Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood: Unexpected Adversaries

19 MINS READMar 5, 2012 | 15:12 GMT
A demonstrator steps on an ostrich egg with a drawing of Saudi King Abdullah on March 17 in Ankara
The political gains of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have breathed new life into long-suppressed political Islamist forces across the Arab world. While it may appear on the surface that Saudi Arabia is supportive of the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, its Sunni co-religionists, a quiet but growing dispute between Saudi Arabia and Turkey over the increasing regional clout of the Muslim Brotherhood reveals the Saudi royal family's long-standing aversion to the world's oldest and largest Islamist movement.

In Egypt's first parliamentary elections since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood's (MB's) Freedom and Justice Party won just under half of the seats available. The party, and by extension the MB, are expected to take a leading role in the next Egyptian government.

At first glance, an Islamist movement taking power in one of the Arab world's most significant countries would seem to be a development that Saudi Arabia — a country where Islam is central to the state's cultural and political identity — would welcome enthusiastically. However, Riyadh is increasingly worried about the political movement's growing popularity throughout the region, and the consequences that the rise of a republican form of Islamism may bring for the Saudi royal family's absolute monarchy.

Competing Intellectual Roots

The ideological and political divide between the Saudi political establishment and the MB is rooted in each of their histories. The majority of Saudi Arabia's citizenry adheres to Wahhabism, an ideology founded by Muhammad ibn Abdel-Wahhab, who sought to purify the creed and religious practices of Muslims in 18th-century Arabia. Wahhabism was based on ibn Abdel-Wahhab's austere interpretation of the teachings of the Salaf (the companions of the Prophet Mohammed and the subsequent two generations). Wahhabis thus prefer the term Salafists to describe their following. In the Salafist view, any deviation from the prophet's core religious principles represented a contamination of the religion and was rejected outright.

An alliance was forged in 1744 between ibn Abdel-Wahhab and the patriarch of the Saudi ruling family, Muhammad bin Saud, effectively dividing the religious and political domains of the Saudi state. With the al Saud family running the political affairs of the state, the descendants and associates of ibn Abdel-Wahhab were able to exert their authority through the religious establishment without needing to engage in political activity.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, took a more adaptive approach toward Islam. Blending modern Western political thought with Islamic tradition, the movement that the MB founded saw Islamic ideology as a political remedy to the ills that had afflicted the Islamic world in the preceding several centuries. By 1928, when Hassan al-Banna founded the MB in Egypt, it had more than two generations of Islamic political thought in the late Ottoman period to draw on in making the case that a political ideology embedded in Islam constituted the necessary response to European secularism. This would help revive the Islamic world and effectively compete with the West. In contrast to the largely apolitical Salafists, the MB Islamists actively sought the creation of Islamic states throughout the Arab and Muslim world to counter the rise of secular Arab nationalism.

Threats to the Saudi Monarchy

When the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was firmly established in 1932, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was still in its nascent stages and thus did not pose a threat to the Saudi royal family. However, by the late 1940s the MB not only had emerged as a major social and political movement in Egypt, but it was also spreading as an organization across the Arab world. At this point, the Saudi royal family started to view the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood's variant of Islamism with suspicion. After all, the Brotherhood's call for a republican form of Islamic governance stood in stark contrast to the monarchical system from which the Saudi royals derived their power.

But before they could deal with MB-style Islamism, the Saudi royals had an even bigger threat to address. The founding of the Egyptian republic in 1952 under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser marked the advent of secular left-wing Arab nationalism in the region. With Soviet backing, Nasser made it his mission to export his ideology to the Arab world. Nasserism threatened to rip the carefully balanced foundation of the Saudi kingdom out from under the Saudi royals. At the same time, the secular-nationalist movement also impeded the rise of the political Islamists and drove many of the MB groups in the Arab world underground.

The spread of Nasserism thus led to a strange, temporary alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi royal family. The Saudi royal family tried to use the Muslim Brotherhood to counter Nasserism across the Arab world, while many MB leaders fled to the Saudi kingdom for refuge. Among these leaders was Muhammad Qutb, the brother of MB figure Sayyid Qutb, who was one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the 20th century and was executed in Egypt in 1966.

