Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament

March 20, 2014

By Stéphane Lacroix, Sciences Po

* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014

A few days after the July 2013 coup that overthrew Egyptian President and Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Morsi, Saudi Arabia was one of three Gulf countries to announce the provision of billions of dollars in financial aid to Egypt, thus openly marking its support for the new regime in Cairo. In fact, there are even indications that Saudi officials had been in touch with Egyptian officers and some anti-Brotherhood Egyptian businessmen weeks before the coup, and that they had made it clear that they would welcome Morsi’s ouster.

In some ways, this was a surprising development. Contrary to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where officials had been outspoken in their opposition to the Brotherhood since 2011, the Saudi government had generally – at least in public, except on one occasion discussed below – avoided explicit attacks on the Brothers. How can this position be understood? My contention here is that the Muslim Brotherhood has been treated by the Saudi regime as simultaneously a domestic and a regional security issue, and that those two dimensions have fed on each other.

The relationship between the kingdom and the Muslim Brotherhood started in the 1950s, when Saudi Arabia gave shelter to thousands of Brotherhood activists from Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. This happened in the context of the Arab cold war, which prompted an alliance between the two major opponents of Arab nationalism: the regional one – Saudi Arabia, and the domestic one – the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result of its massive presence in Saudi Arabia, the Brotherhood became entrenched both in Saudi society and in the Saudi state. This Muslim Brotherhood influence led to the politicization of Saudi Islam, and the emergence of a Saudi Islamist movement known as the Sahwa. Though the Sahwa groups (jamaat) bore varying degrees of Muslim Brotherhood influence, with the Sururis adopting a much more Salafi outlook, one of the jamaat, known as “the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood” (al-ikhwan al-muslimun al-saudiyyun), went so far as to claim the same name – though it presumably functioned independently from the mother organization and its members did not pledge allegiance to the general guide in Cairo.[1]

The relationship between the exiled Brothers and the Sahwa movement, on the one hand, and the Saudi state, on the other hand, remained close for at least three decades. Yet, the Gulf war created the first major strain. Several Brotherhood branches openly criticized the U.S. military intervention called for by King Fahd, while the Sahwa launched its own domestic intifada to demand radical political reforms. By 1994 to 1995, the regime had crushed the Sahwa’s intifada, but what remained was a deep resentment toward the Brotherhood, which it held responsible for this unprecedented episode of dissent. In a clear sign that the government saw a direct link between the Brothers and the Sahwa, several prominent exiled Muslim Brotherhood (or Muslim Brotherhood-linked, even if not formally members) figures were expelled from the kingdom, such as Sayyid Qutb’s brother Muhammad, who taught at Umm al-Qura university. Some measures were also taken to curb the influence of the jamaat. In 2002, in a rare display of anger against the organization, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, then minister of interior, openly accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being the “source of all evil in the Kingdom.”[2]

The next few years witnessed some form of normalization in the relationship. The Sahwa was reintegrated to the Saudi religious and social spheres, in exchange for which Sahwa leaders avoided all criticism of the government. This was not only the result of a more accommodating stance on the part of the government; after the death of the most respected figures of the official religious establishment, Sheikhs Ibn Baz and Ibn Uthaymin, the royal family counted on the Sahwa to act as an alternative religious establishment, which could at least produce legitimacy by default. The royal family’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood outside the kingdom simultaneously improved, and contacts that had been suspended were re-established.[3]

With the start of the Arab Spring, the Sahwa was tempted to seize the opportunity and make a political stand. Several petitions were published in late February 2011: “Towards a state of rights and institutions,” signed by tens of Sahwa figures including Salman al-Awda; and “A call for reform,” signed by Nasir al-Umar and an array of Sahwa clerics. Al-Awda, in particular, has remained critical of the regime ever since, for instance publishing an open letter to King Abdullah in March 2013. It is true that none of those Sahwa leaders supported the call for demonstrations in Riyadh on March 11, 2011, the so-called “day of anger” (which never materialized). Yet, in the meantime, Abdullah had announced an aid package of tens of billions of dollars, some of which was reserved for religious institutions. Despite this, by appearing to back – at least in word – a movement of change that was gaining the whole region, the Sahwa had reawakened the fears of the regime. Thus, when Islamist governments came to power throughout the region, the Saudi regime’s main worry was that its own Islamists would feel emboldened. The situation in Egypt was especially unsettling for the Saudi regime: As the biggest Arab country and one that has close human and economic ties to Saudi Arabia, it has the largest potential to influence developments in the kingdom.

Being well aware of the necessity to appease the kingdom’s fears and to obtain Saudi Arabia’s support for the Egyptian economy, Morsi chose Saudi Arabia for his first official visit – a very strong symbol. This, however, wasn’t enough to ease Saudi Arabia’s distrust of the Brothers. Morsi’s apparent willingness to build a “constructive relationship” with Iran – he went to Tehran in August 2012, the first visit of an Egyptian president since Anwar Sadat, and invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Cairo – certainly made things worse. In royal family circles, many were convinced, it seems, that if the Muslim Brotherhood had to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it would choose Iran.[4] All of this led to Saudi Arabia’s support for the coup in Egypt.

