Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

UK cooperation with Gulf countries to counter ‘extremism’ is problematic, and risks inadvertently bolstering repression.

The aftermath of a suicide bombing inside a Shia Muslim mosque in the Saudi Gulf coastal town of Qatif, 400 km east of Riyadh, on 22 May 2015. Photo: HUSSEIN RADWAN/AFP/Getty Images.The aftermath of a suicide bombing inside a Shia Muslim mosque in the Saudi Gulf coastal town of Qatif, on 22 May 2015. Photo: Getty Images.


  • Fifteen years after the United States declared a war on terror, the Western policy agenda has moved on to a broader focus on countering extremism. But just as terrorism has long been an internationally contested notion, there is even less consensus on what defines extremism and much less still on the increasingly central notion of non-violent extremism.
  • Western and Middle Eastern countries, including the United Kingdom and the Gulf states, share a common interest in working together on counterterrorism, particularly to combat Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda. The Gulf and UK governments also agree that countering extremism requires a mix of social, political and ideas-based approaches as well as security and law enforcement work. However, there are significant differences in their understandings of the drivers of ISIS.
  • International cooperation against the broader and more nebulous phenomenon of extremism is more problematic, because there is no agreement on what extremism is. The UK and its GCC partners use the term to mean very different things, and differences of interpretation are all too often glossed over in the interests of international cooperation on counter-extremism.
  • In the current UK policy formulation, extremism is in effect defined as ideology opposed to liberal democratic values. This exclusive focus on beliefs risks diverting attention away from wider political and social drivers of extremism, and lumps many diverse movements together as though they represent a single, homogeneous phenomenon.
  • Internationally, the UK is working with a number of governments that in fact reject some of these values, especially Western democracy. These include governments in the strategically important Gulf region, as well as others in the wider Middle East region. Whereas the UK holds opposition to democracy to be part of its definition of extremism, Gulf governments typically consider it extremist to campaign for any rapid transition to democracy in their countries.
  • For the purposes of international security cooperation, the generic focus on what is termed extremism risks generating confusion and mistrust between the UK and Gulf governments. These differences will also provide ammunition for domestic and international criticism of double standards. Instead, the extremism agenda should be replaced with a clearer, specific focus on named individuals, groups and movements, identified because of their intentions and plans.