An exchange of ideas between the two camps was almost inevitable, as Salafists and MB Islamists joined in fighting Soviet-backed Nasserism throughout the Islamic world. Afghanistan was perhaps the most visible battleground, where volunteer fighters from both the Salafist and MB Islamist trends shared ideas, resulting in some degree of synthesis of thought. The MB ideology more or less retained its basic character during this time, but Salafism, which had been largely devoid of political philosophy, became heavily influenced by the ideas of prominent figures like Sayyid Qutb, thereby diluting the Salafist support network in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the most notable example of this dynamic was the relationship between Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian religious scholar affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the leader of the Arab fighters in 1980s Afghanistan. Through Azzam's mentoring, bin Laden's Salafist ideas underwent a radical transformation. It was not until Ayman al-Zawahiri began mentoring bin Laden in the early 1990s that bin Laden began to embrace jihadism.

The Spread of Islamism to the Kingdom

The Saudi monarchy witnessed its first major Islamist challenge in 1979, when the Iranian revolution led to the foundation of an Islamic republic. This was the first modern example of an Islamic state, the creation of which supported the Muslim Brotherhood's premise that a state can be ruled under Islamic norms. Though the Saudi royals were concerned that the Iranian revolution would inspire similar transformations across the Islamic world, they could take comfort in the fact that the ethno-sectarian makeup of the mainly Persian Shiite state would limit its ability to export its Islamist model to the mostly Sunni Arab world. The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, during which the region was largely split along ethno-sectarian lines, also helped Saudi Arabia contain the Islamist threat from Iran.

What the Saudi royals could not prevent was the spread of Islamist ideas in the kingdom itself. This became clear in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. After Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait in an attempt to change the regional balance of power, the Saudis relied heavily on the United States to ensure Saudi Arabia's national security. The monarchy was harshly criticized by many in the Saudi religious establishment as well as civil society because the war had laid bare the inherent weakness of the kingdom. Calls for reform grew in intensity among a group of Sunni religious scholars who sought the rights to critique the government, widen the sphere of policy-making beyond the royal family and hold the Saudi rulers accountable for their policy decisions. This reformist trend was referred to as the Sahwah, or awakening.

The Saudi royals first attempted to appease these Salafist scholars as well as the non-religious voices of dissent by issuing the Basic Law, the country's first attempt at and closest thing to a constitutional framework, in 1992. The move only emboldened the reformists, eventually leading in 1994 to a government crackdown on the dissenters, which led to the arrest of many prominent ulema, or religious scholars. The crackdown exacerbated rifts within the Salafist establishment. Those who remained loyal to the kingdom and remained strict adherents to traditional Salafist ideas were pitted against those who had taken a critical stance on the monarchy. The former accused the latter of being Islamist deviants and branded them Ikhwanis and Qutbis, negative references to the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb, respectively.

Though the Salafist splits endured in the early 1990s, the Saudi royal family contained the Sahwah trend at home and was relieved to see the MB kept under tight control by the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian regimes. However, another Islamist threat was developing under the leadership of bin Laden, whose move to engage in armed rebellion against corrupt regimes and their international patron, the United States, was heavily influenced by the ideas of Sayyid Qutb.

Bin Laden had already broken with the al Saud family over its decision to allow half a million U.S. troops to be stationed in the kingdom during the Gulf War. At the same time, a large number of celebrated Saudi veterans of the 1979-1989 insurgency in Afghanistan were returning home with ideas that fused together jihad, Islamic governance and an intense anger toward the al Saud family for allowing U.S. troops to use their country as a base from which to kill Muslims in Iraq. In the early 1990s, bin Laden still engaged in debates with the monarchy over its policies, but the monarchy cast aside bin Laden's transnational jihadist views as another deviant, and thus illegitimate, extension of the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamist ideology.

Post-9/11 Complications

The 9/11 attacks put the Saudi royal family in the uncomfortable position of having to answer to the West for al Qaeda's radical interpretation of Salafism. The United States, unlikely to see the nuances of Salafism as the Saudis did, saw the radical fringe of Salafism espoused by al Qaeda as the Saudi kingdom's responsibility to contain.

By 2003, Saudi Arabia had become a major target of the jihadist movement and saw an urgent need to drastically reform Salafism in the kingdom to both keep the royal family standing and crush the jihadist threat. A major effort was initiated by the kingdom to reinforce its historical alliance with the ulema. The message was fairly simple: If al Qaeda's rebellion succeeded on the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi royals would not be able to hold the Western powers back from intervening, thereby creating an even bigger crisis of legitimacy for the royal family and the ulema that could break apart the foundation of the Saudi state.

The bulk of the ulema received the message. The same religious, tribal, security and commercial channels that al Qaeda relied on to build its network were turned on the group when religious leaders aligned with the royal family led a campaign to expose al Qaeda's ideological deviance from traditional Salafist thought and rapidly undercut the legitimacy of the jihadist movement in the kingdom.

