbate the continued divergence of security perceptions, especially in the larger context of regional instability. We can expect countries in the region — not only those directly involved in the 2017 GCC crisis, but also Oman and Kuwait — to have increasingly contrasting opinions on what constitutes a menace to Gulf security, with implications for the very notion of the phenomenon.
1 For an overview of the events that followed the so-called Arab Spring, see Paul Danahar, The new Middle East: The world after the Arab spring (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013).
2 The UN Security Council's five permanent members (the P5) plus Germany, countries tasked by the United Nations to engage in diplomatic efforts with Iran with regard to its nuclear program.
3 An international agreement on Iran's nuclear program reached in Vienna on July 14, 2015, between Iran and the P5+1.
4 The Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
5 Mohammed Ahmad Naheem, "The dramatic rift and crisis between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of June 2017," International Journal of Disclosure and Governance 14, no. 4 (2017): 265-277.
6 In order to resolve the crisis, Qatar was handed 13 demands from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, focusing on cutting ties to Iran, the Brotherhood and jihadi groups. Those can be read at: Patrick Wintour, "Qatar given 10 days to meet 13 sweeping demands by Saudi Arabia," The Guardian, June 23, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/23/close-al-jazeera-saudi-ar…, (accessed July 20, 2017). The demands replicated those included in agreements signed by all parties to resolve the 2014 dispute. The so-called 2013 and 2014 Riyadh Agreements were leaked to the press in July 2017. CNN, which originally obtained the documents, has provided both the original Arabic versions and English translations at http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2017/images/07/10/translation.of.agreement… (accessed July 21, 2017).
7 Peter Dombrowski and Simon Reich, "Does Donald Trump have a grand strategy?" International Affairs 93, no. 5 (2017): 1013-1037.
8 Anthony H. Cordesman, The Gulf and the Search for Strategic Stability (Westview, 1984).
9 David Priess, "Balance-of-threat Theory and the Genesis of the Gulf Cooperation Council," Security Studies 5, no. 4 (1996): 143-171.
10 Vincent Durac, "The role of non-state actors in Arab countries after the Arab uprisings," IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2015 (2015): 37-41.
11 Mohammed Ayoob, The Third World Security Predicament (Lynne Rienner, 1995).
13 Kristian C. Ulrichsen, Insecure Gulf: the End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (Columbia University Press, 2011).
14 Bahgat Korany, "The Middle East since the Cold War," International Relations of the Middle East, ed. Louise Fawcett (Oxford University Press, 2016), 90.
15 The "rentier state system" is a political-economic system whose relative theory was expressed first in Hazem Beblawi, "The Rentier State in the Arab World," The Rentier State: Nation, State and the Integration of the Arab World, eds. Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani (Croom Helm, 1987).
16 Jay Solomon and Summer Said, "Why Saudis Decided Not to Prop Up Oil," The Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2014.
17 Marina Calculli and Matteo Legrenzi, "Middle East Security: Conflict and Securitization of Identities," International relations of the Middle East, ed. Louise Fawcett (Oxford University Press, 2016).
18 "UAE Calls for Iran to 'Respect' Gulf Neighbours," AFP, April 20, 2011; and "Saudi Arabia Tells Iran to Stop 'Meddling' in the Region," Reuters, October 20, 2015.
19 Michael Barnett, "Institutions, Roles and Disorder: The Case of the Arab States System," International Studies Quarterly 37, no. 3 (1993): 271-296.
20 Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear (Lynne Rienner, 1999), 4.
21 See, for example, Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond Hinnebusch, "Foreign Policymaking in the Middle East: Complex Realism," International Relations of the Middle East, ed. Louise Fawcett (Oxford University Press, 2016).
22 Buzan, People, States and Fear, 1-2.
23 A comprehensive description of the process of policy-making in the Arab Gulf monarchies and the centrality of the leaders appears in F. Gregory Gause III, "Understanding the Gulf States," Democracy 36 (2015): 29.
24 Ole Wæver, Securitization (Routledge, 2011).
25 Gregory Gause, "Balancing What? Threat Perception and Alliance Choice in the Gulf," Security Studies 13, no. 2 (2003): 273-305, 276.
26 James D. Fearon, "Rationalist explanations for war," International Organization 49, no. 3 (1995): 379-414; and Robert Powell, "War as a Commitment Problem," International Organization 60, no. 1 (2006): 169-203.
27 Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton University Press, 1976).
