The Gulf States and the Muslim Brotherhood

By Guido Steinberg, German Institute for International and Security Affairs

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

In July 2013, the Egyptian military under the leadership of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled the government of President Mohamed Morsi, the first Muslim Brother who was elected head of state in the Middle East. When the new rulers subsequently cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), arresting its leadership, outlawing the organization, and declaring it a terrorist organization, many observers regarded this as a decisive defeat from which the Brotherhood would not recover. Not only had the old regime reinstated itself and decided to destroy the organization root and branch. But it had also been supported by a powerful coalition of Gulf states comprising: Saudi Arabia as the old and new conservative lead country of the Arab world, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the financial powerhouse of the Arabian peninsula, and Kuwait as the latest convert to the anti-MB front in the Gulf. Looking at the sequence of events, it is very likely that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had been consulted in advance of the coup in order to secure their support after the crackdown. And in fact, the Gulf states promised and delivered billions in aid for the military rulers in the coming months, effectively showing how important the defeat of the MB had been to them.

The conflict between the MB and its enemies has not ended yet and is rather likely to shape the history of the region for the coming years, if not decades. In spite of the repressive capabilities of the Egyptian and other authoritarian states and the financial and political support by the rich Gulf states, the Brothers remain the only organized alternative to the old regimes, and North African and Middle Eastern populations are not likely to submit to a new and even more repressive form of authoritarian rule in the way they did until 2011. First, the military rulers will be confronted with growing economic problems in Egypt, which are too big to be solved only by the infusion of cash from the Gulf states. Furthermore, the powerful example of Tunisia remains, where the Ennahda party as the local branch of the MB remains part of a political system, which has managed to avoid the return to authoritarian rule and has the greatest chances of all the transformation states to become a success story. Second, the Gulf states will not be able to fund the Egyptian government on the current scale forever. Threatened with the impact of the U.S. shale revolution and possibly growing exports of oil and gas from Iraq and Iran (not to speak of an expected slowdown of economic growth in Asia), Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait will sooner or later be confronted with tighter budgets and will have to redefine their priorities. Thirdly, although the MB as an organization is weak in the Gulf states, its thinking has spread in all the Gulf states in the past decades and has influenced generations of students, the result being the emergence of powerful movements like the Sahwa al-Islamiya (Islamic Awakening), combining politicized and sometimes revolutionary MB thought with Wahhabi social and cultural conservatism. Therefore, even a continued crackdown in the UAE and Saudi Arabia (where the group is less pronounced anyhow) will not end in an eradication of the movement; the more so because the MB has retained a powerful supporter in Qatar – which has not altered its policies after the change in government in June 2013 – and has a long tradition in Kuwait, where it will remain active notwithstanding a more hostile attitude of the government in recent years. Instead, conflicts between the Gulf states over their respective policies concerning the MB are likely to continue, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE not being able to reign in Qatar.

The threat perception

The Gulf states’ policies toward the MB are shaped by a profound belief that the organization might pose a threat to their very survival. This is somewhat surprising, given that Saudi Arabia and its neighbors gave refuge to thousands of Muslim Brothers, when they escaped repression in their Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi home countries between the 1950s and 1970s and were employed in the emerging educational systems in the Gulf. Relations deteriorated when prominent members of MB-affiliated organizations like the Sudanese Hasan al-Turabi, the Turk Necmettin Erbakan, and the Afghan Gulbuddin Hekmatyar supported President Saddam Hussein after Iraqi troops had occupied Kuwait in 1990. After 2001, the Saudi Interior Minister Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud (d. 2012) even attributed responsibility to the MB for the emergence of international Islamist terrorism. Nevertheless, most observers took Prince Nayef’s remarks as the personal view of the leading Saudi representative of an authoritarian security state rather than as a policy statement of the whole government.

How deep Saudi animosity toward the MB went only became clear after the organization won elections in Tunisia and Egypt and became an important player in Libya and in the Syrian opposition. It became obvious that the Gulf states (with the exception of Qatar) regard the MB as a strategic threat because they fear that it might export the successful revolutions in North Africa to the monarchies of the Gulf countries, where the Brothers have a presence in all states. Secondly, Saudi Arabia sees Brotherhood ideology as a school of thought competing for allegiance among the Gulf populations and challenging the religious legitimacy of the Saudi state, which is based on the ruling family’s alliance with the Wahhabi reform movement.