But the Saudis still faced a major legitimacy issue. The Saudi government's efforts to reform Salafism were designed to exclude any notion of political reform that would threaten the monarchy. The jihadist movement had already made the case that political dialogue with the Saudi rulers to avoid rebellion was impossible when there were no political institutions in the kingdom to work through to begin with. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood used the rise of al Qaeda to distinguish itself as the legitimate Islamist mainstream while labeling the Salafists, al Qaeda and their affiliates as the radical fringe.

Where they were permitted to participate, Islamist political forces across the region began rising to power via elections. In 2002 alone, MB-style Islamist political forces in Turkey, Morocco and Pakistan made substantial gains in polls. In 2005 candidates from the still-banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, running as independents, won 25 percent of the parliamentary seats. That same year, the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood took the majority of seats won by Sunnis in the second post-Saddam Hussein parliamentary elections. Even a militant strand of MB ideology, Hamas, swept the polls in the Gaza Strip when it made its electoral debut in 2006.

In a more isolated case in Bahrain, where the Sunni monarchy rules over a mostly Shiite population, the Saudi and Bahraini royals resorted to supporting both Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood in the broader strategic interest of countering the main Shiite parliamentary bloc.

Saudi Arabia was thus caught between the jihadists of al Qaeda and the Islamist political movements that derived from the Brotherhood. Further complicating matters for the kingdom were the repeated calls by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other U.S.-backed Arab allies to move toward democratic reforms. From the Saudi point of view, a democratic opening would only help the MB by legitimizing their Islamist political ideology and undermining the monarchy. Saudi Arabia was able to manage this array of challenges in the 2000s, but the Arab unrest that defined the region in 2011 is once again threatening to unhinge Saudi Arabia's containment strategy toward Islamism.

The Saudi Response to the 'Arab Spring'

The spread of Arab unrest from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula has compounded the number of threats facing the Saudi kingdom. At the most basic level, Saudi Arabia has been deeply disconcerted by the fall of long-standing autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. These were all leaders who emerged from the Nasserist tradition, but the very idea that these once-stalwart regimes have succumbed to domestic pressures has made the Saudi royal family nervous for itself and its fellow Arab monarchies. The last thing Saudi Arabia wanted to hear in the midst of the unrest was more democratic pronouncements from the United States that would embolden the Saudi reformist camp.

Yemen's political crisis, which Saudi Arabia had no choice but to mediate, has reopened fissures in the state and provided jihadists from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with an opportunity to try to revive their militant nodes in the Saudi kingdom and greater space for the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, the al-Islah party.

Then there is the issue of Iran. The spread of Shiite unrest in the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, where it threatens the minority Sunni monarchy in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, has reinforced a Saudi imperative to contain Iran's regional rise. Once the unrest spread to Syria, a close ally of the Iranian regime, Saudi Arabia (along with Turkey, the United States, Qatar and other Arab states) recognized a historic opportunity to dislodge Iran from the Levant. The challenge Saudi Arabia faces is that its containment strategy against Iran in Syria runs counter to Saudi Arabia's imperative to contain Islamism as a political ideology.

The Muslim Brotherhood has factored prominently into nearly every case of Arab unrest. The strength of the MB branches varies greatly from country to country, but even after decades of political repression, the MB and its affiliates have been able to maintain the largest and most organized civil society networks. When power vacuums are created in autocratic states, the MB networks are typically best positioned to convert public support for their social services into votes. This dynamic was most clearly illustrated in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing emerged as the single-largest party in the parliament. More liberal incarnations of the MB in Tunisia and Morocco also made significant political gains in 2011.

The unrest in Syria represents yet another complication for the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia is certainly enticed by the prospect of undercutting Iran's leverage in the Levant, but it also cannot ignore the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as a powerful force in the opposition movement. The Sunni armed resistance operating under the label of the Free Syrian Army takes care to publicly distance itself from any Islamist ideology in the hopes of attracting Western support, but local anecdotes and the limited polling that has been done by journalists embedded among Sunni protesters has so far revealed strong support for the MB should the political struggle come to a vote.

Saudi Arabia is thus caught between a geopolitical imperative to contain Iran and a domestic strategic imperative to contain Islamism as a political force. This dilemma has put Saudi Arabia directly at odds with Turkey, the rising regional counterweight to Iran and Saudi Arabia's co-collaborator in backing the Syrian Sunni opposition against the al Assad regime. Turkey's own liberal Islamism, shaped by Sufi Islamic culture, Ottoman religious values and Kemalist secularism, is distinct from the MB's conservative model of Arab Islamism and allows far more room for secularist practices, but the two strands share a basic ideological principle in using Islam as a path toward governance. Whereas Turkey is actively trying to mold the MB in Syria according to its own moderate Islamist vision, Saudi Arabia would like nothing more than to see the MB marginalized in the Syrian opposition.

