Impact of Political Sectarianism and Terrorism on Gulf Security




Thanks to their religious and sectarian components, and their economic and geopolitical importance, it can be argued that the Gulf states are at present at the very heart of the global strategic power balance. The stability of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is therefore fundamental to regional stability. However, the political sectarianism and terrorism sweeping through several neighbouring countries pose a grave challenge to the GCC states.

In an effort to understand these challenges, this chapter seeks to deconstruct the concept of political sectarianism, and its impact on the GCC countries. This is followed by an assessment of the nature and scale on which sectarianism is being exploited by foreign parties, and an analysis of just how much of a threat terrorism poses to the stability of GCC states.

The initial premise is that even though the seeds of terrorism and political sectarianism (in all their shapes and forms) are still relatively dormant in the GCC, they have been planted, and are beginning to take hold. Sectarianism and terrorism can be considered two sides of the same coin; one cannot be addressed without the other. They are so interrelated and intertwined that merely attempting to determine which comes first is almost impossible. If it is accepted that terrorism is contagious, the similarity in their apparent manifestations only adds to the confusion as to which can be seen as spontaneous and which as instigated.

The chapter concludes by arguing that, although sectarianism and terrorism might not pose an immediate danger to the security of the GCC states in the short term, the likelihood of these countries being affected in the longer term depends on how much support sectarian movements can secure in and around the Gulf. The interconnectedness of political Islamist, jihadist and ideological movements in the region is likely to impact on the stability of the GCC states, as will the ability of foreign players to run and manage these forces.


The world seems to be witnessing significant strategic shifts, foreshadowing the decline of major forces and the rise of others. Polarisation is increasing and new alliances are forming, and it is possible that competition between opposing forces will intensify and develop into a series of crises and conflicts. The GCC with all its religious and sectarian aspects, as well as its global economic and strategic significance, is right at the centre of all this, and may well form one of the major arenas in which contemporary power struggles will play out.

These strategic shifts create both opportunities and risks. As globalisation takes root ever more deeply, the political sectarianism and terrorism sweeping across neighbouring countries, and forming a ring of fire around the GCC, are among the gravest challenges facing its member states. In my view, the GCC needs to launch a push-back strategy that is strong enough to shatter the sectarian-terrorist complex, or at least keep it at bay long enough to allow the member states to re-group, re-arm and re-strategise, while marshalling all their resources.

To understand the effects of political sectarianism and terrorism on the national security of the GCC states, I first deconstruct the concept of political sectarianism and analyse how it operates in the Gulf. I then assess the scale and nature of its exploitation by external forces. Finally I analyse whether the nightmarish terrorism taking hold in the GCC’s backyard poses a threat to its stability and that of its member states. I conclude that terrorism and political sectarianism are still largely dormant in the GCC, despite occasional attempts to awaken them.

However, the seeds of discontent have been sown, and the GCC countries will need to act quickly to prevent them from finding the fertile ground they need to grow.  It must be noted at the outset that sectarianism and terrorism are evil and inseparable twins that must be dealt with together. They share causes and effects so deeply that it is nigh impossible to determine which comes first. They also share so many traits that it is difficult to discern which is spontaneous and which is instigated. Undoubtedly, terrorism is contagious, and can be addressed only by preventative measures.

Concept and origins of political sectarianism

Political sectarianism here means the use of religion as a tool for garnering political support. Sectarianism is a form of political bias, but with a religious tinge, that people and groups sometimes use to achieve their own agendas. Even worse, politicians who fail to build civil states often hide their shortcomings by using sectarian or tribal biases.

