The Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia

Hicham Mourad , Wednesday 15 May 2013

Since the accession to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, scepticism has prevailed in relations between Riyadh and Cairo

Although the new Egyptian regime immediately displayed its willingness to continue the alliance forged between Cairo and Riyadh in the Mubarak era, Saudi leaders, despite the economic aid offered and the diplomatic formulas used, remain at least cautious vis-à-vis the new masters of Egypt.

The Egyptian head of state reserved his first foreign visit for Saudi Arabia, in July. He used the occasion to emphasise that his country is not seeking to "export" its revolution beyond its borders. The message was twofold: Egypt will not attempt to encourage opposition in neighbouring countries to overthrow political regimes, or provide support for the installation of Islamist regimes, from the Muslim Brotherhood. These assurances were clearly not enough to allay the concerns of the Saudi royal family, however, about the intentions of the Brotherhood, nor on the political situation in Egypt.

The position of Riyadh was somewhat surprising, given the support offered by the ruling Al-Saud family to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Arab Islamist movements in general, since the time of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 60s, where Nasser tried through an active foreign policy to export socialism and Arab nationalism — hostile to the West — to the Arab world. The assistance of Saudi Arabia to the Brotherhood took various forms, including political asylum granted to members of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt and other nationalities, such as Syrians and Jordanians, as well as funding the creation of Islamic charities in which the Muslim Brotherhood played a major role, as with the Muslim World League, founded in Mecca in 1962, and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, created in Jeddah in 1972. Both organisations were used to proselytise in favor of Wahhabism, the religious doctrine of Saudi Arabia, but at the same time served the propaganda of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although Saudi Arabia adopted Wahhabism — a form of Salafism, purified, austere, puritanical, and rigorous as a religious doctrine — it supported the Muslim Brotherhood movement, whose doctrine, more flexible, seeks to reconcile Islamic tradition and Western political experience, to counter socialism and Nasserism in the Arab world.

The same goal was followed by President Anwar El-Sadat in the 1970s to remove Nasser's legacy and support the change of Egypt's external alliances towards the West and the Gulf oil monarchies. Saudi Arabia continued as well after the death of Nasser to lend its support to the Muslim Brotherhood, as long as it served its interest to fight liberal and secular forces and support the role of religion in politics. It was perceived and used as a tool of its foreign policy.

This alliance of circumstance does not rule out that Al-Saud family was sceptical about the Brotherhood and its doctrine. This cautious Saudi approach began early, in the late '40s, when the Muslim Brotherhood began to expand outside of Egypt in several Arab countries. The Al-Saud family saw the activist and "republican" formula of Islam promoted by the Brotherhood as a threat to the absolute monarchy formula established in Saudi Arabia, which advocates popular obedience and prohibits revolt against the political regime.

At the time, the Brotherhood movement's founder, Hassan Al-Banna, asked King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud permission to open a branch of the Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia, but the founder of the Saudi monarchy, which prohibits any kind of political party or movement, politely declined. Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to spread its doctrine in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly through immigration of members of the movement who fled the Nasser regime.

The first real shock that hit the relationship between Riyadh and the Brotherhood took place following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. While Saudi Arabia relied on the US to liberate the occupied emirate and to ensure its own security against the threat of Saddam Hussein, the Muslim Brotherhood opposed Western intervention. This position was interpreted as a sign of ingratitude. Following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, Saudi Arabia witnessed the appearance of the first opposition movement, Al-Sahwa (Awakening), which challenged throughout the 90s the absolute monarchy of Al-Saud and called for political reforms. Some Saudi leaders accused the Brotherhood of being Al-Sahwa's inspiration.

The second shock, more violent, that hit the relationship between the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia came following the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States. Some 15 of the 19 alleged attackers were Saudis. Part of Saudi's rulers threw the blame for this "deviation" of some young Saudis on the doctrinal activism advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly their most famous ideologue, Sayed Qutb, hanged by the Nasser regime in 1966. The Saudi interior minister at the time, and the crown prince from October 2011 until his death on 16 June 2012, Nayef Bin Abdel-Aziz, accused the Muslim Brotherhood in 2002 of being the origin of most problems in the Arab world.

"The Brotherhood has done great damage to Saudi Arabia ... All our problems come from the Muslim Brotherhood ... The Muslim Brotherhood has destroyed the Arab world," he said firmly.

However, the danger perceived by Al-Saud family from the Muslim Brotherhood remained remote, as the movement was in opposition. Its coming to power in Egypt and Tunisia — and perhaps tomorrow in Syria — thanks to unexpected popular uprisings, completely changed the situation. Hence the attitude of the less reserved Saudi authorities vis-à-vis the new regime in Egypt. Riyadh fears that the rise to power of the Brotherhood encourages Islamist opposition inspired by that movement to resume activities within the kingdom.

The arrest in the United Arab Emirates in late 2012 of 11 Egyptians accused of forming a Brotherhood cell to help overthrow the UAE regime only reinforced these fears.

But far from the alleged plots against the Gulf States, the Saudi ruling family perceives the Brotherhood and its doctrine as an ideological rival to Wahhabism, which may spread and sow discord in the kingdom or threaten the monarchy. It is not surprising in this context that several reports underlined Saudi financial support for the Egyptian Salafist current in the last parliamentary elections in late 2011.

The perception of danger also has a regional dimension, as some Saudi leaders feared the rise of an alliance between Egypt, Turkey and Qatar — the only Gulf state to maintain close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood — which may reduce the dominant regional influence Saudi Arabia had exercised through its alliance with Mubarak's Egypt and Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad.

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