The spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood attended a ceremony organized by Saudi Arabia in Doha on Friday, signaling an easing of Riyadh's hostility towards the Islamist movement.
Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born and Qatar-based cleric, whose fiery sermons have strained ties with Egypt and Gulf neighbors, appeared alongside the Qatari prime minister and the Saudi ambassador at an event in Doha to celebrate Saudi Arabia's national day.
The accession to the Saudi throne in January of King Salman, who is more sympathetic to religious conservatives than his predecessor King Abdullah, sparked hope among Muslim Brotherhood exiles in Qatar that the Middle East's political winds had started to shift in their favor, potentially giving the Islamist group more space to act.
Salman, while stopping short of befriending the Brotherhood, has worked to reduce tensions with the movement's own allies, strengthening Riyadh's ties with Turkey and Qatar and reaching out to Islah, the Islamist group's offshoot in Yemen.
"We are optimistic now," said an Egyptian Brotherhood member living in Qatar who declined to be named.
"The new (Saudi) leadership could mean a new era for the Middle East, where Islamists are worked with and seen as partners rather than demonised."
The Muslim Brotherhood was designated a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government in November 2013.
Qaradawi, who was born in Egypt, often admonished in his sermons the authorities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who see the Brotherhood as an insidious threat to regional stability due to its activities in Egypt and other Arab countries.
In May, an Egyptian court sentenced Qaradawi to death in absentia in a case related to a mass jailbreak in 2011.
Arguments over the Brotherhood, the most influential Islamist group in the world, were at the heart of a rift between Gulf Arab states that in 2014 saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain pull their ambassadors from Doha.
The ambassadors returned only after Qatar promised to not allow itself to be used for the Brotherhood’s activities.
Back in Cairo, the invitation of Sheikh Qaradawi to the celebrations at the Saudi embassy in Doha provoked anger and disbelief in the Egyptian media.
"Is this a personal position of the Saudi ambassador in Qatar or does it express the position of the Saudi state? Does this mean the official position of Saudi Arabia towards the Egyptian state and President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has changed?" Egyptian TV host Lamis El-Hadidy inquired on her CBC show on Sunday.
"Will the Saudi administration accept the Egyptian ambassador in London receiving leading figures of the Saudi Opposition on Egypt's national day?” she asked angrily, reminding Saudis that Sheikh Qaradawi previously attacked Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
It is worth mentioning that Qaradawi’s invitation to the Saudi embassy in Doha comes at a time when Egypt and Saudi Arabia are taking different stances on the Russian strikes in Syria and the future of President Bashar Al-Assad.
Saudi Arabia rejects Russia’s strikes on Syria and believes Al-Assad has no place in the country’s future. Egypt, however, takes a different stance.
On Sunday, Egypt's foreign minister Sameh Shoukry announced his support for the Russian strikes, saying they will help to curtail the spread of terror and help deal a fatal blow to the ISIS group.
Egypt also supports a political solution in Syria consisting of dialogue with all parties, including the opposition and Al-Assad’s regime.
Edited by Ahram Online