Christian sectarianism in Europe dates back centuries to the bloody struggles between Protestants and Catholics (this still continues to some degree in Northern Ireland), as well as between the Orthodox Christians and Catholics (this is also still ongoing albeit at a more diplomatic level). Pre-independence India saw a sectarian war between Hindus and Muslims that led to the country splitting into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947. In modern-day Lebanon, sectarian turmoil has taken many forms, and resulted in a vicious civil war that killed thousands over two decades, only to end up giving way to a constitution and democracy built along political-sectarian lines.(1)

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US and Iran undeniably had a hand in politicising the country’s constitution and Shiite identity. As Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara has noted:

“The conversion of social sectarianism into political sectarianism is one of the outcomes of US and Iranian intervention to hollow out the state in Iraq. After the occupation, a regime was installed that was democratic in appearance only, while the country’s demographic was actually being politically rearranged along sectarian lines, and the state dealt with the population on the same basis. Democracy became a tool to sectarianise the state, and an apparatus of oppression, with other sects being marginalized”.(2)

Essentially, political sectarianism tears religion away from its original function – which is to instil faith, human values, rationality and common sense – and reduces it to a tool in the hands of people who often have very little theological training.

Shiite political Islam in the Gulf and the slide towards terrorism

As intense as the differences among Sunni Muslims in the GCC countries can get, these remain at the level of debate over interpretations of sharia. These differences seldom evolve into a competition between conservatives and reformists for the hearts and minds of the people or for the reins of political power. This does not mean, however, that such differences, although they are contained for now, could not spill over into an all-out, bloody and existential war.

Indeed, war could come sooner rather than later if Iran persists in justifying sectarian mobilisation based on historical injustices and the alleged marginalisation of Shiite minorities, aided by the complete indifference – and/or the tacit blessing – of superpowers such as the United States.

The complex demographics of the GCC countries

Before analysing the sectarian Safavid identity that Iran is counting on to spread its so-called Islamic Revolution, proper methodology dictates a recall of some statistics about sectarian and ethnic demographics in the GCC. Using assessments published by the US Central Intelligence Agency and a report by the Arabian Atlas Project, Kazim Shabib notes that:

“Saudi Arabia is ruled and dominated by a Sunni majority. According to the census of September 2004, the Shiite minority comprises less than 10 per cent of the population, with 3 per cent Ismailis.

Bahrain, says the report, has a Shiite majority, but there are also many ethnic and religious minorities, such as 10 per cent Iranians, and 17 per cent non-Iranian Asians (Indians, Baloch, and Pakistanis, among others.)
In Qatar, Iranians (including Baloch) comprise 10 per cent of the population, Pakistanis (including Baloch) make up 18 per cent, Hindus 3 per cent, and Shiites 10 per cent.

Kuwait is ruled by a 45 per cent Sunni majority; there is a 30 per cent Shiite minority, along with 8 per cent Christian Arabs and 5 per cent Iranians.

In the United Arab Emirates, residents of Iranian descent make up 12 per cent of the population, and other Asians 50 per cent; Shiites account for 16 per cent, Sunnis 80 per cent, and other faiths 4 per cent.

Lastly, in the Sultanate of Oman, the official religion is Ibadi Islam, which dates back to the eighth century AD. Ibadis make up 80 per cent of the population, with a presence of all other Sunni and Shiite Islamic sects”.(3)

Despite this sectarian and ethnic mosaic, the Arabian Gulf has remained calm and its citizens have coexisted for centuries, unperturbed by differences between politicians or the danger of invasion. As Ibrahim Al-Askar observed:

Almost certainly the Gulf region has not witnessed any significant sect-driven war since the ninth century AD, when sects began to form, and sect-based fiefdoms began to pop up around the region.(4)

This historical heritage, combined with the astuteness and wisdom of their leaders, and the good business sense of most of its residents (some of the Shiite families are among the wealthiest in the region) has kept sectarianism at bay in the GCC countries. It seems, however, that attempts to tear this harmonious coexistence apart are increasingly common. Globalisation, with the fleetness of its ideas and the vast reach of its communications networks, has also disrupted the tranquillity, solidarity, sense of communion and traditional politics that previously prevailed in the region.

