From Co-optation to Crackdown: Gulf States’ Reactions to the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring

By Courtney Freer, London School of Economics

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “From Mobilization to Counter-Revolution: The Arab Spring in Comparative Perspective,” held on May 3-4, 2016.

Examining recent statements made by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) governments about the Muslim Brotherhood, it is difficult to believe that its members were almost universally welcomed into the Gulf states in the 1950s, with some of their ranks holding ministerial positions into the 2000s. The rise of Islamist opposition movements during the Arab Spring led governments across the region to focus keenly on the Muslim Brotherhood as it emerged as the primary voice of political opposition. I argue that the reason for such a focus on the Ikhwan inside the Gulf lies beyond regional politics alone; rather, the persistent presence of Muslim Brotherhood movements inside the GCC states led their governments to articulate different policies toward such groups. Indeed, each of the Gulf states has developed a distinct strategy to manage the Ikhwan, ranging from a soft form of co-optation seen in Qatar to a harsh crackdown in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

That such policies diverge so widely demonstrates the degree to which each Gulf regime considers the Ikhwan threatening to its hold on power. As the whole, government treatment of these organizations in the GCC varies according to the degree to which regimes consider them linked to broader opposition movements. The more the Brotherhood is seen to collude with secular opposition or hold political sway through government positions, the more dangerous it are considered, and thus likelier a crackdown will result. The link between activities of local Brotherhood branches and support for the Ikhwan abroad, however, is less direct. Those states which co-opt rather than shut down Brotherhood movements tend to feel less threatened by them not only domestically, but also abroad. Still, domestic calculations about the political threat posed by the Brotherhood are remarkably subjective and often rest on individual rulers’ opinions about and experiences with the organization.

Bahrain: Loyalist Brotherhood

Bahrain provides an example of Muslim Brotherhood co-optation due to the political salience of sectarian identity in that state. Because oppositional Islamist movements tend to be Shiite, the Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally been allied with al-Khalifa ruling family. This is not to say that the Bahraini Ikhwan is politically inactive; the Bahraini Brotherhood has a social branch (al-Islah Society) and a political bloc (al-Minbar Islamic Society). As a parliamentary bloc, al-Minbar tends to support the monarchy’s political and economic agenda while also pressing for the implementation of Islamist social policies.[1] Its primary policy demands seem to comprise “generic support for the security services and rejection of government concessions to the main Shiʿa opposition society, al-Wefaq.”[2]

To maintain its position in the government’s favour, al-Minbar has been careful to distinguish itself from more oppositional Brotherhood groups elsewhere in the region, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. In the words of its president Ali Ahmed in 2014: “All eyes of the voters are on us as they say we are the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not right. It is the ideology that we follow, but we do not have the organization in Bahrain – neither do we support it.”[3] Al-Minbar went so far as to denounce protests during the Arab Spring as Shiite or Iranian agents.[4] Because it has never positioned itself as an opposition movement, the Bahraini Ikhwan has not played a major role in articulating policies, aside from those already supported by the government, and, as a result, though they have disagreed on certain policies (like government land ownership), tensions between the two are almost nonexistent.

Kuwait: Ikhwan in Opposition

The Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood has altered its original focus from revising social policy to concentrating on political reform and stamping out corruption, in particular with the advent of the Arab Spring. While its social arm, Jamʿiat al-Islah al-Ijtimaʿi (the Social Reform Association) extends outreach through educational and charitable activities, the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (or ICM) has tempered its demands for social and cultural reforms that would “Islamize” Kuwaiti society while focusing increasingly on demands for broader political reforms.

Though the government, accustomed to Brotherhood activism, has allowed the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood substantial political freedom, crackdown on the opposition as a whole, rather than solely on Islamists, has become more prevalent. Indeed, the government has attempted to stem the tide of the opposition’s reform efforts with dissolutions of parliament (two in 2012 alone), the revision of electoral laws to favor traditionally pro-government candidates, and the shielding of ministers from interpellation to maintain al-Sabah ruling family’s primacy. In response, the ICM, with other blocs, has boycotted the last two parliamentary elections.