28 Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
29 Simon Mabon, "The Battle for Bahrain: Iranian-Saudi Rivalry," Middle East Policy 19, no. 2 (Summer 2012).
30 Jeremy Jones and Nicholas Ridout, A History of Modern Oman (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
31 Margaret G Hermann and Joe D. Hagan, "International Decision Making: Leadership Matters," Foreign Policy, 110 (1998).
32 David B. Roberts, "Qatar and the UAE: Exploring Divergent Responses to the Arab Spring," Middle East Journal 71, no. 4 (2017): 544-562.
33 Mazhar al-Zo'by and Birol Başkan, "Discourse and Oppositionality in the Arab Spring: The Case of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE," International Sociology (2014): 2.
34 David Roberts, "Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood: Pragmatism or Preference?" Middle East Policy 21, no. 3 (2014): 84-94; and David Roberts "Mosque and State: The United Arab Emirates Secular Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs (2016).
35 "Saudi Arabia declares Muslim Brotherhood 'terrorist group,'" BBC News, March 7, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-26487092.
36 Mary Atkinson, "Saudi Arabia has 'no problem' with Muslim Brotherhood: Foreign Minister," Middle East Eye, February 11, 2015, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/saudi-foreign-minister-no-problem-mus….
37 "Is Saudi Arabia warming up to the Muslim Brotherhood?" Al Jazeera, July 29, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/07/saudi-arabia-warming-muslim-broth….
38 Eric Trager, "The Muslim Brotherhood is the Root of the Qatar crisis," The Atlantic, 2017.
39 Nathan Fabien, "Natural Disasters, Vulnerability and Human Security," Facing Global Environmental Change: Environmental, Human, Energy, Food, Health and Water Security Concepts, eds. Hans Günter Brauch et al. Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace, vol. 4 (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2009).
41 Frederic M. Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (Columbia University Press, 2013).
42 Steffen Hertog, "The Sociology of the Gulf Rentier Systems: Societies of Intermediaries," Comparative Studies in Society and History 52, no. 2 (2010): 282-318.
43 Data taken from "The Region's Demographics: A Blessing or a Curse," a report by Camille Accad for Asiya Investment Group Kuwait, (2014).
44 Julia Craig Romano and Lee Seeger, "Rentierism and Reform: Youth Unemployment and Economic Policy in Oman," IMES Paper Capstone Series, The Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University, May 2014, 43.
45 David Roberts, "Mosque and State."
46 "UAE charges 'plotters linked to Muslim Brotherhood," BBC, January 2013 28, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-21226174.
47 "Percentage of non-nationals in government sector and in private and other sectors in GCC countries (national statistics, latest year or period available)," Gulf Labour Markets and Migration, European University Institute and Migration Policy Center, http://gulfmigration.eu/percentage-of-non-nationals-in-government-secto… (accessed March 15, 2017).
48 Justin Gengler, "The Political Economy of Sectarianism in the Gulf," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 29, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/08/29/political-economy-of-sectariani… (accessed April 2, 2017).
50 Neil Partrick, "Nationalism in the Gulf states," in eds. Ulrichsen and Held, The Transformation of the Gulf: Politics, Economics and the Global Order (2009): 47-65.
51 Data on the percentage of Shia citizens in these countries are not unequivocal and are often contested. These percentages should be understood as approximate and are taken by CIA The World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook (accessed March 16, 2017).
52 Edward Azar and Chung-In Moon, "Third World National Security: Toward a New Conceptual Framework," International Interactions 11, no. 2 (1984): 103-135.
53 Buzan, People, States and Fear, 56.
55 May Darwich, "The Ontological (In)security of Similarity: Wahhabism versus Islamism in Saudi Foreign Policy," GIGA Working Papers no. 263, December 15, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2567207 (accessed April 5, 2017).
56 Joseph Kostiner, "Transforming Dualities: Tribe and State Formation in Saudi Arabia," Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East, eds. Philip Khoury and Joseph Kostiner (The University of California Press, 1990).
57 Abdullah Hamid Al-Din, "Hawiyya Waṭniyya Sa'ūdiyya" [Saudi National Identity], Al-Hayat, 2014, http://alhayat.com/Opinion/Abdullah-hameed-Al-Deen/4700740 (accessed February 27, 2017).
58 Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring that Wasn't (Stanford University Press, 2013); and Michaela Prokop, "Saudi Arabia: The politics of education," International Affairs 79, no. 1 (2003): 77-89.
59 Abdullah Hamid Al-Din, "Hawiyya Waṭniyya Sa'ūdiyya."
60 See Kevin Downs, "A theoretical analysis of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Bahrain," Journal of Politics and International Studies 8 (2012): 203-37.