The impact of Shiite Iranian expansionism on national security in the GCC states

The mullahs of the Islamic Republic and the officers of its Revolutionary Guards have never forgotten – much less forgiven – the GCC states for mobilising political and ideological support for Iraq during the Iran–Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. At the end of that war, Iran embarked on its own ideological mobilisation process – strategically using both soft and hard means of settling the score with their sworn Sunni enemies in Iraq and the GCC states.

To that end, Iran rushed to side with the US as soon as the very first US troops touched down in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran saw an opportunity to use Iraq as their sectarian holy grail, aiming to use that country as a launch pad for Safavid expansion and thus for building a Shiite crescent that would eventually usurp the entire western coast of the Gulf. The fact that the Arab world has been a shambles since 9/11 and the US’s subsequent “constructive chaos” policy only bolstered Iran’s grand plan.

Before this, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard had held several demonstrations in the holy city of Makkah. One such event, which took place on 31 July 1987, led to the deaths of 402 pilgrims. In June 1996, Iran was allegedly behind the bombing of a building housing US and allied forces near the city of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia.

Iran is accused of highlighting sectarian differences in and around the GCC states, relentlessly attempting to exacerbate tensions between different communities. In this process, the myriad forms of Islam that had coexisted peacefully for centuries were transformed into resentful, spiteful – and eventually warring – political, social and cultural ghettos. To this end, Iran gave refuge to some of al-Qaeda’s leaders and took groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Bahrain’s al-Wefaq and the Houthis in Yemen under its wing, effectively placing the GCC countries between the pincers of a sectarian giant.

Many acts of terror against security personnel and civilians in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Region and in Bahrain, as well as military provocations, intelligence activities and online electronic attacks directed at some GCC member states, can be attributed to Iran adopting and fomenting sectarianism. Bahrain has borne the brunt of this process. Before Iran began to fan the tensions, Sunnis and Shiites had lived there peacefully together for hundreds of years. At the time of the Bahraini elections in late 2014, columnist Mohammed Al-Rumaihi summed up the escalating tensions as follows:

“Political in essence, the conflict allowed sectarian notions to ride on its back, and these soon boiled over when [GCC member states] realised that calls for sectarian mobilisation and violence had begun to permeate throughout the opposition. The entire scene appeared to be a proxy war that had spilled over national boundaries… [and] which Iran wants to use to plough through the Arab world”.(5)

Hastily adopting a preventative strategy, the GCC sent its Peninsula Shield forces to help the Bahraini security forces to protect civilians and maintain order and security. This was a clear sign that the unity of the GCC remains strong despite internal differences that arise from time to time.

Ansar Allah in Yemen: another politically driven sect

Failing to foment sectarian violence in the GCC countries, Iran began targeting countries in the GCC’s backyard. For over half a century, Yemen and Saudi Arabia enjoyed a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship. Then Iranian and US interests converged and started chipping away at this, using Arabism and Ansar Allah as their hammer and chisel. Ansar Allah is the military wing of the Houthi movement, and Saudi Arabia has labelled it a terrorist organisation.

An analysis of the genesis of the Houthi movement in Yemen, as well as its discourses, doctrines and political conduct, reveals that the Jafari Twelver school of Islam strongly influences its leaders. In the early 1990s, Badreddin al-Houthi and his son Hussein left Yemen for the hawza (seminary) of Qom in Iran. They returned with a political, ideological and sectarian political project that was very closely modelled on the Iranian Islamic Revolution.

The earliest manifestations of Houthi sectarianism occurred in 2004 when Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, then leader of the movement, lowered Yemen’s national flag in several locations in the country’s Saada governorate, and raised the Hezbollah flag in its place. Al-Houthi was killed shortly afterwards, and the Houthi movement then spread rapidly throughout Yemen.

Iranian and US support for Houthi expansion threatens the borders of Saudi Arabia, Oman and the other GCC states, especially now that the strategic Strait of Hormuz is in Iranian hands, and the Bab el-Mandeb strait has all but fallen under Houthi control. This means that, in addition to almost controlling the waters of Gulf, Iran effectively controls the Red Sea.

