Gulf State Foreign Policies and Non-State Actors (part I)

This post is the second of a three-part series based on a panel titled ‘Middle Eastern Pragmatism and the Islamic State’ which took place at the Tenth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies 22-24 September 2016 at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense.

Dr David B Roberts

It is an axiomatic facet of modern international relations that all states engage on a daily basis with non-state actors (NSAs) of all varieties such is their ubiquity and variety in the contemporary world. NSAs can be broadly split into four categories. At the first level are the likes of grassroots organisations and local professional associations. The second level refers to formally established non-governmental organisations (NGOs), unions and the likes. The third level comprises a networked federations or committees, while the fourth level refers to the results of the official organisation of these federations into overarching umbrella organisations or forums (see Floridi, Sanc-Corella and Verdecchia). Accordingly, NSAs can range from local environmentally-focused groups to behemoths of international relations like the World Trade Organisation (WTO), terrorist groups, and Amnesty International.

It is crucial, therefore, before discussing at any length, state relations with NGOs, to narrow down the scope of enquiry. This post (and the second part of this piece, to be published at a later date on the blog) is concerned with issues related to the contemporary security situation in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. More specifically, it seeks to examine how Gulf States conduct their foreign policy to expand their influence throughout the MENA region and the role that NSAs play towards this overarching end. As such, the NSAs examined herein could often be equally accurately described as armed proxy forces engaged in one of the MENA region’s many on-going, smouldering conflicts. The goal of this post is to flesh out the reasons for and – perhaps more importantly – repercussions of Gulf State interaction with such NSAs/proxy forces in the MENA region; a particularly relevant issue given the grave security crises besetting key regional states like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen and the role of NSAs therein.


The central argument put forth in this post is that there are two overarching reasons as to why Gulf States engage with NSAs in the wider MENA region: preference (dealt with here) and pragmatism (dealt with in ‘Part II’). The first of these reasons is, of course, relatively straightforward: like all states, the likes of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman – the states that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – support NSAs that they prefer and want to support. Religious, ideological, or straight-forward political affinity or alliance can be at the root of the support.

The Saudi Arabian state in particular supported the Afghan Mujahedeen in the 1980s against the Soviets partly motivated by a religious belief in the importance of supporting broadly like-minded allies in their struggles. More recently, in post-Gaddafi Libya, the UAE put its support behind the National Forces Alliance movement and groups based in the Nafuza Mountains. Here, the motivation was not religious but more political. In essence, the Emirati government sought in Libya – as elsewhere – to support groups that were quite explicitly not religiously motivated, strongly preferring to support those NSAs motivated by nationalist ideas. The same can be said for the UAE support of General Hiftar and his attempts to counter overtly Islamically motivated groups in Libya.

In another sense, ‘preference’ plays a role when a state choses to forge a foreign policy and needs to find allies in the international arena. During the latter half of the twentieth century, Kuwait was a highly active state in foreign affairs. It sought to utilise its wealth to create a large impact internationally. One method of doing this was assiduous support of the Palestinian cause, an example of a state supporting a quasi-non state actor where domestic Kuwaiti politics demanded, as it were, that the state be active in one of the central concerns of the MENA region, as I noted in my chapter ‘Kuwait’, in Power and Politics in the Persian Gulf Monarchies.

Qatar’s relations in the late-1990s and 2000s is a similar tale. Without being overly endowed with human capital or a history of foreign relations on which to build, the Qatari state used the resources that it did have to cultivate a foreign policy for a new era. Qatar’s financial reserves were, thus, heavily employed to sponsor a range of NSAs and proxy groups around the region from Hamas to those active in the Darfur conflict.

Utilising NSAs in this kind of instrumental way is not unusual and is, in fact, to be expected. All the Gulf States are relatively new entities, receiving independence relatively late into the 20th century. They are also relatively homogenous. There are a great number of shared cultural, historical, familial, tribal, and political dynamics. In an era when states are seeking to consolidate their own independent polities, such relative homogeneity presents a challenge. Moreover, not only does Islam provide some level of competition as a reference for citizens, but tribes span states, and the states also suffer from a relative lack of ancient fables and myths. In other words, the states have a relative lack of the basic building blocks of nationhood. As such, when it comes to the invention of tradition, a planned activity that all states go through, the Gulf States have had to become more creative and utilise whatever they can to differentiate their own states and to forge national identities. Forging a unique foreign policy is one method of creating a ‘difference’, as it were, between the states. Such a rationale can certainly be ascribed to Qatar’s foreign policy ventures in the 1990s and 2000s, when it was overtly seeking to forge a separate, unique independent for itself, and also, perhaps, for Kuwait in the 1970s, as I note in my work titled ‘Qatar™ and a Changing Conception of Security’.

Image: Gulf Cooperation Council Headquaters. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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