The future of the Muslim Brotherhood in the transformation states

The fear of the Gulf states might at first sight seem somewhat paranoid, as only Kuwait has a major organized Brotherhood presence. In Bahrain, where the Brotherhood is represented in parliament, it supports the regime in its struggle with the Shiite opposition. In Saudi Arabia, the MB is prohibited, in Qatar it dissolved itself 15 years ago, and in the UAE it has suffered a crackdown that has effectively ended its activities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The Saudi, Emirati, and Kuwaiti view becomes more understandable, though, when taking into account historical experience. In the 1950s and 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt challenged the Gulf monarchies by propagating Arab nationalism and socialism as a powerful alternative to the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. Partly as a result of the spread of nationalist ideas, the monarchies in Iraq (1958), Yemen (1962), and Libya (1969) were toppled by nationalist officers and in Saudi Arabia a coup was foiled in 1969. Furthermore, Egypt’s aggressive regional policies led to the “Arab Cold War,” as coined by Malcolm Kerr, of the 1960s, which was fought out in Yemen, where Cairo and Riyadh supported the two conflicting camps. The Gulf states today fear a repetition of the crisis of 1960s under Islamist auspices. In their view, a revolutionary, republican, and transnational movement like the MB would use its power to try to topple the remaining monarchies in the region.

Now that the rise of the MB has been stopped in Egypt and Tunisia, it remains unclear where the organization is heading. Although Egypt has decided to destroy the MB, it remains to be seen whether the state will be able to stop its clandestine activities. In a worst-case scenario, the MB might even decide to return to violence – something the regime wants to make the world believe has already happened. Furthermore, enhanced repression might provide the Brotherhood with new support in the future. On the other hand, the case of Syria shows what happens if the authoritarian regime in question is hostile to the Gulf states and the MB is not considered a partner by them. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have invested heavily in weakening the position of the MB in the Syrian opposition. The net result has been that the MB has lost influence among the insurgents and it has become next to impossible to create a central command, with Salafist and jihadist groups increasingly dominating the fighting. By fighting the MB, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have weakened the only viable alternative to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syrian, and have allowed for much more dubious forces to gain ground. Without a strong MB, any regime change in Syria will only create chaos.

Differing approaches

The Gulf states’ policies regarding the MB also suffer from a lack of coherence, because Qatar is not ready to follow the Saudi and UAE lead on the matter. Qatar’s political and financial support for the MB both domestically and regionally have made coordination within the GCC impossible. As Qatar shows no signs that it is ready to change its attitude, containing the MB will prove to be a difficult task for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Just like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has hosted numerous Muslim Brothers fleeing the repression in their home countries since the 1960s. But in contrast to Saudi Arabia, it has allowed the Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (born 1926), who remains the MB’s supreme religious authority, to spread his worldview in Qatar and abroad. With the help of Al Jazeera TV channel, Qaradawi established himself as the most popular religious scholar in the Arab world and has promoted the cause of the Brotherhood worldwide. Furthermore, by fall 2011, the Qatari leadership seemed to have made the strategic decision to support the MB as the coming power in North Africa and the Levant. It not only used its soft power to promote the aims of the MB, but also assisted the Libyan revolutionaries by sending a token force and supporting Islamist insurgents with money, weapons, and training. Qatar does the same in Syria, where it closely cooperates with Turkey in its support for the insurgents – especially the Islamists and Salafists among them. Additionally, it built strong relations to the Islamist governments in Tunisia and Egypt, clearly looking for new allies in the Arab world.

This policy differed strongly from Saudi Arabia’s approach, which supported the Egyptian military leadership. It long hesitated to help the insurgents in Syria, where the local Muslim Brotherhood dominated the political opposition. Diplomatically, Saudi Arabia tried to break the preeminence of Qatar’s supporters in the Syrian National Coalition in late 2012 and early 2013, triggering a bitter power struggle between the different factions and personalities in this institution. These events were rightly interpreted as part of a Saudi-Qatari struggle for supremacy, which at first did not lead to any open conflict between the two. This is most likely due to that both governments – Saudi Arabia more than Qatar – act out of a fear of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East and the Gulf and therefore share the goal of toppling the Assad regime. But in March, the situation changed, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, in a move designed to force Qatar to change its policies with regard to the MB. It remains to be seen how the new Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, will react, but it is unlikely that he will bow to the immense pressure of his neighbors.

Guido Steinberg is a senior associate at the Middle East and Africa Research Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

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