Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Islamic Radicalism in the Arabian Peninsula: Growing Risks

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Islamic Radicalism in the Arabian Peninsula: Growing Risks

Article excerpt


* Political radicals using Islam as "the answer" are gaining support and influence in the Arabian Peninsula states. They demand the establishment of truly Islamic government, an end to rule by unjust, corrupt, "unislamic" leaders, and the elimination of foreign--especially U.S.--influence and interests. Since Operation Desert Storm, Islamic radicals also question whether too much of the nation's wealth is going for unneeded U.S. military hardware and excessive dependence on U.S. military protection.

* U.S. policy in the Arabian Peninsula is based primarily on protecting the free flow of oil through the Gulf and promoting regional stability. The United States maintains a policy of "respectful neutrality" regarding Islam, recognizing it as one of the world's great religions and deploring those who use it to justify acts of terrorism and violence.

* Many Islamic radicals regard the United States as hypocritical in not supporting their quest for traditional American values: elections, civil liberties, human rights. Regimes, on the other hand, assume U.S. support in resisting Islamists' demands for reform because of shared interests and treaty commitments. These range from oil and protection of sea lanes to defense against perceived Islamist threats to their stability and well-being.

* Peninsula regimes with close U.S. ties are increasingly becoming targets for more violence-prone Islamic extremists. These extremists could conduct acts of terror against regime and U.S. interests in those countries where the U.S. military presence is highly visible and expanding, and local security forces may not be able to detect or contain the threat. Bahrain is probably the government most at risk.


The Peninsula states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Oman are under growing pressure from outspoken critics who use the language and authority of Islam in these overwhelmingly conservative Muslim societies to call for political and economic reform. The rise of a radically activist Islamic politics predates the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, but Sunni and Shia Muslim radicals received significant boosts from the establishment of Islamic government in Tehran and, more recently, from the Gulf War in 1990-91.

Regional specialists from the government, the academic community, and the private sector debated the impact of radicalized Islamic politics on the regimes and U.S. interests in recent roundtables at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS). They agreed that Islamic radicals throughout the region have common perceptions of the causes of their societies' ills. These include dissatisfaction with ruling families that are deemed unfit to rule; deep frustration over diminishing economic entitlements, rising unemployment, the inability of the traditional tribal, patriarchal system to provide for a population that is increasingly younger, poorer, and larger; and the sense that traditional government by tribal consensus no longer works.

The specialists noted that many radical groups agree on common goals, such as the establishment of "pure" Islamic government, rule by religious (sharia) law, the elimination of foreign (read U.S.) influence, and the concept of jihad as a political as well as a personal struggle. The radicals do not, however, agree on tactics. In some countries, like Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, more moderate Islamists are able to push their agendas within the bounds of the political systems; in Kuwait, Islamists have been elected to the National Assembly and openly challenge the government on policy issues. They are questioning, for the first time, the Al Sabahs' failure to defend the country against Iraq, its expenditures of money invested in the special Reserve Fund for Future Generations, and corruption. By contrast, in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman, virtually all Islamic radicals are seen as a threat to be outlawed and contained, by force if necessary. …

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