The US and the Shiite minority trump card

Iran’s apparent support for Shiite expansionism in and around the Gulf may well be understandable, but the role played by the US in fanning of the flames of this sectarian tension is perplexing. Nevertheless, the fomenting of political sectarianism has been inextricably intertwined with colonial invasion and oppression, and this is especially true of the Arab colonies. The US seems to be attempting to repeat history by fomenting sectarianism in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, and by not only staying quiet about, but by practically supporting the Houthi takeover of Yemen.

In addition, US officials have displayed an unusual interest in Bahrain’s al-Wefaq Party. In an article entitled “Has Bahrain’s al-Wefaq become America’s foot in the door?” columnist Sawsan Al-Shaer observed:

“Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski began his visit to Bahrain by heading to Al-Wefaq, even before he even met with the crown prince which caused Bahrain to take the unprecedented decision to have him leave the country”.

Earlier in her article, Al-Shaer noted that “US decision-makers never ceased to have an interest in the Bahraini opposition” and quoted Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute, as saying “Bahrain’s ban on mainstream opposition poses a dilemma for American foreign policy”.(6)

The Salafist shift: from placidity to the quicksand of politics and the trumpet of jihad

Salafism has its own intrinsically peaceful knowledge and governance system. However, with the violent and arduous conflict in Afghanistan, the so-called Sahwa (Islamist awakening), the repercussions of 9/11, and the “Arab Spring”, several strands of Salafism have emerged, the most important of which are political Salafism and Salafist jihadism; either of these could potentially disrupt national security in the GCC.

Saudi Arabia: between national Salafism and international pragmatism

Since the religio-political alliance between Imam Prince Muhammad bin Saud and Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab (1723-1791), Salafism has been strong in Saudi Arabia, particularly among the ruling elite. The term Salafism means returning to the true meanings and purposes of the faith as practiced by the Salaf (the early Muslim companions of the Prophet Muhammad). By its nature, Salafism never strays from the original premises of Islam, which are to build up a moral and ethical value system, and to filter out heretical innovation and superstition (this includes refraining from openly criticising political or religious leaders).

According to French academic and political scientist, Stéphane Lacroix, most Salafists are “pacifists who reject violence, have little interest in politics’, and focus on living by Sharia, the singularity of God and their understanding of the faith”.(7)

This religio-political contract is still active in contemporary Saudi Arabia: the state, represented by the ruling clan, handles politics, while the official religious establishment handles religious and moral matters. The state, helped along by the religious establishment, has been successful at quashing attempts to change the status quo, such as the siege on the Holy Mosque in Mecca from 20 November to 4 December 1979 and Juhayman al-Otaybi’s ill-fated attempt at a coup, or the ensuing Sahwa movement, which led to what Lacroix has called ‘a failed insurrection’ in the late 1980s.(8)

King Faisal (who reigned from 1964 to 1975) established the Islamic Solidarity Project, in which dawa (converting others to Islam) played a significant role in establishing a resilient and effective force in the fight against nationalistic and leftist tendencies in the Arab world (especially when it came to Nasserite nationalism). In a speech honouring leaders of the Hajj in 1966, King Faisal made the following call for Islamic solidarity:

“If this call, my brethren, offends or upsets some, such as colonialists, communists and Zionists, I am most assured that Muslims shall not be diverted, thwarted or refrain from supporting the righteous, their faith, and their word, and shall co-operate for the good and for the fear of God”.(9)

Indeed, Islamic dawa has had considerable success in keeping notions of nationalism, leftism and communism out of the GCC. However, the events of 9/11 (notwithstanding the ambiguity surrounding who was behind the attacks), provided the perfect pretext for political and media campaigns that weakened the compass of Saudi ideology and foreign policy, which, in turn, became utterly pragmatic.