Saudi Arabia has resorted to its old tactics of funneling support to Salafists to serve as a counter to the MB Islamists. In Egypt, for example, the Salafist bloc surprised much of the Egyptian populace and wider region when it came out with more than a quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, coming second only to the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia reportedly played an important role in providing funding and support to the Salafist bloc. In Syria, Saudi Arabia is also likely to channel its support to Salafist groups to compete with Turkey's backing of the MB.

The strategy of supporting Salafists comes with risks, however. The Salafists were latecomers to politics, whereas the MB was born as a political movement, and the Salafists lack the broad appeal of the MB Islamists and their affiliates. The Salafists, in sticking to a more puritanical strain of thought, have not engaged in the same intellectual rigor that the Islamists have in evolving their political ideology. In the classical Salafist view, it is anathema to think of the law of man supplanting the law of God. Though the Salafists have proved capable of making notable political gains in Egypt and can at the very least undermine the MB's ability to dominate the broader Islamist political scene, they alone cannot compete effectively with the MB ideology.

Moreover, there are a range of Salafists in the Levant who have embraced jihadism and have been utilized by various state intelligence agencies in the region to carry out attacks. These Salafist-jihadists may be a useful tool for Saudi Arabia to use to try to destabilize and ultimately topple the Syrian regime in order to counter Iran. However, given the evolution of Salafist-jihadists, especially over the past decade, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia's control over Salafists in the Levant is as tight as it would like it to be.

Divisions among foreign backers of the Syrian opposition constitute one of many impediments to the mission in Syria. The United States and other Western stakeholders are already unnerved by the idea of secularism giving way to Islamism in Syria. They are certainly not going to be supportive of a Saudi strategy that favors more radical Salafists over those who at least present themselves as moderates. Turkey is also much closer to the Syrian situation than Saudi Arabia, and Turkey is not going to pull back from its agenda to see the MB rise in Syria as a dominant political force.

The Risks of Accommodating MB-Style Islamists

Whether or not the Saudi royals are ready for the challenge, the MB Islamists are on the rise and have far more room to expand their political legitimacy than they did one year ago. In the past, Saudi Arabia could rely on its shared interests with Arab regimes, particularly in Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, to keep Islamists tightly contained. Now, even in cases where the regimes have remained intact, Arab leaders are having to make political concessions to Islamists for fear of creating a larger conflict at home and inviting more pressure from the West to undergo democratic reforms.

Saudi Arabia is still deliberating how exactly to manage this Islamist threat. Debates are likely under way within the royal family over whether Saudi Arabia has no other choice but to reach an accommodation with some of the more viable MB-like Islamist organizations. Such an accommodation would allow Saudi Arabia a means of influencing the political evolution of the states in question and would theoretically develop a unified Sunni bulwark against Iran.

But this problem is not just confined to the foreign policy sphere. If Saudi Arabia decided to work with the MB abroad, it would be only a matter of time before the royal family faced an emboldened reformist movement at home. The reformist trend, largely based in the Red Sea coastal region of Hejaz, is backed by such Saudi notables as business tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and has the potential to develop into a broader movement.

The Saudi royals are deeply divided over how to manage this issue when it emerges in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah and the al Faisal clan have been more open to the idea of limited Salafist democratization, but the king's most likely successor, Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz of the Sudeiri clan, has taken a far more conservative approach toward reforms and wants to see the religious and political affairs of the state clearly delineated, in line with the kingdom's founding principles. Complicating matters further, those currently debating this topic among the current Saudi leadership are all very old and, in some cases, approaching their deathbed. When the second generation of Saudi rulers takes over in the next decade, it is unlikely to agree on how to divide power, much less how to manage a growing Islamist threat to the monarchy.

The rise of political Islamists challenges the historical Saudi claim that their ulema-backed political system is the authentic model of governance, whereas parliamentary elections and Islam simply cannot coexist. Indeed, the political gains of the MB and its affiliates across the region have exposed the obsolescence of the Saudi model and have raised questions about the future moves of the nontraditional Salafists who carry political ambitions. To date, the dominant question confronting Saudi Arabia has been whether it can manage a division of power within the monarchy once the sons of the kingdom's founder are gone. An equally critical question for the longer term is whether the Saudi royals will be able to manage what may be an inevitable transition to a legitimate constitutional monarchy.

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