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Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood: a relationship to be restored

July 23, 2015 at 1:16 pm

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood can be represented by a zigzag line, crossed by several intersections, over the past eight decades. The two entities are almost of the same age, and they have positive shared memories from earlier on, the most distinguished of which was when the movement added the two intersecting swords on a green background to its logo. Founder Imam Hassan Al-Banna made this smart and courageous move in 1932 when he welcomed and blessed the proclamation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The intelligence element blended with dissatisfaction from Egypt’s King Fuad, whether because of his reputation before ascending to the throne or because of his behaviour once there. Fuad aspired to be a caliph for the Muslims after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but he was not qualified for such a role, in terms of education and speaking, and his political or personal conduct. The courage of Al-Banna’s position was due to the refusal by the Egyptian government headed by Fuad, along with Al-Azhar University, to recognise the nascent kingdom.

Saudi and the Brotherhood have witnessed many changes in their relationship, which has been marked by the kingdom’s support for the movement on a regular basis. From the beginning, Deputy Finance Minister Mohammed Srour Al-Farhan was ordered by King Abdul Aziz to provide regular financial aid to the group. Although Abdul Aziz was generous towards the Muslim Brotherhood, he did not want it to have a branch in his country. He told Hassan Al-Banna jokingly when he met him in 1936, “We are all Muslim Brotherhood.” Before Saudi Arabia came into being, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud had relied on an organisational set-up for his first and main army, which he called “the Brotherhood”. Made up of supporters and followers who abandoned the nomadic lifestyle, they migrated from all over Arabia towards Riyadh from 1911 onwards; nearly two hundred such migrations of different tribes are recorded. One of the historians of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Abdel Halim, says that Imam Hassan Al-Banna suggested in 1936 that the idea of migration plus Da’wa (invitation to the faith) inspired by this “dominated” his thinking.

In terms of jurisprudence, Al-Banna was passionate about the writings of Lebanese reformist Sheikh Rashid Rida, whose opinion on Wahhabism differed to that of Al-Azhar, the main Sunni authority in Egypt. Rida was fascinated by Ibn Saud, and he liked Wahhabism which al-Azhar believed to be too strict.

When the Egyptian position towards Saudi Arabia changed during the era of King Farouk, the relationship between the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood continued. New elements were added through politics after the July 1952 revolution and the declaration of Egypt as a republic, followed by the conflict between the regime in Cairo and the movement.

Prior to that, King Abdul Aziz paid the Brotherhood special attention, and leader Al-Banna was allowed to give lectures during the Haj season in Makkah and Madinah, preaching to the heads of the delegations from Muslim countries and meeting with religious scholars. In 1946, the Saudi king held a feast in honour of the Muslim Brotherhood leader, who stayed at the same hotel where another event was held for princes and heads of delegations. Abdo Dusoqi, the editor of the Muslim Brotherhood encyclopaedia, recalls that the Egyptian government, during the monarchy era, planned to kill Imam Hassan Al-Banna in Saudi Arabia in 1948, making it look like some Yemenis did it. The Saudis got wind of this and treated Al-Banna as an honoured guest, providing bodyguards and a special vehicle to discourage any attack on him.

That’s what the relationship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood was like. In return, the movement helped Riyadh with jurisprudence when the Saudis were prosperous and had a surplus of petroleum income and faced obstacles to the modernisation of the governmental structure. Many traditionalists wrote books that went as far as describing every modernising step as evidence of “disbelief”, so the Muslim Brotherhood was the best support, and provided legal solutions and research backing the legitimacy of such moves. The traditionalists, significantly, were supported by the early groups of jihadi Salafis.

This continued until Shaikh Omar Al-Telmesani became the Genera Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He had exceptional pride about receiving Saudi funding, or work opportunities in the kingdom. He was offered money in support of Al-Dawa magazine, before it was published, while he was in Saudi Arabia, and he lost his temper in front of one of the king’s sons, Faisal Ibn Abdul Aziz. “I’m not here to collect money,” he insisted, “and had I known that the invitation to meet was to offer money, I wouldn’t have come.” Al-Telmesani followed that with a speech on politics and methods of ruling. He wrote that the rulers in the Muslim world were fed up with the Muslim Brotherhood when they saw their people rushing to become affiliated with the “pure and innocent Salafist dawa” of the movement. “The entire world knew that late King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, when he realised the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, and how its dawa has touched the hearts of all Muslims, sensed a creeping danger for the authoritarian monarchy, and he warned [Egypt’s] King Farouk against the danger of the dawa of Hassan Al-Banna. This warning was over when Al-Banna was assassinated; King Farouk celebrated in his palace when the news of the assassination arrived.”

However, the relationship fell apart as a result of politics and war, particularly Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent axes and debates in the Arab world. According to Saudi Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz, “We received Abdul Rahman Khalifa, Rashid Ghannouchi and Abdul Majid Al-Zindani, and we asked them if they would accept the invasion of one country by another, and the uprooting of its people. They said that they were only there to listen and to gather opinions. After the Islamic delegates arrived in Iraq, they surprised us with a statement in favour of the invasion. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt stood against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and on the side of Saddam Hussein, and was followed by the majority of its branches in Arab countries, such as Jordan, Palestine, Yemen and Sudan.” Nayef pointed out that Mohammed Habib, first deputy leader of the Islamic movement, went on to explain that position in his diary: “If it weren’t for domination, oppression and tyranny, Saddam wouldn’t have been able to take his decision to invade Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and if it weren’t for tyranny and autocracy, Arab leaders wouldn’t have bowed to the call for the request for foreign troops to occupy the Gulf area. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Gulf states fell into the trap without hesitation.”

Within such a context, some people started talking about organising a Muslim Brotherhood branch in Saudi Arabia, and about local political thought in the country guided by the methods of the movement. Al-Srouria, for example, founded by Syrian Sheikh Mohammed Srour Zain al-Abidine who lived in the kingdom, along with preachers such as Salman Al-Awda and Safar Al-Hawali. It was at the height of this period that Minister of the Interior Prince Nayef issued his statement against the Brotherhood on 12 November 2002.

Today, there is a prospect of the positive relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood being restored. Just as politics and Arab controversies damaged the relationship in the past, it seems that the same politics, and hidden or open controversies, may be repairing it.

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 20 July, 2015.

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