Salafist jihadism as a response to the US war on terror

Many factors led to the gestation and birth of jihadist movements, with social frustration and the lack of response to moderate religious leadership being two of the main ones. However, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the US occupation of Iraq from 2003 onwards, and the sectarian politics of paramilitary militias in Iraq are the more immediate causes.

Palestinian political analyst, Azmi Bishara has described the reciprocal causality between sectarianism and jihadism as follows:

“The emergence of the Islamic State is the result of the explosive mix between Salafist jihadism and sectarianism, especially in light of the decline and eventual diminishment of the national state. Salafist jihadism does not acknowledge other sects, not to mention politics or a social contract, or even different levels of piety”.(10)

If Iran continues to foment sectarianism and provoke jihadist cells, both dormant and active, Bishara’s words may well become applicable to the GCC countries.

Political Islam and the security of the GCC

During the second Gulf War from August 1990 to February 1991, tensions grew between the Saudi government and the Muslim Brotherhood when some members of the Brotherhood supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Saudi Arabia backed its fellow GCC state in that war, and expected the Brotherhood to do the same, having given them shelter and support after their exile or expulsion from their own countries. The tensions forced some of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders to leave Saudi Arabia for greener pastures, such as Qatar where the ascension of Prince Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to the helm in 1995 was to the benefit of political Islam.

The Muslim Brotherhood landed with a thud in Qatar’s media and political circles, which had been trying to “realign” political Islam. Researcher Jamal Abdullah, who specialises in Qatari foreign policy, analysed the situation as follows:

“Qatar decided to support the march of these [Arab] nations towards freedom. That course of action fundamentally changed the country’s global image: Qatar transformed from a reconciliatory mediator to an active supporter – which eventually forced it to participate in military action under the umbrella of an international coalition, like it did in the NATO campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in April 2011”.(11)

The other GCC member states felt that Qatar’s support for political Islam deviated from the concept of joint political security, and this caused a temporary crisis in inter-GCC relationships.

With the exception of Qatar, the political and media discourse of GCC member states tends to justify hostility towards political Islam, and sees it as posing a challenge to their stability and peaceful co-existence. However, many individuals and groups within these states find the ideas that the Islamists propagate rather attractive, thus potentially undermining the religious establishments that some GCC leaders draw upon to legitimise their political power.

Some GCC regimes see the Muslim Brotherhood as having so much power, such a different political agenda, and so much traction when it comes to making new alliances that it would be very difficult for the GCC countries to partner with them in managing regional issues using the traditional methodologies and approaches that they are used to. This is especially true when it comes to protecting the GCC against various existing and probable threats, such as the dominance of Iran, and possible popular protests. Essentially, they fear that the Brotherhood might be more of an instigating than a tempering factor.

However, Qatar and the rest of the GCC member states eventually overcame their differences and managed to find common ground. This evidence of the strength of their alliance should certainly help to insulate them from ethnic and sectarian unrest that might have affected them badly.

The GCC and the spill over of terrorism from neighbours

After the 9/11 attacks, terrorists brutally struck Saudi Arabia in retaliation for joining the coalition against terror, riding on the wave of “euphoria” they expressed after what they saw as the success of the first ghazwa (battle) against America. Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states have since successfully stamped out various terrorist activities in their territories. Enhanced security and financial measures, as well as intelligence strategies helped them thwart several planned attacks before they were carried out.

Despite their success in containing and deterring domestic terrorism, fears remain that the ideas and actions of terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen might spill over into the GCC countries. This is of particular concern given the considerable number of GCC nationals who have already joined these groups, including among the higher ranks of command and control. These fears were exacerbated when the IS published a map of its so-called territory that showed Kuwait to be part of their state. The Houthis’ claim that Mecca is within their northern border did not help matters.

In an attempt to prevent the spread of terrorist-aligned groups in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi interior ministry announced on 7 March2014 that they consider al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Yemen, the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Houthis to be terrorist groups. This makes it illegal for any Saudi citizen to join, support or sympathise with any of these groups. Saudi Arabia didn’t stop there.

