Why Britain needs to forge closer ties with the GCC

Najah Al-Otaibi

Published: Updated:

The recent capture by US-led Kurdish forces of Alexander Kotey and El Shafee el-Sheikh, the two remaining British members of the so-called ‘Beatles’ group of ISIS militants, is a further welcome sign of the dissipation of the ISIS death cult across Syria and Iraq.

Both men stand accused of brutal acts of torture and execution of as many as two dozen hostages. The pair are among the 850 British citizens who are thought to have joined extremist organizations abroad in the past years.

While Kotey and el-Sheikh were picked up on the battlefield, many other examples of the UK successfully apprehending suspects and thwarting terror plots have been via a powerful international network of intelligence sharing.

It isn’t clear yet precisely what radicalized these two men. But the cradle of the warped ideology that has driven so many to extremism lies enormously in some interpretations.

This is something which has been admitted by even high-ranking politicians in the region, such as the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who recently promised to return his country to a modern, open Islam.

If Britain can show the same imagination – and work alongside her GCC friends – it might in time prevent more sinister reincarnations of alleged ISIS death squads like the ‘Beatles’

Najah Alotaibi

Imaginative support

So, as the UK hobbles towards Brexit, where to look to? Who to learn from and who to rely on? It is going to be a mammoth task. But one source of valuable and imaginative support for the British Government is its allies in the Gulf.

My report for the Henry Jackson Society, Terror Overseas: Understanding the GCC Counter Terrorism and Counter Extremism Trends, reveals that Britain’s non-military joint effort to combat grassroots extremism in the Gulf is limited.

I conclude that the UK needs to go beyond the basic platforms of security and information sharing and focus on more imaginative initiatives and collaborative programs, in order to tackle the fundamental problems that engender core radicalization in the first place.

Currently, the UK strategy in combating extremism in the region concentrates on a “hard power” partnership in the spheres of military, defense and intelligence co-operation. For example, 2016 saw the opening of the first UK military base in the Middle East in nearly 50 years.

The Naval Support Facility (NSF) in Manama, Bahrain, houses around 600 UK military personnel and will be used as a base to combat terrorism regionally and internationally.

The UK also signed an agreement with Qatar to sell 24 Typhoon aircraft (Joint Operational Squadron) for combat air operations, and to ensure security during the 2022 World Cup in Doha.

‘Soft power’

But how about taking the Gulf’s lead on the ‘soft power’ approach?

True, there has been some positive initial work. But it’s been small fry. Britain shelled out just under $1.5 million for the “co-established” Hydayah Countering Violent Extremism Centre in the UAE, focusing on the fight against online extremism and ISIS propaganda. But there is much more that could be done – and it wouldn’t break Britain’s post-Brexit bank.

The Gulf states have already made significant civil society innovations. A number of specialized counter-terrorism centers are starting to bear fruit. The program designed, for example, in the Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology, Etidal, in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, use new technology to fight radicalism and extremism in the crucial cyber war with extremists.

Bahrain is focused on its own interfaith and intercultural programs aimed at improving tolerance , and promoting co-existence in a bid to eradicate the threat from terrorism.

The UAE has created a “Ministry of Happiness and Tolerance”, while Kuwait has used the state’s drama and media industries to highlight the risk of indoctrination among the disenfranchised young.

If Britain can show the same imagination – and work alongside her GCC friends – it might in time prevent more sinister reincarnations of alleged ISIS death squads like the ‘Beatles’, and kill extremism at its core.

Najah al-Otaibi is a Fellow for the Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism. Najah is an experienced analyst focussing on geopolitics, public policy in the Middle East with a particular speciality in counter-extremism policy and research. has an extensive track record in writing for international and Arab media. She can be followed on Twitter @najahalosaimi.

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