Gulf Security, Stability, and Terrorism: Country Rankings

Much of the analysis of political instability, security problems, and terrorism in the Gulf and the Middle East focuses on the most serious immediate problem or key causes of the current rise in violence like religious extremism.

There are, however, a wide range of metrics that explain the series of crises that have affected the region since 2011. They demonstrate that terrorism is not a new phenomenon and has many different causes, and underscore the significance of key problems in governance, economics, and demographics.

The Burke Chair has prepared an analysis of these trends for each Gulf state and for key neighboring states like Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. This analysis is entitled Gulf Security, Stability, and Terrorism: Country Rankings, and is available on the CSIS web site at

A comparison of these country analyses provides considerable insight into the pressures that affect each state, as well as highlight the differences from country to country, emphasizing the danger of generalizing about the region, the Arab world, or single causes of instability and violence.

No set of metrics can speak for itself, and efforts at quantifying key trends cannot stand alone without far more narrative explanation than is possible in this survey.  In the same light, narrative analysis that does not incorporate metrics and quantitative data fails to put key issues into proportion and sharply oversimplifies complex patterns in security, stability, and terrorism without nuanced explanation.

This report is not free from shortcomings, and there also are key areas of uncertainty in the trends and data involved here. While acknowledged in this study, this inherent uncertainty is often sharply understated in both official and academic reporting.

This report highlights four key sources to portray security:

World Bank Governance Indicators: These estimate the trends in Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and the Absence of Violence, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, and Control of Corruption for the period from 1996 to 2013. In broad terms, they provide a consistent set of warnings when governments fail to meet the needs of their people, and lay the groundwork for violence and terrorism.

They do, however, have the limit that they do not address the seriousness of given trends. For example, the same ranking for corruption may reflect the fact that most transactions involve some extra “fee” or a truly serious level of extortion that deprives the government of popular support and sharply favors some elite, sect, or ethnic group.

Similarly, problems in the rule of law can range from weak policing, inefficient courts and long delays to critical problems in administering justice and repression.

UN Human Development Indicators, Human Development Index: The UN Human Development Index (HDI) shows a trend analysis for the period from 1960 to 2014, a summary score and world ranking, and the current data for a wide range of parameters that contribute to the score. A relatively good ranking may or may not indicate limited causes of violence. For example, Bahrain has a relatively good global ranking of 44 and has serious internal violence. Jordan, a much poorer state with a world ranking of 77 does not.

The HDI does, however, at least attempt to examine a range of factors that affect the overall level of human development, rather than focus on metrics that say little or nothing about the causes of instability like GDP growth, balance of payments status, oil export income or a national or per capita basis, or total per capita income divorced from any effort to assess the equality of income distribution.

Unfortunately, the progress made in addressing the causes of instability in other sources like the Arab Development Reports has virtually ceased since the rise of regional instability in 2011. Many of the data now available are either badly dated or based on estimates that seem to be the result of past trends rather than current problems and violence.

Moreover, no clear effort has been made to provide consistent estimates of national trends in:
•    The inequality of income and wealth on a national basis and by region, sect, ethnic group, or key national faction.
•    Real world levels of both unemployment and underemployment in productive jobs relative to the size of the total potential labor force, with special attention to the problems of young male entrants to the labor force in societies with acute discrimination by gender.
•    Ability to afford marriage, housing, and children vs. obsolete levels of poverty that sharply understate economic problems and the real world causes of instability and alienation.
•    Modernizing the industrial, agricultural, and service sector to create efficient output and meaningful jobs.
•    Expansion of key infrastructure to meet increasing population and rising demand: education, power, water, etc.
•    Relevance of education to job creation and economic growth at a time “literacy” is of marginal value as a measure of job capability.
•    Making women a productive part of the economy in a global economy where women play a critical productive role in virtually every other region.
•    Management of the national budget in terms of its ability to meet public needs and produce actual services and improvements in development.
•    The impact of hyperurbanization throughout the region.
•    The economic impact of terrorism and civil conflict, sectarian and ethnic strife, refugees and internally displaced persons: Factors not reflected in most estimates of countries like Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
•    Polling data to measure the causes of popular disaffection, anger, and alienation; as well as create violent extremists and fighters in civil conflicts.

The US State Department National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Data Base on Terrorism. This report provides the full range of metrics for each country developed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). It provides the first set of official comparative metrics on extremism and terrorism and highlights the rising threat in the region.

The analysis provides eight different charts for each country showing the trend lines measuring the level of terrorist activity in each country from 1970-2013: Total number of terrorist incidents, perpetrators, attack type, target type, weapon type, casualties, fatalities, and injured.

This database is still in development, and reporting varies in quality by country. It also presents the problem that it is a database on terrorism, and not on civil war. As a result, key countries like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have far more serious levels of violence than these figures indicate – although the terrorism indicators are highly threatening in each case.

At the same time, even a quick review of the summary patterns shown warns against generalizing about the causes and patterns of terrorism and violence in the region, in the Islamic world, and among Arab states. It immediately becomes clear that national differences have a critical impact, and that states that mix effective counterterrorism with efforts to address key cause of terrorism can have significant success.

It is also important to note that the START data base includes detailed chronologies of terrorist and violent incidents. A review of such chronologies – while far too complex to include in this analysis – provides further evidence of the need to examine the full range of causes and patterns of terrorism on a national basis, rather than generalize or focus on one over-simplistic cause like religious extremism or poverty.

The US Census Bureau International Data Base: Demographic Pressure and the Youth Bulge. The rate of population pressure and growth in a largely desert region with limited arable land and water is often downplayed for religious and political reasons. The final set of trend studies and data shows the overall trends in population growth from 1950 to 2014, and the estimate future growth through 2050 – taking the decline in annual population growth into full account.

There are significant uncertainties in such data, but the broad trends are almost certainly correct, and they highlight the reasons why formally stable patterns of rural life, urban life, and relations between different sects, ethnic groups, tribes, and other factions have come under pressure. Once again, there are acute national differences in such pressures, which are illustrated in part in the summary CIA data on the ethnic and religious composition of the population provided in the “Key Trends” section at the start of the data for each country. These are compounded in the GCC countries by a rentier dependence on foreign labor and disguised unemployment in the form of unneeded and unproductive government jobs.

The final set of trend data cover the population for two age groups that put intense pressure on job creation and creating stability for the younger part of the population: Ages 0 to 24 years, and 15 to 24 years. This pressure has risen sharply since 1950, but will begin to level off around 2020-2030, depending on the country.

While no clear statistics are available, past studies have shown that many countries cannot absorb even the male portion of this population into the labor force, even in the case of men with college degrees. At the same time other countries can only offer subsidized, dead end government employment.

These same studies indicate these problems were worse in the Middle East and North Africa than any other part of the world and may have played a major role in religious extremism and the rise of violence. The data are not sufficient to tie the trends for any given country to such results, but like many of the economic issues cited earlier, there is a clear need to look beyond politics and religion per se and address the underlying issues and causes involved.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Aaron Lin and Michael Peacock