In September 2014, the kingdom hosted a conference for an international coalition against the Islamic State, in which ten GCC and Arab states and the US participated. Since that conference, a number of GCC states have sent fighter jets and pilots to participate in sorties with the US-led forces against Islamic State bases in Iraq and Syria.

History has taught that ideas can be beaten only with ideas, and that security or military responses can go only so far in putting a stop to terrorism; they can never root it out. Herein lies the importance of developing comprehensive intellectual and cultural responses that rely on invigorating horizontal and vertical intellectual dialogue at all levels – among the elite, in the media, and among ordinary citizens in the GCC countries. Only with intellectual consistency and a clear vision of the benefits of unity will the social fabric of the GCC become immune to extremism. So far, with the exception of Doha’s efforts to get various individuals and movements to engage in cultural and social dialogue via various media channels, discussions about terrorism remain largely an activity for the political elite, yet violence is a socio-political phenomenon and engaging the general population in dialogue about violence is crucial.


While sectarianism and terrorism might not seem to pose any immediate danger to the security of the GCC, the chances of them gaining ground in future depends on the depth of foreign support for sectarian movements in and around the Arabian Gulf. Levels of interconnectivity between political Islamist, jihadist and ideological movements in the region will also play a role, as will the ability of these players to run and manage their forces in ways that could impact on the stability of the GCC states.
The sheer fragility of the situation compels us to hope that the GCC will remain an oasis of stability in the midst of a turbulent desert. This requires the GCC countries to co-operate in:

• Building a nation-state; that is, bolstering an all-encompassing national and GCC identity by making all citizens truly equal in terms of their rights and duties, rewarding individuals based on loyalty and merit rather than sect, tribe or creed, and building a network of social relations based on the values of peace, tolerance and acceptance.

• Expediting the unification and integration of the GCC politically, socially and in terms of security, and establishing the hoped-for union. Such a union could be the shield that protects the GCC from sectarianism, eradicates terrorism and thwarts foreign enemies. In parallel, political reforms must be prioritised to ensure political consensus among the member states, and to address the ongoing political, social and sectarian polarisation.
*Dr Ahmed Alazdi is a researcher specialising in strategic and security matters related to the GCC countries.


1. Al-Tai, Abdul Hussain Saleh (2014) The Concept of Political Sectarianism: An Analysis of its Intellectual, Cultural, Social, and Economic Roots [In Arabic],, 2 August 2014.

2. Doha Institute (2014). The rise of ‘sectarian and ethnic minorities’ discussed at Jordan conference: Azmi Bishara says tyranny is fuelling sectarian conflict [In Arabic], 13 September 2014.

3. Shabib, Kazim

4. Al-Askar, Abdullah bin Ibrahim (2007). The Rise of Sectarianism in the Non-Sectarian Gulf [in Arabic],, 20 June.

5. Al-Rumaihi, Mohammed (2014). Elections Feud in Bahrain [in Arabic], 1 November. %D8%AD%D9%85%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%AD%D9%8A/%D8%AE%D8%B5%D9%88%D9%85%D8%A9-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%AD%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%86

6. Al-Shaer, Sawsan (2014). Has Bahrain’s Al-Wifaq become America’s Foot in the Door? [In Arabic], 4 November.

7. Lacroix Stéphane (2012) Les Salafistes en France Restent Dans Leur Bulle, Le Figaro, 12 October.

8. Lacroix Stéphane (2010). Les Islamistes Saoudiens: Une Insurrection Manqué. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

9. Vasiliev, Alexei (2012). King Faisal of Saudi Arabia: Personality, Faith and Times. London: Saqi Books.

10. Doha Institute (2014). The rise of ‘sectarian and ethnic minorities’ discussed at Jordan conference: Azmi Bishara says tyranny is fuelling sectarian conflict [In Arabic], 13 September 2014.

11. Abdullah, Jamal and Nabil Nazarene (2014). Qatar's Foreign Policy: Continuity or Change?  Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 2 July.

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