This article was adapted from a memo prepared for the Project on Middle East Political Science and Ca’ Foscari University “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop on March 9, 2014 in Venice, Italy.
On March 7, Saudi Arabia named the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, alongside more obvious suspects such as major jihadist groups fighting in Syria. This designation represented a major escalation by Riyadh against the transnational Islamist movement. It also marked a significant departure from its past official stance. In contrast to the fiercely anti-Islamist United Arab Emirates (UAE), where officials have been outspoken in their opposition to the Brotherhood since 2011, the Saudi government has generally avoided explicit attacks on the Brothers. Why the change?
Saudi Arabia hasn’t always had a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood. The kingdom is an avowedly Islamic state, which accords an unusually strong role to its powerful religious establishment. In the 1950s, Saudi Arabia gave shelter to thousands of Brotherhood activists facing harsh repression in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. The Brotherhood soon became entrenched both in Saudi society and in the Saudi state, taking a leading role in key governmental ministries. The Muslim Brotherhood’s influence led to the politicization of Saudi Islam. Saudi Islamist movements, known as the Sahwa, grew in later years, with varying degrees of Muslim Brotherhood influence and ideological views, while maintaining a close, non-conflictual relationship with the Saudi state for at least three decades. One of these Sahwa groups even took the name “the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood,” but it functioned independently from the mother organization and its members did not pledge allegiance to the general guide in Cairo.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the Saudi role in the U.S.-led war that followed created the first major strain in the relationship. Several Brotherhood branches openly criticized the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia called for by King Fahd, while the Sahwa launched its own domestic campaign to demand radical political reforms including several unusually direct open letters to the king. By 1994 to 1995, the regime had crushed this campaign, but continued to harbor 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, it took measures to curtail the activities of the Sahwa groups and expelled several prominent exiled Muslim Brotherhood (or Muslim Brotherhood-linked, even if not formally members) figures, such as Sayyid Qutb’s brother Muhammad, who taught at Umm al-Qura university. 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 evils in the Kingdom.”
The next few years witnessed some form of normalization in the relationship, however. 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 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 needed the Sahwa as an alternative religious establishment to provide for legitimacy as it waged a campaign against jihadist groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The royal family’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood outside the kingdom simultaneously improved, and contacts that had been suspended were re-established.
The Arab Spring challenged that accommodation, as the Sahwa was tempted to seize the opportunity and make a renewed 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. 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). Religious institutions benefited from the aid package of tens of billions of dollars announced by King Abdullah to preempt those challenges. Nevertheless, by appearing to back a movement of change that was gaining the whole region, the Sahwa had reawakened the fears of the regime.
When Islamist governments came to power in Egypt and Tunisia, the Saudi regime feared that its own Islamists would feel even more emboldened. The situation in Egypt, the biggest Arab country and one that has close human and economic ties to Saudi Arabia, especially unsettled the Saudi regime. Well aware of the necessity to appease the kingdom’s fears and to obtain Saudi Arabia’s support for the Egyptian economy, President Mohamed 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 seemed convinced that if the Muslim Brotherhood had to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it would choose Iran. 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 clerics, 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 Aug. 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.” 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 Aug. 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 of “Muslim Brothers” (however this may be understood) was designed. For the first time, all Muslim Brotherhood books were banned at the Riyadh book fair. And several of Al-Awda’s conferences were recently canceled.
But the more drastic measure came on Feb. 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 affiliated with it (obviously, the “Saudi Muslim Brotherhood,” but groups like the “sururis,” a Sahwa affiliate with a more conservative Salafi outlook, 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.”
There remains one core issue on which the regime, the Sahwa, and the Brothers tend to broadly agree: Syria. Yet even here there have been deep tensions, as the Muslim Brotherhood has aligned itself with Qatar and Turkey, often against Saudi clients. There is also a clear connection between the campaign against the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia’s remarkable March 5 decision to withdraw its ambassador to Qatar. The turmoil within the Syrian rebellion could 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.
Although this isn’t the first strain in the Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood relationship, the kingdom is unlikely to backtrack on its anti-Islamist stance – at least anytime soon. The royal family is now convinced by the argument, often made by UAE officials, that the Muslim Brotherhood and all similar groups represent an existential threat for Gulf monarchies. Seen from Riyadh, the solution is to turn the clock back to the pre-1970s era, when the official religious establishment’s quietist brand of Salafism had a monopoly over Saudi Islam. In a globalized kingdom with the largest proportion of social media users in the world, this will not easily succeed.
Stéphane Lacroix is an associate professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris, France.