Editor’s Note: The Arab Spring and the subsequent backlash from authoritarian regimes have created new rifts in the Middle East. One of the biggest new divides is between those who support and those who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, the inveterate Islamist movement that has branches in many Arab countries. Saudi Arabia in particular has supported the counterrevolution in several countries, backing a crackdown in Bahrain and providing vital financial support for the Egyptian military leaders who overthrew the Brotherhood government there. Their most recent move has been to place new restrictions on the Brotherhood within the Kingdom itself, ending decades of toleration and even quiet support for the movement. William McCants, my colleague at Brookings and director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, offers his insights on the new relationship based on his recent research trip to the kingdom.
Hailed as the early victors of the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world has fallen on hard times. The most recent setback came on March 7, when Saudi Arabia declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization—a move one Western scholar characterized as “historic” and perhaps as momentous as the kingdom’s decision to support the military overthrow of President Morsi in Egypt. The two decisions are related. Saudi Arabia supported the Egyptian military’s ouster of Morsi and its subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood there, which the usually reticent King Abdullah publicly praised. When the Egyptian regime declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization in late December, Saudi Arabia followed suit.
Although the Brotherhood is officially banned like other political organizations in Saudi Arabia, the government has long tolerated its existence and at times has even promoted its activities and welcomed its members. But following the tumult of the Arab Spring, the kingdom, together with United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, has now come to view the Brotherhood as a threat to its longtime alliance with Egypt and to its own internal security. Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood is the primary reason all three countries chose to withdraw their ambassadors from the country.
Saudi Arabia’s decision has angered Muslim Brothers living in the kingdom, who were already furious over Saudi support for the Egyptian coup and the regime’s crackdown on the Brotherhood. But they are also fearful. According to several former Muslim Brothers I spoke with on a recent trip to Saudi, the Saudi Brothers have responded by lowering their public profile and adopting a wait-and-see attitude until they know if the government really means to target them or is just trying to scare them into inaction. As important members of the religious and educational establishment, the Saudi Brothers and the government both have a lot to lose if there is a crackdown on the kingdom’s Brotherhood members. The Brotherhood benefits from government patronage of religious and educational institutions, while the government depends on a quiescent religious establishment for its legitimacy.
The Saudi decision has also caused confusion outside the kingdom, as other Brotherhood branches that had until recently been on good terms with the kingdom now seek to test and shape its intentions. A senior member of Kuwait’s Brotherhood-linked parliamentary bloc denied claims that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had informed the bloc’s members they would henceforth be considered terrorists.
Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Gaza, went even further by reaching out to Saudi Arabia directly. After Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, placed a call to the previous emir of Qatar, he communicated with the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal. According to CNN, the Saudi press was silent about the call, but Haniyeh’s office alluded to it, saying that al-Faisal had reaffirmed his country’s support for the people of Palestine. Hamas is interpreting the positive response as evidence that Saudi Arabia is excluding Hamas from its sanction of the Brotherhood for the time being, despite assertions to the contrary by some close to the Saudi regime.
The Saudi decision also further complicates efforts to consolidate the already deeply fractured Syrian opposition. The main Syrian opposition body, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has been riven by infighting between rival Qatari and Saudi camps. If Saudi Arabia now considers the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood—a major faction in the Qatari-backed camp—a terrorist organization, uniting the two camps will become even more difficult. As one member of the SNC put it, “If you term the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, you have to deal with the fact that you are dealing with them right through the coalition.”
Kuwait has attempted to mediate the conflict between Qatar and the three other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states—to no avail. Prince Saud al-Faisal recently stated that there will be no change in Saudi policy toward Qatar until that country revises its policy toward the Brotherhood. Qatar has so far defiantly refused to change its foreign policy in response to pressure. Both sides are dug in for the long haul, which means that for the foreseeable future the Brotherhood will find its movements and fundraising even more constrained than they were last year after Morsi’s fall. It is a stunning reversal after its triumphant rise in the early days of the Arab Spring.
William McCants directs the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.