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The war on the Muslim Brotherhood divides the Gulf

January 25, 2014 at 1:42 am

Anyone following the Gulf media, particularly in Saudi Arabia, will notice a vicious campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic movements in general, and Imams whose influence has grown thanks to social media. National security agencies cannot control or block such media as they do with newspapers and internet sites.

Dahi Khalfan Tamim, Dubai’s police chief, is at the forefront of this campaign against the Brotherhood. He was one of the first to warn governments about the perceived danger of the movement and his warnings have now been followed by articles in the UAE and Saudi media taking the same approach. The tone of such rhetoric suggests that people of influence in those countries want to tackle the Islamic movement, whether in Egypt, where the Brotherhood is the ruling regime, or inside the Gulf region itself.

Such a campaign, which may tackle the Salafi groups later, runs contrary to the historic alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and conservative Gulf regimes. It has led to the stability of these regimes, fighting all leftist and nationalist ideologies which the rulers used to see as a threat to their relative stability.

Why this sudden change of attitudes by the Gulf against the Brotherhood’s ideology, which was initially embraced and supported? Successive generations in the Gulf area have, over the past eighty years, been taught by Brotherhood intellectuals and professors who control the educational sector and have developed curricula, charities and Da’wa societies around the world. How did this relationship turn from close strategic friendship into a vicious one-sided war?

For a start, the regimes in the Gulf have realised that the Muslim Brotherhood is an “international” movement, which means that its members’ loyalty is to the Supreme Leader in Egypt, and not to local governments or even national Brotherhood leaders.

The movement’s influence in education has led to Brotherhood-inclined officers dominating national armies and security agencies. In other words, as far as the regimes are concerned, they are in a position to be overthrown by such officers. This is a weak spot in the Gulf.

Thanks to decades of suppression, liberal and leftist groups are very weak in the Gulf countries, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood as the most likely to take the Arab Spring and political reform forward there.

The Brotherhood is characterised by a financial independence that distinguishes it from other movements, resulting from its complicated organisational network. Its supporters possess substantial financial resources due to their control of huge companies and financial institutions in the Gulf States in particular. Thus they have power in two important sectors: politics and finance.

Not unnaturally in that part of the world, the movement enjoys huge popular support because the ideology is based on the religion of Islam.

Brotherhood members control many mosques, directly or indirectly, which means they have access to the public in at least five daily meetings (at prayer times), and a large weekly meeting (with the Friday prayer).

Non-Jihadist Islamic movements, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, have a strict self-control policy and avoid clashes with the state. That explains the official silence of the group in Egypt towards the attacks against it; and the sending of delegates to the UAE to mediate in the case of detainees there, using diplomacy as a tool. It was not surprising for Saudi writers to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of using the “Taqiyya” (religiously-sanctioned dissimulation) principle in their organisational practices.

Gulf States, in short, feel very worried about the Muslim Brotherhood’s control over Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan and their attempts to take control in Jordan, Yemen and Syria. They fear that the “domino” effect will eventually reach their capitals.

There are positive and negative points for ruling regimes in the Arab Peninsula, as far as this vicious Saudi-Gulf attack against the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned. On the plus side, they are limited to shoring up the internal front, and reducing the Brotherhood’s influence but it looks as if it is too little, too late. There is no alternative ally thanks to the weakness of leftists and liberals in the conservative Gulf societies. Attempts to strengthen a liberal movement will have a limited effect, just like the decree issued by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah allowing thirty women to be part of the Shura Council. That is going to create more problems than solutions, especially with the Wahhabi religious institution which supports the regime and opposes any role for women that equates them with men.

The negatives arising from this attack against the Brotherhood are represented in clashes with the religious establishment. There are a large number of influential preachers who have a growing number of followers on Twitter; more than a million and rising in at least one case. Sheikh Salman Alouda, a prominent Saudi preacher, has joined a campaign calling for an elected parliament, while others call for more openness and accountability for how public money is spent; the Saudi national budget is more than $220 billion, so financial transparency is a hugely important issue.

Some Gulf officials believe that there is an Egypt-Turkey-Qatar alliance behind this Muslim Brotherhood expansion that wants to control the entire region and, as such, it must be resisted. This explains the growing gap in Saudi-Turkish relations and the ferocious political opposition of the UAE to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi through supporting the Salvation Front Party.

It must be acknowledged that Gulf fears about this Cairo-Ankara-Doha troika are justified to some extent. If enhanced, it has the capabilities of being very dangerous, with Turkey’s military, Qatar’s funds and Egypt’s strategic manpower. It is gradually replacing the Egypt-Saudi-Syria alliance which controlled the region for the past forty years, left Iraq out of the equation and paved the way for peace with Israel. Just as the latter group depended on a strong relationship with America and the West, so the newer group is developing arguably stronger links, especially with Barack Obama in the White House for a second term.

Saudi and Gulf preachers are flocking to Cairo to give speeches which call for Gulf businesses to invest in Egypt instead of the West. Even Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ali Akbar Salhi, has made the new “pilgrimage” to Cairo; he received a very warm welcome from the Egyptian government when he presented an invitation for President Morsi to visit Tehran. Iranians possess a strong sixth sense for political developments and changes in the region and are able to use them for their own good.

The weeks and months ahead are going to be full of surprises. While we have to wait and see what transpires, and how, we can be sure that fundamental changes will emerge from the shifting political landscape of the Middle East.

*The author is edit-in-chief of Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper. This article is a translation of the Arabic version which appeared on 11th January 2013

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