The Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have lived through a painful experience, with terrorist groups lasting more than a decade, during which time a brutal campaign of bombings and suicide attacks led to the deaths of dozens of Saudi and foreign victims. As a result of the solutions implemented in 2006, in addition to the comprehensive approach it employed, the Kingdom was able to rein in Al-Qaeda and halt the activities of its networks within its territory. However, tense regional conditions and the turmoil that many Arab nations are currently suffering from, in addition to the resulting security vacuum, have opened the way for new offshoots of Al-Qaeda to emerge and a revitalization of the group in more than one region. This phenomenon has stirred up fears of Al-Qaeda cells returning to the countries of the Gulf.
These fears have not been completely ruled out, but during the next three years or so they remain improbable, thanks to a number of factors. On the one hand, history shows that Al-Qaeda cells and violent groups in general do not become active or intensify their activities except in turbulent regions and states experiencing civil division, conflict and tenuous government control. The evidence of this phenomenon is clear, whether it be in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or Somalia, and so on. Wherever chaos is found, Al-Qaeda and violent groups under different names move in, but the opposite can be true as well. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries currently enjoy security, stability and strong central governments. They do not suffer from acute turmoil, with the relative exception of Bahrain.
From a geographic perspective, the GCC countries, with the exception of Oman, span an area of open desert plains devoid of forests, high elevations and rugged terrain in general. These conditions give security authorities the chance to move rapidly and communicate easily. It also facilitates pursuit and allows the authorities to monitor movements more easily. It is difficult for Al-Qaeda to headquarter themselves in these lands or utilize them as a springboard for launching operations, because the geography does not provide the safe havens necessary for assembling fighters and weapons or storing gear, nor does it provide opportunities to fight a guerrilla war.
Even in Oman, despite the rugged terrain, there is no physical harbor for terrorism and the land is not conducive to their operations, because the majority of its population professes a different doctrine—the Ibadi doctrine—from the Sunni ideology of Al-Qaeda. Thus the organization faces difficulty in obtaining safe havens or social incubators within the country.
Unlike other nations, Gulf countries have huge financial resources, and most of the population has access to basic services for free or at reasonable prices. The cycle of poverty is limited and people do not suffer from hardship or poor economic conditions, circumstances which aid violent or terrorist organizations in attracting young people to their ranks and recruiting them to carry out attacks. If this feature is accompanied by awareness and educational campaigns to fortify their communities intellectually, the successes in resisting extremism will be greater.
The Gulf’s Arab countries represent the world’s largest reservoir for producing and exporting oil and, in light of this fact, their security is a concern not only for these nations, but for the entire world. These concerns stand at the forefront of the great powers’ priorities. They will not hesitate for a moment to provide all forms of proactive support and assistance to the GCC states in combating terrorism and its sponsors, whether they be states, individuals or groups, in order to maintain security and prosperity for their peoples.
However, if all doors and windows were closed and conflict suspended all over the world, then elements of Al-Qaeda would likely return to their natural habitats and begin their combat activities within states geographically suited to their operations. The struggle will continue as long as there is life, and with it the presence of foreign battle fronts will remain in more than one region. Thus Al-Qaeda fighters holding Gulf citizenship do exist, expressing their anger outside of their own countries, because this is the easiest alternative—as stated above, other countries are easier for fighting guerilla wars.
The accumulated experience of the Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia specifically, in the field of counter-terrorism represents an additional asset and yet another obstacle in the way of Al-Qaeda resuming its activities and returning its cells to their territory. Even if the group were to return, the ability of these countries to handle Al-Qaeda and contain its risks is substantial, especially if the GCC countries enhance security cooperation and coordination between neighbors.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.