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Invisible strife in a moribund Middle East

January 24, 2014 at 4:41 am

In a fractious Middle East that is rife with conflicts nothing is spared; houses of worship are attacked and sports clubs, schools and markets are unsafe thanks to the violence. Now, attention is focused on the Syrian conflict, which has been coloured in a sectarian hue. However, there is another, more invisible fray that is ongoing although we might barely be aware of it.

The dust of the Egyptian coup has not yet settled but a piqued US administration has expressed its resentment, mostly because it was not expecting Morsi’s overthrow. It had already sought to foster closer ties and forge relations with the “moderate” Islamists in power in the belief or hope that they would deliver what their predecessors did not. Yet, with Egypt’s June 30 coup, or what many call “the Second Revolution”, regardless of our assessment of whether it serves Egypt’s national interests or not, serious repercussions followed and a big surprise emerged from the other side of the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia’s position was a shock, not only because it opposed the US but also because it supported and funded Egypt’s coup government. How did this happen? Saudi’s clear position was reached despite an alliance with the US and after decades of absolute harmony on regional issues such as Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Husseincs Iraq, Iran and Syria. Since the oil crisis in the seventies Saudi has dealt with regional crises calmly and its national and regional interests have more or less followed America’s.

There has been no change in the Saudi decision-making structure to make us think that the reason for this particular change is of a strategic nature. The Saudi political line has remained consistent and in accordance with previously adopted positions on regional issues; Saudi Arabia’s stance on the US decision to attack Syria is a good example. There must be another reason, therefore, one that is powerful enough to make Saudi Arabia not only defy the US but also provide full support to the coup government in Egypt.

After the toppling of Saudi ally Hosni Mubarak, the government in Riyadh was quick to approach President Mohamed Morsi with an offer to supply Egypt with billions of US dollars to solve its economic problems. However, Morsi’s relationship with Saudi never went beyond regular protocol even though some believed that the Saudis would rise above the Wahhabi/Muslim Brotherhood tension. The haste with which Saudi supported the coup suggests otherwise. What are the origins of the dispute between Wahhabis and Muslim Brotherhood?

For a start, the Muslim Brotherhood has never seen the rule of the Saudis (who follow the Wahhabi practice of Islam, named after Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, who formed an alliance with Muhammad Ibn Saud and founded the first Saudi state), as anything but part of the colonialism which threw out the Muslim Ottoman rulers. The official Muslim Brotherhood website published an article by Graham Fuller, wherein the article stated that the money of the Saudi government has been used to promote the Wahhabi movement around the world; although Wahhabism is not necessarily a violent movement, it has a narrow and literal interpretation of texts in a manner intolerant of other Islamic sects. Wahhabis cannot be the force that leads to the unity of either the Arabs or the Muslims. The article claims that they will not lead to the strengthening of the Muslim world but will lead Muslims towards weak education and isolation from the rest of the world.

Sheikh Mohammed al-Ghazali has written about the Wahhabis in his book, “Wahhabi: deformation of Islam”. He has also been critical of Wahhabis elsewhere: “You kept inciting and using mercenaries to attack true Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who uphold the word of God, Allah, and promote virtue; using books, tapes and the like, you have translated these books into numerous languages and distributed them for free.” This fact was referred to by Joseph Nye in his book “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics” when he pointed out, “Because funding of Wahhabist institutions comes from both Saudi government ministries and private charities, it is virtually impossible to estimate the total spending.”

Wahhabis and Salafis, whose group stemmed from the Wahhabis, see themselves as the group that promotes virtue and the return to pure Islam through following the Qur’an, the Sunnah (example of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) and the path of the pious ancestors. They do not rely on the four Islamic schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Hanifi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali) and see in the Muslim Brotherhood a movement that seeks the division of Muslims and is thus considered as the arch-enemy.

In the same vein, when former Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz was discussing the causes of extremism in the Muslim world, he blamed primarily the Muslim Brotherhood, believing that it is the reason behind most of the suffering, violence and extremism. “The Muslim Brotherhood is a scourge and the source of all problems,” he claimed. The ex-minister added that the Brotherhood caused several problems for Saudi Arabia, pointing out that a number of its leaders like Hassan al-Turabi, Rashid Ghannouchi, Abdel-Rahman Khalifa and Necmettin Erbakan attacked Saudi Arabia’s position during the 1991 Gulf War.

Saleh bin Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi Minister of Islamic and Religious Affairs, says of the Muslim Brotherhood: “What distinguishes the Muslim Brotherhood is that [its members] have no respect and do not like the rest of the [Sunni world], even if they do not show it.”

One should concede that the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia has vacillated between periods of ambivalence and periods of engagement. For instance, the relationship was better during the rule of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, especially after the crackdown on Islamists following the assassination attempt on him. However, the inability to contain the movement’s ideas and ideology put an end to this relationship.

In this context, Ahmed Saleh al-Faqih explains in his article “The Wahhabi opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood” that during the fifties, the Brotherhood was closely linked to the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf because of their common war against Arab nationalist regimes. Nevertheless, they were divided in the wake of the events of September 2001. In effect, the Muslim Brotherhood is prevalent in almost every Arab country, yet its presence in Saudi Arabia remains limited.

Syria provides the consolidated divisive dilemma between the two camps. While both seek the toppling of President Bashar al-Assad (who fought both Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood), they disagree on the means. On one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood supports Turkey’s approach and its allies on the ground, while signs and Western sources suggest that Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf states support the Salafi groups in Syria.

Apart from Syria, with the ousting of Morsi it seemed as if Saudi Arabia had breathed a sigh of relief and opted to support the new regime in Egypt with the aim of stifling a potential and potentially dangerous competitor. Taking geography into consideration, this stance can be understood, particularly when the Saudis are fully aware that the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would cement the movement’s status as a major religious power in the whole region and pose a significant menace to its own position.

This fact was stated by Menatallah Hariri in her article in Al Masry Al Youm newspaper where she suggests that Saudi Arabia realised that if the Muslim Brotherhood set up its own state in Egypt, political boundaries would not prevent its ideas from spreading in all directions, and Saudi Arabia is the closest neighbour. As such, the Muslim Brotherhood would be in a position to lead the Arab and Islamic world, making the Saudis dread the prospect of their dynasty being overthrown with the support of Brotherhood activists in Yemen, Egypt and Turkey. This, according to Hariri, is the major reason behind this state of affairs, which led the Saudi leadership to support the downfall of Morsi.

The chasm of mistrust was reflected in the response of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Saudi Shura Council, Abdullah al-Askar, to Aljazeera when asked a question about the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood to Saudi and Gulf security: “We have to differentiate between two threads within the Muslim Brotherhood; traditional conservatives who can pose a threat, and the new generation who are open and believe in change and dialogue and are not a threat.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg when decision-making dovetails with religious and ideological beliefs. State relations come to be based on faith, bypassing governments, dealing with parties and groups and marginalising ruling regimes. Needless to say, when this comes in the midst of a growing rift between beliefs and their followers, it serves only to spread the cloud of doubt hanging over the region and leads to an upsurge in the existing discord and polarisation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.