Outside parliament, the ICM has increasingly privileged the advancement of a pro-democracy agenda in partnership with other opposition blocs. In 2013, the ICM signed on to a document articulating demands for reform, drafted by secular opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak, former ICM parliamentarian Jamaʿan al-Harbash, and Tariq al-Mutairi of the liberal Civil Democratic Movement. Political trends ranging from secular leftists to Salafis have signed the document, which calls for expanded parliamentary authority, an independent judiciary, and a modified criminal code — none of which is forms a traditional “Islamist” platform. To further the coalition’s aims, the ICM has thus dropped its once primary demand of amending article two of the constitution to proclaim shariʿa as the sole source of legislation.

The April 2016 sentencing of former ICM MP Mubarak al-Duwailah may point to a targeted crackdown on Islamists, informed by the Emirati example, however. Al-Duwailah was sentenced for two years in prison[5] on charges of endangering ties with an ally and insulting leaders of an allied state following his statements, on Kuwait’s parliamentary television channel, about Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan being “against Sunni Islam.”[6] It remains to be seen to what extent the Kuwaiti response becomes harmonised with the Emirati, though a full-scale crackdown remains unlikely due to the broad support base that the Ikhwan enjoys inside Kuwait.

Oman: Past Crackdown, Present Uncertainty

The Muslim Brotherhood is less relevant as a political force in Oman, since Ibadi Islam is the dominant strand of the religion in that state.[7] Nonetheless, the Brotherhood did have an affiliate there. In fact, in 1994, authorities cracked down on the movement, arresting hundreds of people presumed to be Ikhwan-linked on charges of subversion.[8] Among the accused were a former ambassador to the United States, a former air force commander, and two ministerial undersecretaries, suggesting that sympathisers may have held sway in segments of the government.[9]

Today, the Omani Brotherhood lacks institutionalized capacity and major political or social influence due to the lack of Sunni activism as a whole (Sunnis are a minority in the country) and government crackdown in the 1990s. Remaining Islamist movements in Oman are Idabi or Jamaat al-Tabligh, neither of which is ideologically similar to the Ikhwan. The Omani government, since it cracked down on its Brotherhood in the 1990s, has largely stayed out of the fray while its Gulf neighbours have clashed about the political threat presented by the Ikhwan in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, perhaps due to the fact that the group there does not pose a substantial political threat or cohesive group.

Qatar: Cooperative Co-optation

The Qatari Muslim Brotherhood, which formally chose to dissolve itself in 1999, has tended to focus on social policy rather than political reform. Indeed, the organization never formed a political arm. Without means to disseminate its ideology through an official publication or even a formal meeting place, the Qatari Ikhwan does not appear to harbour ambitions beyond continuing intellectual and spiritual pursuits.

Possibly because of the lack of a political opening and partly due to general satisfaction with the prevailing system, the Islamic sector in Qatar has not become politically active in any nascent pro-democracy movement. Further, because the government has been public about the need for democratic reforms, there is less space for Brotherhood agitation in this field. In addition, because many Brotherhood members hail from prominent families, the organization is “hardly subversive.”[10] In its current, loosely organized form, members are able to meet without fearing consequences of a crackdown from authorities. Furthermore, their goals of daʿwa and Islamic education are achievable without the implementation of a structure that the state may find objectionable.[11]

Because Islamist demands in Qatar have been confined to the social sphere, the government has not forced a confrontation with Brotherhood supporters and instead has articulated willingness to work with other Islamist organizations. Its attitude about the Brotherhood abroad thus is largely informed by its peaceful experience with the Ikhwan at home, rather than by an ideological affiliation with the organization.

