The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: Atwan on the Gulf and the Brothers

Our In Translation series is back in 2013 thanks to the support of Industry Arabic, the translation service you should use for your professional, academic, NGO or whatever needs in Arabic. Please check them out.

What better way to start the year than to look at the big picture in the region. The war of words from the UAE against the Muslim Brotherhood this month — with senior Egyptian officials making the trip to Abu Dhabi to appeal, unsuccessfully, for the release of 11 Egyptians accused of setting up a Muslim Brotherhood franchise in the UAE — has highlighted yet again the wider apprehension of Gulf rulers about the rise of the movement in the region. This echoes the same rulers’ reluctance (apart, arguably, from Qatar) to embrace the 2011 uprisings. In the piece below, the editor of al-Quds al-Arabi (the only Arabic-language London-based paper that is not controlled by Saudi Arabia, which normally adopts a more Arab nationalist line than its counterparts al-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat) maps out the regional dynamics of the tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and Gulf autocrats.

I particularly like the paradoxes he highlights, from these autocrats’ traditional reliance on ultra-conservative sheikhs for their legitimization (and how some of these sheikhs are now getting out of control, largely because of social media) to the Brotherhood’s undemocratic methods of operation as a secret society to the fact that they represent the strongest force pushing for more formal democracy, such as an elected parliament.

War against the Muslim Brotherhood Divides the Gulf

Abdel Bari Atwan, al-Quds al-Arabi, 11 January 2013

Whoever has been following the media in the Gulf – and the Saudi media in particular – has probably gotten a sense of the fierce campaign being waged against the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist currents more broadly, as well as the major preachers in the Gulf. Their influence has been on the rise recently thanks to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and yet the dedicated security apparatuses of the various countries in the region have had a harder time controlling and blocking these outlets than they did with newspapers and websites.

Dubai’s chief of police Lieut. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim pioneered this campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and was one of the first to issue vehement warnings about the danger they represented, but many articles appearing in the Saudi and Emirati press have begun to follow in his wake. This is happening in such a way as to suggest that there are bodies high up in the state that would like to open up a front against them, whether in Egypt – where they are sitting at the threshold of power – or within the Gulf itself.

This war against the Brotherhood, and perhaps later upon the Salafi currents, represents a break with the historical alliance that has existed between conservative Gulf regimes and these figures. This alliance ensured the stability of these regimes and helped combat all the leftist and nationalist ideas that constituted a threat to this stability in the eyes of the rulers. The question that is now on everyone’s mind is why has there been a sudden reversal of opinion in the Gulf against the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, when this ideology was embraced and supported over the past 80 years. In the aim of helping control Gulf youth, Muslim Brotherhood intellectuals and professors were even allowed take over the education sector, set curricula, and establish proselytizing and charitable associations, not just within Gulf countries but throughout the entire world. How did this relationship of warm, strategic friendship morph into a bitter fight – at least on one side, for now — between the ruling regimes in the Gulf and the Muslim Brotherhood?

The response to these questions can be summed up in the following points:

  • Governments in the Gulf have realized that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “global” movement governed by an international organization. This means that the loyalty of the organization is to the Supreme Guide in Egypt, and not to local authorities, not even to the head of the group in these countries.
  • The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has taken control of the process of forming the next generations by setting local curricula. This has led it to dominate the armies and security services, which has left it more prepared than ever to overthrow the ruling regimes and seize power. This is the main fear of the Gulf regimes.
  • With the liberal and leftist currents in Gulf countries weakened by decades of repression and persecution, the organized Islamist currents have become the leading candidates to launch Arab Spring revolutions for change in the countries of the Gulf.
  • Religious and Brotherhood currents in particular enjoy a financial independence that sets them apart from the other currents, due to their intricate organizational networks and the fact that their backers possess considerable financial resources due to their control of large companies and financial institutions in Gulf countries especially. This has allowed them to combine political and economic power.
  • Islamist movements enjoy significant support in popular milieus because their ideology centers on the Islamic faith. Their control over mosques — whether directly or indirectly — translates into five miniature daily meetings and one large weekly meeting every Friday.
  • Non-jihadist Islamist movements – and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular – practice self-control and avoid any collision with the state. This explains the Brotherhood’s silence in Egypt concerning the attacks in which it has been targeted. It has kept calm and sent delegations to the Emirates to solve the arrests crisis through diplomatic means. It was no surprise that Saudi writers accused the Muslim Brotherhood of employing the "principle of taqiyya[1] among its organizational practices.

