Although the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away in January last year, the impact of his foreign policy decisions has produced a new aftershock over a year later, in Malaysia of all places. Malay Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been under fire for a mysterious $681 million donation reported by the Wall Street Journal last July, was cleared of lingering suspicions of wrongdoing by Malaysia’s attorney general on 26 January.
While critics and political rivals of Razak’s government alleged that the funds had been pilfered from the troubled 1MDB development bank, the legal investigation revealed instead that the donation – $620 million of which was subsequently returned – was in fact a “gift” made by the Saudi royal family in 2013. According to a BBC report, King Abdullah approved the transfer personally to help Razak’s long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) fend off a challenge from an alliance of opposition parties that included the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
Although the attorney general’s announcement has officially put the Malaysian funding scandal to rest for good, the revelation that the controversial funds came from Saudi Arabia sheds some new light on Abdullah’s efforts to counteract the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, the news helps to illustrate just how much Saudi foreign policy has changed since Abdullah’s half-brother Salman took the throne last year.
After the start of the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia in January 2011, the House of Saud found itself in the unenviable position of watching democratic protests topple many of the region’s most firmly entrenched regimes, from Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to Muammar Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya in Libya. Worse still for the then King Abdullah and his royal house was the significant (and growing) role of Islamist forces like the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab protest movement, as the Brotherhood’s message of Islamism through the ballot box flies in the face of Wahhabism. By offering a direct ideological competitor to the Saudi-Wahhabi partnership, the Brotherhood’s views on the separation of mosque and state (or lack thereof) strikes directly at the underpinnings that have sustained the Saudi state since its modern inception in 1932.
Echoing its long and bloody conflict with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist forces in the 1950s and 1960s, Saudi Arabia once again found itself in the role of counterrevolutionary bulwark against the sweeping changes it feared would spread from Cairo and Tunis to Riyadh. When the Saudis saw the Brotherhood take advantage of the new democratic openings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, they did not hesitate to bankroll those forces that could stop (and hopefully reverse) the Ikhwan’s gains. While those efforts could be observed plainly in Egypt, this week’s news out of Malaysia shows that the late Saudi king was worried about any success that the movement enjoyed just about anywhere in the Sunni world.
Furthermore, the course of events in the region since Salman’s ascension to the throne has presented the kingdom with an entirely new host of challenges which have forced the Saudis to re-evaluate their previous set of alliances and, in more than one case, set aside previous animosities in order to form new fronts against resurgent adversaries. With the Obama administration inking a comprehensive nuclear deal with Hassan Rouhani’s seemingly moderated Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia has found itself on the outside looking in so far as Washington’s current priorities seem to be concerned. As the US gradually aligns itself with Iran in the fight against Daesh and Europe’s key players begin lining up to sign business deals with Tehran, Riyadh has been pushed into cementing partnerships with any and every palatable interlocutor in the Sunni world, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since Salman succeeded Abdullah, the Saudi royals have hosted both the political leadership of Hamas and Brotherhood luminaries such as Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi. While such visits would have been unimaginable a few short years ago, Saudi Arabia is now too preoccupied with Iran to be able to afford to alienate Middle Eastern Shia, transnational jihadists and the Arab world’s most deeply-rooted political organisation all at the same time.
Whether or not Salman and his top officials are privately in favour of this rapprochement, the state of affairs in the post-2011 Arab world has made this policy reversal much easier. The sheer brutality of Syria’s civil war and the failure of most of the other revolutions (especially in Egypt and Yemen) has cooled the fervour for change to the point where the Muslim Brotherhood now seems a much less existential threat than Iran’s “Shia Crescent”. The execution of Saudi Arabian Shia Shaikh Nimr Al-Nimr, the deepening Saudi intervention against the Houthis in Yemen and the fragmentation of Iraq have all contributed to a new calculus on the part of the House of Saud; so long as the Shia are on the rise, no Sunni (outside of transnational jihadists) can be taken for granted as a potential partner.
This re-alignment of Saudi interests has had some foreseeable repercussions, with the most virulent of the anti-Brotherhood forces backed by Abdullah now understandably concerned about Salman’s priorities. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, for one, needs Saudi support (and, more critically, Saudi funding) to keep his regime afloat. Together with Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, Saudi Arabia pledged a combined $12.5 billion in aid to Egypt in March 2015. More recently, the Saudis provided Egypt with $3 billion in additional funding to invest in development projects. The current ruling class in Cairo clearly has not moderated its own stance on the Brotherhood since it overthrew the movement’s Freedom and Justice Party in the 2013 coup, regardless of the changes since the Saudi succession. Just this week, Egyptian Justice Minister Ahmad Al-Zend stated publicly his conviction that 10,000 members of (or sympathisers with) the Brotherhood needed to be killed for every single death among the security forces; this would equate to 400,000 executions if carried through.
Salman’s reversal of Abdullah’s stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood almost certainly has more to do with events in the region than it does a personal change of heart within the palace. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia’s recently anointed monarch must tread more carefully if he hopes to assemble a stable coalition against Iran. Riyadh needs the support of Cairo and its other neighbours in order to prosecute its war in Yemen successfully. The Brotherhood (and its backers in Qatar and Turkey) might be good partners to have in Syria and Palestine, but the kingdom’s fortunes in the current sectarian cold war between itself and the Iranians will depend in large part on whether it can position itself as the unchallenged leader of the Sunni Arab world. As the Saudis should have learnt by now, cash in and of itself will not be enough.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.