Saudi Arabia: Cycles of Co-optation and Crackdown

The Saudi Brotherhood has maintained a somewhat low profile, largely eschewing public criticism or calls for change in favor of more grassroots activity. Such activity reached a pitch in the early 1990s, when a number of Brotherhood figures joined the Islamic Awakening (al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya, hereafter Sahwa) movement, which focused on opposing the deployment of foreign troops on Saudi soil to liberate Kuwait and included protests and petitions demanding political reform to allow for greater public participation in politics.[12] For its part, the ruling family seems to have vacillated between supporting and co-opting its local Brotherhood affiliate, depending on the degree to which it considers the group to be aligned with Sahwa and other reform movements that could threaten the Kingdom politically.

By 1995, the regime had quelled the Sahwa campaign, but continued to harbor a distrust and dislike of the Brotherhood, as it considered the group the primary force behind “this unprecedented episode of dissent.”[13] Indeed, in the years that followed, the government moved to diminish independent Sahwa activities and expelled several prominent Muslim Brotherhood or Muslim Brotherhood-linked, figures, since they considered the groups to be one and the same.[14] In 2002, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, then-minister of interior, went so far as to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of being the “source of all evils in the Kingdom.”[15]

The relationship changed in later years. After the death of the most respected figures of the official religious establishment, Sheikhs Ibn Baz and Ibn Uthaymin and in the midst of its fight against jihadism, the ruling family needed a Sunni support base to back its legitimacy.[16] Al-Saud family’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood outside the kingdom thus improved, and it become more tolerated inside the state.

This relationship soured during the Arab Spring, however, when, members of the Sahwa movement in 2011 began to call for far-reaching political reforms through petitions.[17] To make matters worse, in August 2013, 56 sheikhs— some of whom are linked to the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood— criticized the overthrow of Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, which the Saudi government had supported, dubbing it the “removal of a legitimately elected president” and a violation of “the will of the people.”[18]

Certainly, “in 2011 and 2012 there was some interaction between Sahwa Islamists, liberals and political reformers of various persuasions.”[19] As a result, the government came to consider it dangerous and thus took a harsh stance toward the Brotherhood, culminating in the removal of Ikhwan sympathisers from university posts and the designation of the organization as a terrorist group in February 2014.[20]

This stance seems to have been tempered in the past year, however. Foreign Minister Saud bin Faysal stated in February 2015 that his government has “no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood.”[21] Such a change in rhetoric may be part of the Saudi government’s attempt to gain favour among Sunni Islamists as it wages war in Yemen and against ISIS, positioning itself as the protector of “proper” Sunni Islam. In turn, it may also reflect the policies of King Salman, who, as long-time governor of Riyadh, developed ties with a variety of Islamists in the Kingdom.[22]

United Arab Emirates: Crackdown and Securitization

Jamʿiat al-Islah wa-l-Tawjih al-Ijtimaʿi (Reform and Social Counselling Association, hereafter Islah), the Emirati branch of the Muslim Brotherhood initially resembled the Qatari branch in its focus on social policy and education. Islah also developed a political reform agenda alongside its social program, however, pressing for more representative government and more equal distribution of wealth.[23]

Fearing that the Emirati Brotherhood could gain a broader following as a political bloc, the government resolved to squash it before the Ikhwan became too powerful to influence politics on an institutionalised level. Allegations about Islah’s misconduct from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who claimed in 1994 that Islah’s charity had funded Egyptian Islamic Jihad, provided the first opportunity for the Emirati government to move against the organization. That year, the government dissolved Islah’s elected emirate-level boards of directors[24] and placed them under supervision of the Ministry of Social Affairs. Furthermore, the government banned Brotherhood members from holding public office.[25] A second crackdown, involving hundreds of arrests, occurred following the 9/11 attacks, as the Emirati government was eager to prove itself harsh on any type of Islamism after Dubai was revealed to be a financial hub for terrorism and after two Emiratis were involved in the attacks.[26]

Although liberal and Islamist activists had worked together to draft a petition urging political reform in 2011, the government exaggerated links between them to dramatize the danger to the prevailing system. By the end of 2012, 94 alleged members of Islah had been arrested as security threats, with the government claiming to have received confessions from imprisoned Islah members that their organization had an armed wing and intended to overthrow the existing order to re-establish the caliphate, a claim not substantiated by any independent Islah documents or public statements.[27] Still, in November 2014, the UAE dubbed Islah a terrorist organization.[28]

