The participation of Gulf Arab air forces in yesterday’s attack on Islamic State targets in Syria is the most visible expression yet of the growing Gulf contribution to the U.S. war against the al-Qaeda splinter group. But the contribution should not be overstated and should be caveated with an awareness of the risks and costs—for both the Gulf regimes at home and U.S. interests in the region.

The Air Strikes: Symbolic Importance Outweighs Military Value

At one level, the strikes represent a growing trend toward greater out-of-area military operations for the Gulf states (the late August 2014 UAE strikes against Libya and the Qatari-Emirati participation in the 2011 NATO Libya operation) and a significant and (rare) expression of Gulf unity that has not been seen since the 1991 Gulf War. It is significant that these strikes were purportedly conducted in tandem with Iraq because the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) historically has been averse to exercises and joint operations with the Shia-dominated Iraqi military. Qatari-Saudi participation is also significant given their long-standing rivalry, and it illustrates the trend of Qatar’s foreign policy aligning more with Saudi Arabia’s. For the United States, this operation represents the culmination of a decades-long investment in training Gulf air forces.

That said, the Gulf military contribution should not be overstated. The UAE fields the most capable air force, although not the most capable pilots—they belong to the Omanis who did not participate—and among Gulf countries, the Emiratis likely carried out the most sophisticated of air strikes. All of the Gulf states were heavily reliant on U.S. intelligence, targeting data, and perhaps aerial refueling (although the Emiratis have their own capability). The Qataris did not strike targets, and this is consistent with their participation in the Libya operation, where they only conduct “combat air patrols”—that is, flight without dropping bombs.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sector governance, and U.S. policy, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
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As noted in the recent CENTCOM press release, most of the targets struck by the Gulf were static and fixed, like training compounds, headquarters, command and control facilities, and storage facilities. It is unlikely that the Gulf states can carry out the more difficult and complex task of “dynamic targeting” against maneuvering and mobile targets, for example armored units, troop transports, or “technical” vehicles. It is even harder still to coordinate such strikes with friendly forces on the ground (this requires controllers and advisers on the ground). The Gulf states did not conduct this sort of targeting during the Libya campaign. If there are Gulf states that can conduct this, it is the UAE and possibly Saudi Arabia.

Domestic Costs for the Gulf

What are risks for the Gulf states? Strategically and militarily, the risks are the same as those the United States faces—that airpower alone will not decimate the Islamic State; that the group will weather the aerial attacks and reconstitute itself; and that some sort of ground force is needed to occupy the vacuum exploited by the Islamic State and provide governance and security.

But beyond this, the Gulf states face the added threat of domestic criticism. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the U.S. bombing of the Islamic State is reportedly unpopular among a range of Saudis. There is the perception in the Gulf that the United States is attacking Sunni power, while privileging minorities such as Kurds, Yazidis, Jews, and especially Shia. Radical voices in the Gulf could capitalize on this sentiment to indict their regimes for collaborating with the United States. The most powerful narrative that could emerge is that the Gulf states are inadvertently serving as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force, helping him deal with the most powerful of the (Sunni) opposition’s fielded military forces.

Some polling from the Gulf—albeit unscientific and government funded—seems to highlight the domestic opposition that strikes could involve: a July 21 poll of Saudis conducted by al-Hayat (on social media) found that 92 percent of respondents believe that the Islamic State is in agreement with the teachings of Islam; 71 percent see no difference between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The percentage of Saudis who think the Islamic State is not extremist is higher among twenty-five to thirty-year-olds. Similarly, a late September poll of Twitter users in Kuwait—which did not participate in the air strikes but is important nonetheless—found that 80 percent don’t support the Islamic State, 75 percent speak negatively about it, 42.1 percent view Islamic State members as terrorists, 31.6 percent see them as fighters (muqatileen), and 13.2 percent see them as warriors (muharribeen); 12.5 percent sympathize with the Islamic State while 7.5 percent are neutral.

Counterideology Programs: Valuable, but Only in Tandem with Other Reforms

Perhaps the most robust Gulf contribution will not come from the air but the airwaves. Several states in the region have offered counterideology and deradicalization programs as a centerpiece of their contribution to the anti–Islamic State effort. The state-funded religious establishments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt have begun campaigns to delegitimize the Islamic State on juridical and doctrinal grounds. In tandem, semi-independent clerics in the Gulf—particularly in Qatar and Kuwait—have demonized the group. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have recently offered to host anti–Islamic State conferences, while the UAE has funded a number of counterradicalization programs aimed at youth.

While these initiatives have merit, they should be supported with caution for a number of reasons. First, these religious and ideological programs often become a cover for authoritarian regimes to avoid the sorts of meaningful institutional and political reforms that address the root causes of radicalization. Second, they typically focus on insulating the leadership elites and royal families of the regime from terrorist attacks, while skirting the more intolerant and sectarian features of the radicals’ ideology that legitimize attacks on Shia, Westerners, and others deemed heretical. Third, the literature on terrorist recruitment suggests that religious exhortations play, at best, a secondary or tertiary role in the decision to take up arms—it is often an ex post facto justification. Sermonizing by religious scholars—many of them tainted by their associations with authoritarian regimes—is unlikely to stem the tide.

Antiterrorism Laws: A Cover for Broader Political Repression?

America’s Gulf partners have long been criticized for tacitly supporting the jihadist enterprise, as a matter of deliberate policy or through lax oversight of financial flows across their borders.

Under U.S. and international pressure, the Gulf states have all taken steps to curtail financial support to the Islamic State and other groups. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, have enacted sweeping antiterrorism regulations that have been heralded by some in Washington as a much-needed fix. In practice, however, the definition of terrorism embodied in these codes encompasses nearly every form of peaceful political and intellectual activism. The laws appear particularly geared toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which is among many groups listed as a terrorist organization, and there are reports of increased coordination between these two Gulf monarchies and Egypt on enforcing these laws.

Mindful of these costs and risks, the United States should welcome the participation of the Gulf states in confronting the Islamic State. But it should be wary of cooperation that is too cozy. It must push for a more holistic definition of counterterrorism in the Gulf that includes political, institutional, and economic reforms that address the root causes compelling disaffected youth to support the toxic narrative advanced by the Islamic State.

And perhaps most importantly, Washington needs to avoid being drawn into the region’s increasingly polarized, intra-Sunni conflicts, where its Arab allies will use U.S. counterterrorism assistance for self-serving political ends that will ultimately perpetuate the terrorism problem.