61 John E. Peterson "The Historical Pattern of Gulf Security," Security in the Persian Gulf (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 7-31.
62 Michael N. Barnett, "Sovereignty, nationalism, and regional order in the Arab states system," International Organization 49, no. 3 (1995): 479-510.
63 Gregory Gause, "Balancing What? Threat Perception and Alliance Choice in the Gulf," Security Studies 13, no. 2 (2003): 273-305.
64 Buzan, People, States and Fear, 147-152.
65 Ibid., 154.
66 Peter H. Gleick, "Water, drought, climate change, and conflict in Syria," Weather, Climate, and Society 6, no. 3 (2014): 331-340.
67 "United Cyber Caliphate Claim to Release Saudi Government Employee Data," SITE Intelligence Group, July 3, 2016; "Caliphate Cyber Army Claims Hacking KSA Royal Guard Website, Dumps Alleged Data," SITE Intelligence Group, March 6, 2016; and "Islamic Cyber Army Announces Hacking Campaign Aimed at Saudi Arabia," SITE Intelligence Group, September 28, 2015, all available on siteintelgroup.com (accessed April 14, 2017).
68 "Interview with HE Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah," Gulf Affairs (Spring 2016): 34.
69 "Combating terrorism greatest challenge in Arab world: Kuwait," Kuwait Times, http://news.kuwaittimes.net/website/combating-terrorism-greatest-challe….
70 Interviews of the author with Kuwaiti security officials, Rome, February 26, 2015.
71 Efraim Benmelech and Esteban F. Klor, "What Explains the Flow of Foreign Fighters to ISIS?" Working Paper no. 22190, National Bureau of Economic Research, April 2016, http://www.nber.org/papers/w22190.
72 Bill Law, "Bahrain: The Islamic State threat within," Middle East Eye, October 14, 2014, http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/bahrain-islamic-state-threat-withi… (accessed March 14, 2018).
73 Efraim Benmelech and Esteban F. Klor, "What Explains the Flow of Foreign Fighters to ISIS?"
74 Meda Al Rowas, "Islamic State Threat in GCC States," IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Monitor 16, no. 2 (February 2016).
75 "Qatar does not face the same internal security threat from IS that other regional actors do," writes, among others, Andrew Hammond in "Qatar's risky balancing act," European Council on Foreign Relations, October 2014, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_qatar_sees_is_as_threat_to_saudi_…. This has been validated often by public statements by Qatari officials describing ISIS as a threat to the region rather than to their own country. See for instance, "ISIS remains mortal threat to Middle East, Qatari envoy warns," Washington Times, January 31, 2018, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/jan/31/isis-still-mortal-thre…. When asked about the threat posed by Daesh to Oman, Omani diplomatic sources in Europe, interviewed by the author in 2016, dismissed it as relatively uncritical. The very little space dedicated to the issue in public statements is testament to that.
76 Cf. the speech of UAE Ambassador to the United States Youssef al-Otaiba to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, January 20, 2016, http://csis.org/multimedia/video-middle-east-inflection-point.
77 Interviews of the author to Emirati political scientists and security scholars, Abu Dhabi, December 2017.
78 Meda Al Rowas, "Islamic State Threat in GCC States."
79 Elizabeth Dickinson, "Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria's Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home," Saban Analysis Paper, December 6, 2013.
80 David S. Cohen, "Remarks of Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen at The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 'Attacking ISIS's Financial Foundation,'" U.S. Department of the Treasury, October 23, 2014, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl2672.aspx.
81 Robert Hatem and Dina Gidea, "Kuwaiti Shia: Government Policies, Societal Cleavages, and the Non-Factor of Iran," IMES Capstone Paper Series (2011).
82 Jane Kinninmont, "Citizenship in the Gulf," The Gulf States and the Arab Uprisings, ed. Ana Echagüe (Madrid: FRIDE, 2013), 57.
83 Elizabeth Dickinson, "Kuwait's bidoon may still be in limbo," The National, April 1, 2013, http:// www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/kuwaits-bidoon-may-still-be-i….
84 "Interview with HE Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah," Gulf Affairs (Spring 2016): 34.
85 Eman Ragab, "The Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countering ISIS: threats, policies and challenges," Contemporary Arab Affairs 9, no. 4 (2016): 577-595.
86 Helle Malmvig, "Power, identity and securitization in Middle East: Regional order after the Arab uprisings," Mediterranean Politics 19, no. 1 (2014): 145-148.