Emirati Foreign Minister Shaykh ʿAbdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan denounced the Brotherhood as “an organization which encroaches upon the sovereignty and integrity of nations” and called on Gulf governments to work against its expanding influence.[29] Such language illustrates government attempts to use fears about emerging Islamist political parties in the region as an excuse to dismiss such groups’ demands for political reform within the UAE. The crackdown on the Brotherhood also sent a strong signal to any potential opposition movements that crackdown would be swift and complete.

Inside the GCC, different Muslim Brotherhood organizations have varying priorities in terms of political versus social platforms and have adopted differing organizational forms. As a result, government responses have fluctuated, with successful co-optations in Bahrain and Qatar, crackdowns in Oman, the UAE and at times in Saudi Arabia, and with a relatively hands-off approach in Kuwait. Such responses illustrate the degree to which such states consider the Ikhwan threatening to their economic and political agendas.

The fact that Brotherhood movements survive in some of the world’s wealthiest rentier states also demonstrates the flexibility of the organization and its ability to adapt its shape and activities to suit different political environments. Due to such flexibility, the Brotherhood is likely to remain politically relevant in the region, even where structural restrictions remain. Just as Tarek Masoud points out in the Egyptian context, political Islam is also far from dead in the Gulf region.

[1] Lori Plotkin Boghardt, “The Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf: Prospects for Agitation,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 20, 2013,

[2] Justin Gengler, “Are Bahrain’s Sunnis Still Awake?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 25, 2012,

[3] Ali Ahmed, qtd. in Alex MacDonald, “Sunni Islamists Could Face Uphill Struggle in Bahrain Elections,” Middle East Eye, November 20, 2014,

[4] MacDonald.

[5] Habib Toumi, “Kuwait Former MP Sentenced for Insulting UAE,” Gulf News, April 13, 2016,

[6] “UAE to Try Kuwaiti Ex-MP over Remarks on Abu Dhabi Crown Prince,” Middle East Eye, March 9, 2015,

[7] Zohrul Bari, “Islamic Revival in the Gulf: An Overview,” International Studies 31, no. 49 (1994): 51.

[8] Plotkin Boghardt.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jassim Sultan, Qtd. in Andrew Hammond, “Arab Awakening: Qatar’s Controversial Alliance with Arab Islamists,” Open Democracy, April 25, 2013,’s-controversial-alliance-with-arab-islamists.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Toby Matthiesen, “The Domestic Sources of Saudi Foreign Policy: Islamists and the State in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings,” Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings Institution, Rethinking Political Islam Series, August 2015, 2,

[13] Stéphane Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood Predicament,” Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS), March 20, 2014,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Matthiesen, 3.

[18] Lacroix.

[19] Matthiesen, 3.

[20] “Saudi Arabia Declres Muslim Brotherhood ‘Terrorist Group,’” BBC News, March 7, 2014,

[21] Saud al-Faisal, Qtd. in “Saudi Arabia Has ‘No problem’ with Muslim Brotherhood: Foreign Minister,” Middle East Eye, February 11, 2015,

[22] Ibrahim al-Hatlani, “Next Saudi Royal Generation Takes the Lead,” Al-Monitor, June 24, 2015,

[23] Pekka Hakala, “Opposition in the United Arab Emirates,” Directorate-General for External Policies, Policy Department, European Parliament, November 15, 2012, 2,

[24] Ibid., 2.

[25] Ibid., 2.

[26] Interview with Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Dubai, February 10, 2014.

[27] “UAE Islamists Deny Forming Military Wing,” Ahram Online, September 22, 2012,

[28] “UAE Blacklists 82 Groups as ‘Terrorist,’” Al Arabiya, November 15, 2014,

[29] Ian Black, “Emirati Nerves Rattled by Islamists’ Rise,” The Guardian, October 12, 2012,

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