The Muslim Brotherhood's conditional return to Saudi favour

The Muslim Brotherhood's conditional return to Saudi favour
Comment: Recent remarks in Riyadh hint at a change in policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood - a development which could have significant consequences for the region, says Mohamad al-Sadiq.
5 min read
17 Feb, 2015
Saud al-Faisal has extended a cautious hand to the Muslim Brotherhood [Getty]

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister shocked many analysts in a recent interview.

"Saudi Arabia does not have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood," Prince Saud al-Faisal told a Saudi journalist. "The problem is only with those who are adherents of its Supreme Guide."

The statement revived the movement's hopes for a warming of relations with Riyadh, following a lengthy freeze between the two sides - during which Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, led a campaign to "crush" the Brotherhood and ensure its exclusion from power across the region.

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The past week was full of leaks and statements that somehow managed to revive the movement's optimism, undermined by the sanctions taken against it in recent years.

It follows leaks from the office of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in which he talked about Gulf countries with contempt, describing them as "half-countries" with "money like rice", saying that relations with them were based on "give and take".

It also follows a statement by the 75-year-old Saud al-Faisal that gave the green light to the Brotherhood's return to the Gulf - on Saudi Arabia's terms. So a question or two about the relationship between Riyadh and the Brotherhood seems legitimate. What are Saudi Arabia's terms? What does the Gulf require of the Brotherhood to gain acceptance once more?

The Saudi-Brotherhood relationship was badly hit by the Brotherhood's support for Saddam after he invaded Kuwait.

A historical relationship

Bear in mind that Saudi Arabia put the Brotherhood on its terrorist watchlist, and that the developments of the Arab Spring made Saudi policies towards the Islamist movement in the region much more punitive.

However, this is not the whole story: there's a long history of on-and-off relations between the two sides.

The roots of the relations between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood go back to the founder of the movement, Sheikh Hassan al-Banna, who established friendly relations with King Abdul Aziz and the elders of the Hijaz region.

To do so, he took the opportunity to make the pilgrimage, which he performed every year. However, it was not until the mid-1950s that the relations between the two sides grew stronger, when the Brotherhood clashed with common enemy Gamal Abdul Nasser, after an assassination attempt on his life.

The then-Egyptian President sent many Brotherhood leaders to prison.

Many others fled to Saudi Arabia, which offered them a safe haven and granted them some control over educational facilities and religious affairs.

The kingdom also improved their financial situation by opening doors for them to establish their own private companies and to bid for massive government projects in the field of construction. Some Brotherhood leaders were even granted Saudi nationality.

However, this did not last long. The warming of relations was disrupted by various regional developments, including the Brotherhood's support for the Iranian revolution and the Gulf War.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and was threatening Saudi Arabia when the Brotherhood decided to support Saddam and condemn Gulf states' recruitment of foreign troops to reconquer Kuwait and protect Saudi Arabia.

The Brotherhood led protests against Gulf leaders and foreign troops in several Arab countries. In addition, the Awakening Movement, started by the Brotherhood, worked to mobilise Saudi society against King Fahd's decision to allow US troops to use Saudi territories for the purpose of liberating Kuwait. Saudi Arabia considered the Muslim Brotherhood ungrateful.

A mutually beneficial relationship

The relations between the two parties were by no means one-sided.

There was a "give and take", because just as Saudi Arabia allowed the Brotherhood to operate within its territory through its official and semi-official institutions, the Brotherhood spread a religious ideology that shored up the Saudi regime domestically and abroad.

We can simplify this by saying there is now nothing stopping the Brotherhood from returning to Saudi Arabia's favour, whether or not the kingdom accepts the Brotherhood's conditions.

In spite of Saudi Arabia's vicious attacks against the Muslim Brotherhood, it has not spoken out against the kingdom and has held on to the hope of restoring relations. It seems the Brotherhood's dreams of reconciliation are coming closer to reality. It is skilful at repositioning itself.

There is now nothing stopping the Brotherhood from returning to Saudi Arabia's favour.

This is more significant when you keep in mind the regional conditions the kingdom is facing.

It is focused on fighting IS and reducing Iran's growing influence, which has been strengthened by the recent US nuclear negotiations.

Iran's influence has extended past the southern border of the kingdom, after the Houthis took power in Yemen, reportedly with direct support from Tehran and with Russia's blessing. The biggest loser in Sanaa has been the Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party.

The kingdom seems to be the only country capable of saving the situation and bringing back a measure of political balance to its neighbour, now sinking under the weight of poverty and instability.

The Brotherhood is in a state of guarded anticipation, waiting to see what Riyadh might do next, and how that could ease the pressure on the movement across the region.

Saudi Arabia is beginning a new political era. A change in its foreign policy is possible, but the regional recovery of the Brotherhood is subject to Riyadh's conditions - and it will not accept the presence of a political group loyal to something like the "guardian".

Will the Brotherhood in the Gulf swallow the poison of reconciliation, and break its ties with the office of the supreme guide?

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.