This put the royal family in a difficult position at home. During the summer, all the major Sahwa figures signed petitions and statements denouncing the coup, and – in more or less explicit terms – the Saudi government’s support for it. And while some, like Nasir al-Umar, stuck to pure religious rhetoric, arguing that it is “forbidden to rebel against a Muslim ruler” and that what happens in Egypt is “a struggle between the Islamic project and the westernizing project opposed to Islam,” others framed their arguments in more or less explicit terms as a defense of electoral democracy. On August 8, 2013, for instance, 56 sheikhs, some of them known to be close to the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the “removal of a legitimately elected president” and a violation of “the will of the people.”[5] They added: “We express our opposition and surprise at the path taken by some countries who have given recognition to the coup … thereby taking part in committing a sin and an aggression forbidden by the laws of Islam – and there will be negative consequences for everyone if Egypt enters a state of chaos and civil war.” On Twitter, in the wake of the August 14, 2013 massacre in Cairo, thousands of Saudis replaced their pictures with the Rabaa sign in solidarity with the Brothers.

This, it seems, was seen by the Saudi regime as a confirmation of its fears. The response was drastic: On the one hand, the government decided to increase its support for the new Egyptian government, providing it with a few extra billion dollars; on the other hand, it launched a new campaign to weaken the Sahwa at home. According to certain sources, a countrywide plan aimed at ridding Saudi universities from “Muslim Brothers” (however this may be understood) was designed.[6] For the first time, all Muslim Brotherhood books were banned at the Riyadh book fair.[7]

But the more drastic measure came on February 4 when a royal decree announced that, from now on, “belonging to intellectual or religious trends or groups that are extremist or categorized as terrorist at the local, regional or international level, as well supporting them, or showing sympathy for their ideas and methods in whichever way, or expressing support for them through whichever means, or offering them financial or moral support, or inciting others to do any of this or promoting any such actions in word or writing” will be punished by a prison sentence “of no less than three years and no more than twenty years.” This decree has several important consequences. First, it endorses the Egyptian designation of the “Muslim Brotherhood” as a terrorist movement. Second, it forbids expressing any form of mere sympathy for the Brothers. Third, it is meant as an impending threat toward the Sahwa and all the groups that are part of it (obviously, the “Saudi Muslim Brotherhood,” but groups such as the Sururis could also theoretically be targeted). To increase the pressure, the Saudi ministry of interior made those points explicit in a March 7 statement, which contains a list of groups the kingdom deems “terrorist,” including the Muslim Brotherhood. Also considered “terrorist,” the statement adds, are “all groups that resemble those in the list, in ideology, word or action.”

All of this also had consequences on Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Qatar, which is seen by the kingdom as the Brotherhood’s regional patron. Although the two countries had not been on good terms since the late 1990s, and even less since the start of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia’s March 5 decision to withdraw its ambassador to Qatar in conjunction with Bahrain and the UAE – in protest for Qatar’s refusal to stop backing the Brothers – is an incredibly strong step.

This indicates a clear escalation on part of the Saudi regime against both the Brothers and the kingdom’s Islamists, the Sahwa movement, and shows the extent to which Riyadh has been considering the two issues as inseparable. There remains one core issue on which the regime, the Sahwa, and the Brothers tend to broadly agree: Syria. Yet, if there is some truth in recent reports of a Saudi willingness to adopt a more “cautious” strategy in Syria, this would mark the end of the last field of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and those Islamist movements, and a radical shift in Saudi Arabia’s political strategy – the consequences of which, regionally and domestically, are yet to be seen.

Stéphane Lacroix is an associate professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris, France.



[1] Stéphane Lacroix, Awakening Islam : The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, HUP, 2011. Chapter 2. Saudi Arabia, HUP, 2011. Chapter 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Muhammad Qutb, who had been living in Qatar, was allowed to come back.

[4] As one Saudi intellectual put it to me in a conversation, “the regime sees them as Islamists before being Sunnis.”

[5] Some of the same sheikhs, along with Sururi figures, issued another statement on 13 January 13, 2014 criticizing in very harsh terms Egypt’s largest Salafi party, Hizb al-Nur, which supported the army’s “coup” against Morsi and by doing so “harmed the interests of Islam and Muslims, in Egypt and outside” (Bayan hawla al-mawaqif al-siyasiyya li-Hizb al-Nur, http://www.almoslim.net/node/198580?page=1).

[6] Khittat al-sa‘udiyya li-tathir al-ta‘lim al-jami‘i mi al-ikhwan, al-‘Arab, July 15, 2013.

[7] Al-sulutat al-Sa‘udiyya tamna‘ kutub al-ikhwan fi ma‘rad al-Riyadh al-duwali li-l-katab, al-Islamion, March 2, 2014

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