Gulf countries – to put it briefly – are worried about the MB’s control of Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan, and its attempts to gain power in Jordan, Yemen and Syria. This would leave the countries of the Gulf surrounded on all sides, and at risk of falling into the new orbit of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a sort of political “domino” effect. For the ruling regimes in the Arabian Peninsula, there are positives and negatives in this fierce campaign in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf against the MB movement. The positives lie in the attempt to shore up the internal front and reduce the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, in our view, this awakening seems to have come too late, as there is no alternative partner to rely on in the absence of leftists and liberals, who do not have strong roots in the conservative societies of the Gulf. Moreover, any new attempt to strengthen the liberal current still has only a limited impact, such as the decree issued yesterday by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to include 30 women in the Consultative Assembly. This is a step that will create more problems than solutions, in particular with the Wahhabi establishment that backs the regime, which is opposed to equal roles for women in society.

On the other hand, the danger of this campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood is that it could lead to a clash with the religious establishment and a large number of influential preachers, such as the sheikhs Salman al-Awda, Muhammad al-Arifi, Safar al-Hawali, Mohsen al-Awaji, and Ayed al-Qarni. Some of these figures count more than one million followers on Twitter, a number that is steadily increasing.

The prominent Saudi preacher Salman al-Awda recently joined a campaign calling for the Consultative Assembly to be elected, while others have called for strict accountability for how public funds have been spent, as well as for oversight of the country’s new budget, which has reached its largest yet at 223 billion dollars. There is also a strong drive to prosecute princes who illegally seized control of millions of hectares of land.

Senior officials in the Gulf believe that there is an alliance between Egypt, Turkey and Qatar behind this expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood that aims to dominate the entire region and which must be resisted. This is what explains the growing rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the bitter war that the Emirates is waging against the Brotherhood regime of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt through its support for the opposition National Salvation Front.

It must be acknowledged that the Gulf countries’ fears are warranted, since this new triple alliance could prove dangerous if it consolidates, sticks together and perseveres, since it possesses all the necessities for military might (Turkey), financial might (Qatar) and strategic manpower (Egypt). This alliance is progressively and rapidly taking the place of the Egypt – Saudi Arabia – Syria triad that governed the region over the past forty years, removed Iraq from the equation and paved the way for peace with Israel.

If the first triad depended on close ties with the West and America, the new triad in on the same exact course, and may perhaps form even closer ties with America – at least temporarily – with Barack Obama in power.

The Syrian regime will emerge as the chief beneficiary from this volatile conflict with the front that is opposed to its survival and which backs the armed opposition that is trying to topple it. The Muslim Brotherhood is in fact the backbone of this (official) opposition, while the jihadist Al-Nusra Front has the greatest presence on the ground. The independence of this group at once represents a tremendous danger to both the Syrian regime and the countries of the Gulf.

From the steps taken recently by the Saudi authorities in deciding to ban sectarian Salafi channels to Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal’s statement that he welcomes a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria and that the issue of al-Assad’s departure should be left to the Syrian people – when he had previously been a hawk about arming the opposition – there are many indicators that the Saudi position is evolving, and confirm reports that secret communications between Damascus and Riyadh have picked up again.

Saudi and Gulf preachers have been flocking to Cairo, most recently Dr. Muhammad al-Arifi, who gave a sermon at the Mosque of Amr ibn al-’As at the heart of the capital, in which he called on businessmen from the Gulf to invest in Egypt and not the West. This is one of the most tell-tale signs of the new landscape in the Gulf: governments are forcefully opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, while influential preachers are in the trenches defending it.

In this brief sketch, we cannot forget Iran’s new pilgrimages to Islamic Cairo, with the Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s visit, the hospitality that he received, and the invitation that he extended to President Mohamed Morsi to schedule a visit to Iran. Iran has a good nose for the developments that are taking place in the region and is adjusting its calculus to exploit them in the service of its own interests.

The coming weeks and months will be full of surprises. There is nothing we can do but wait, watch and study closely the new interactions, alliances and rapid changes we expect will occur, changes that will radically reshape the region.

  1. Taqiyya means dissimulation — the practice of hiding one’s religious beliefs for advantage, survival or another reason. It is a Shia (and Druze and Alawi) doctrine used to allow hiding one’s faith in times of persecution. Muslim Brothers are often accused of practicing taqiyya by their opponents but this use of the term is inappropriate — there is no religious doctrine of dissimulation in the MB, since it is not a religious sect but a Sunni social and political movement with no single spiritual school, and any case while Sunnis allow hiding one’s religion in exceptional circumstances, they do not use the term taqiyya. So in this context it is more of a dig MB perfidy and infiltration that plays on anti-Shia sentiment.  ↩