Faced with the dual challenge of confronting an Iran emerging from under the shadow of international sanctions and an “Islamic state” solidifying on their borders, several Gulf states are reconciling their relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and other activist Sunni Islamist movements. Outreach to Muslim Brotherhood affiliates – led by Saudi Arabia – is already significantly reshaping the regional order. Less noted are the implications of these strategic moves for politics within Gulf states, where Muslim Brotherhood groups have been on the defensive, especially since the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt in 2013.
King Salman Changes Course
It has been a difficult two years for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf states. As Saudi Arabia and its allies lined up in support of the military government in Egypt, they adopted new legal measures to silence dissent and criminalize support for the deposed Egyptian government and its Muslim Brotherhood backers. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates passed new terrorism laws in 2014 that took the extraordinary step of specifically naming the Muslim Brotherhood among a list of banned terrorist groups. The two states then embarked on an unprecedented campaign to pressure Qatar to temper its opposition to the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi-led government in Egypt and support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other activist Sunni Islamist movements across the Middle East. Both states seemed intent on curtailing – or in the case of the UAE, eliminating – the space for independent Islamist activism.
A mere year later, this campaign has proven difficult to sustain due to the pivotal position held by the Muslim Brotherhood and associated Sunni political movements. The same capacity for popular mobilization that made these groups a threat during the period of Arab uprisings that started at the end of 2010, make them a valuable asset in uniting the Sunni ranks against Iran and ascendant Shia militias, and countering the Islamist appeal of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
These considerations appear to have turned the political stance of the new leadership in Riyadh. While Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah adhered to the UAE’s political exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood regionally, his successor, King Salman, has increased cooperation with Qatar to execute a limited outreach to regional Islamist movements. In the past two months Saudi Arabia has hosted Tunisia’s Ennahda intellectual leader Rachid Ghannouchi, the Yemeni al-Islah co-founder Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, and most significantly, the political leadership of the Palestinian Hamas. Relations with the Turkish government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), have also improved, facilitating greater cooperation in support of Syrian rebel groups.
At an AGSIW event, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi referred to the change in Saudi government policy as “not siding or shifting toward the Brotherhood, it is just normalizing [its] relationship to the Brotherhood.” As Saudi Arabia has increasingly conceived of its regional role as unifying Arabs against Iranian support for local Shia militias, the logic of a rapprochement, or at a minimum, ending the rift with Sunni Islamist political movements has become clear.
There are likewise indications of a slight easing of domestic restrictions imposed on influential Islamist reformists as well as the return of conservative government detractors. Most notably, the popular cleric Salman al-Awda had his travel ban lifted in April after Salman’s ascendance to the throne. And clerical officials frozen out of government positions such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) critic Saad al-Shethri have been rehabilitated, in a strategy reminiscent of that pursued by Saudi Arabia at the end of the 1990s. Then, jailed leaders of the Islamist insurrection in Saudi Arabia, or “Sahwa sheikhs,” were released from prison and cultivated as allies to shore up the Islamic legitimacy of the government. In the 2000s these popular ulema, afforded greater liberties, provided critical support in resisting the onslaught of al-Qaeda attacks. Today independent ulema and Muslim Brotherhood networks in Saudi Arabia may be expected to reprise this role in countering ISIL.
Sunni Islamist Movements Seek Return to the Flock…
The reconciliation initiatives are not unidirectional. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni political movements now see their interests more closely aligned with Saudi regional leadership. The launch in March of the Saudi-led military campaign Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis in Yemen marked a turning point, earning statements of support from prominent activists in Saudi Arabia, and Muslim Brotherhood political societies in Kuwait and Bahrain.
The escalating terrorist campaign by ISIL within Gulf states has likewise encouraged, and provided an opportunity for, reconciliation. The June 26 suicide bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait elicited the first meeting between politicians of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Constitutional Movement and the emir since 2012.
The motivations on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood to reconcile with their governments are many. There are clear costs to remaining in government disfavor, and many in the movement have grown weary of bearing them. While these political calculations are paramount, the sense of solidarity in the face of a perceived Iranian threat should not be discounted, as well as genuine concern for national unity in the face of transnational attacks. This is especially salient in Kuwait, which experienced the trauma of losing its national sovereignty in the first Gulf War.
…But Wings are Still Clipped
Still it would be a mistake to consider these limited openings to the Muslim Brotherhood a means to regain political pre-eminence in the region. On the domestic scene in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the Muslim Brotherhood would be returning to the political flock with its wings clipped. In the past few years, Muslim Brotherhood political societies and networks have lost prominent government positions. More significantly, they face structural changes in the political scene. The threat of prosecution through new terror legislation and extradition through regional GCC security agreements will remain a tool for disciplining and containing them. Moreover changes in the electoral systems in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia will hinder their ability to mobilize through the ballot box. In any case, their reconciliation with governments despite their failure to win notable political concessions will weaken their standing with the committed opposition.
In the near to medium term, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to temper its domestic political demands to account for the challenging regional environment. In Saudi Arabia Muslim Brotherhood networks will likely be more deferential to the government, which is enjoying a degree of popular support. Efforts will be directed toward strengthening their relations with the new leadership especially at the expense of their political rivals. In Kuwait the Islamic Constitutional Movement appears to be preparing to end its electoral boycott and return to the parliament. A government compromise on the controversial changes in the electoral system would pave the way for a broader opposition return to political life, but it may not be forthcoming.
Regionally, it is still unclear how far the realignment will go. Egypt shows no signs of reconciling with the Muslim Brotherhood. It finds support in this stance from the most notable Gulf holdout of the Muslim Brotherhood rehabilitation: the UAE, which appears committed both strategically and ideologically to diminish the influence of political Islam. In recent years the UAE has sought to replace the transnational influence of the Muslim Brotherhood with the creation of a state-affiliated ulema front linked with Al-Azhar in Egypt. Evidence of tension in the relationship between the ambitious Emirati leadership and its Saudi allies because of their divergent approach to this issue will be a key indicator to watch in weighing the evolving fortunes and re-constitution of political Islam in the GCC and the wider Middle East.