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Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood relations create a sense of déjà vu, nostalgia or…

May 25, 2015 at 10:47 am

The past two years have been very difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood. Being declared a terrorist group by regional powers backed by media outlets worldwide was a political, military and diplomatic setback for the movement. The late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia fuelled much of this opposition, mainly because the post-Arab Spring situation in the Middle East and North Africa has left the old regimes, republics and monarchies alike, with a sense of insecurity. Nowadays, across most of the Arab states, being known as a Brotherhood supporter is a term of abuse, or an abstract accusation born out of paranoia, just as being called a communist in Cold War America was.

When the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928, it gained popularity immediately not only for its resistance to colonialism and Zionism, but also because of its welfare networking capabilities. To those living under the corruption of King Farouk, the movement was a safe haven. The Brotherhood established an extensive network to help those in need and its dedication to the Palestinian cause was of great importance in the 1930s. Its efforts made people across the world view Palestine as an Islamic cause, rather than a nationalist issue. Gaining popularity across the Arab world, the movement turned into a regional network, with branches in many countries. The movement’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna, had friendly relations with Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that Riyadh was wary of giving its full support. By the sixties, though, there was clear friendliness between Saudi and the Muslim Brotherhood as their mutual interests found common ground in one country, Yemen (sound familiar?). They agreed on the need to suppress an uprising that was against both of their interests.

Talking about a strategic alliance is futile when the mutual enemy is ignored. In the context of the 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser was the spider that wove the web of the Saudi monarchy and the Muslim Brotherhood together. That’s not to say that Saudi did not attempt a strategic alliance with the Egyptian president. In 1955, they signed a bilateral agreement to undermine Iraqi Hashemite strength that would come along with the Baghdad Pact, an agreement with the British and Americans to contain the Soviet Union. The situation in Yemen led to an Egypt-Saudi agreement as an opportunity to pressure the British out of Aden, so they created the Arab Solidarity Pact. Abdel Nasser’s stance against Arabs being ruled by monarchies and his alliance with the Soviet Union were hiccups that neither party foresaw. Unsurprisingly, the pact ended a year later.

When Yemen’s instabilities boiled to the surface in the sixties, a coup against the monarch, Imam Al Badr, who only ruled for a week, was orchestrated with help from Abdel Nasser. He sent Egyptian troops to North Yemen to assist the coup leader, Abdullah Al-Sallal, who was pro Nasser and managed to turn North Yemen into a republic. This not only threatened Britain’s influence but also the Saudi throne; if the anti-monarchy project expanded on their border it could cost the Saudis their regime. So, not only did the Saudis and British form an alliance to support the royalist forces to put Al-Badr back into power, but Riyadh also wanted to destabilise Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule in Egypt. Who better for the Saudis to fund for this purpose than the thorn in Abdel Nasser’s side, the Muslim Brotherhood?

Abdel Nasser’s violent clampdown on the movement, which included torture, meant that many officials and members took refuge in Saudi Arabia. Having the Muslim Brotherhood in its own backyard was an asset for Riyadh because its members became the educators of the Saudi people due to a lack of qualified teachers. When King Faisal came to the throne in 1964, the education project expanded as he vowed that all boys and girls in the country would get a decent education, engraining further the Muslim Brotherhood in the social fabric of Saudi Arabia. The brother of Sayyid Qutb, a senior Brotherhood leader, escaped from Egypt shortly after he was executed by Abdel Nasser; Mohammed Qutb became a lecturer in King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. With mutual political interests and benefits, it could have been the perfect alliance, as long as the Muslim Brotherhood accepted Saudi hegemony without question, of course.

Relations between the two parties were shaken when the Brotherhood supported Iran’s Islamic revolution. The fall of the Shah’s regime, which was seen as corrupt not only because of its secularism, but also its brutality towards the Iranian people, was something that the Muslim Brotherhood advocated strongly. They interpreted the pan-Islamic rhetoric of Ayatollah Khomeini as an extension of the Islamic movement. The Saudis however, saw it as an anti-monarchist and Shia uprising that could threaten their dominance and Sunni Islam. The strategic synergy between the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia collapsed, and matters only got worse.

Moving forward to the Arab Spring, the feud between Riyadh and the movement intensified. With the Muslim Brotherhood being a vocal champion of the protests hitting the Middle East and North Africa calling for social justice, democracy and an end to state corruption, its widespread support, proven in the democratic elections in Tunisia and Egypt, created the possibility that it had the potential to overturn the Saudi regime as a Sunni hegemony. The late King Abdullah took a gamble and waged a war against the Muslim Brotherhood. He declared it to be a “terrorist” organisation and took a hard line against anyone who supported it in Saudi Arabia; citizens were arrested and foreigners were deported, where they would later get executed or tortured. Abdullah welcomed the Egyptian coup with open arms, overlooked its human rights abuses, mass executions, massacres and detention, and allegedly pledged $1 billion in support. After the king’s death and the appointment of King Salman, the tone changed; the new Saudi monarch toned down the state’s hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood as the political power context of the region also changed.

Just as there was in the 1960s, there is now a mutual enemy to fight in the exact same country that holds crucial geo-strategic importance to Saudi Arabia: Yemen. The government in Riyadh views the current Yemeni unrest as a Shia uprising, with the Houthis as Iranian proxies who could spill over onto their own soil. The Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, known there as the Islah Party, are threatened equally by the Houthis, so King Salman is now bidding to undermine what he views as Iranian infiltration into the Arab world and Shia dominance by improving relations with the movement.

It’s clear that Saudi establishes diplomatic relations based on strategy; it tends to form military alliances to combat mutual enemies. So far, Saudi’s hegemonic status has given it the luxury of being able to do so. This, however, is not a sustainable policy and in a region that is becoming increasingly unstable, Riyadh needs to focus on finding long-term alliances and a long-term foreign policy agenda. Supporting Al-Sisi in his crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood may have ended what the Saudis saw as a threat, but working with an emerging Sunni power when they still fear Iran’s presence on their borders would have been a more suitable long-term strategy that would have also prevented the death and torture of thousands of civilians.

Realistically, allies will never agree on everything, which is why diplomatic strategy is an art in its own right. Allies may have different ideologies, different policies and different ways of implementing mutual policies. The point of an alliance is not to have a best friend who will follow your every command and brush threats out of your way, but to establish security through stable relations in an ever-changing global power dynamic. This is something that needs to be embedded heavily in Saudi’s diplomatic culture to ensure the stability that it longs for.

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