During the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia has hosted a number of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated leaders, including Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda party in Tunisia; Abdul Majeed Zindani, the leader of al-Islah party in Yemen; and Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.
Such meetings would have been unthinkable at any other point in the past couple of years, as Saudi rulers threw their weight behind Egypt’s brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In March 2014, the kingdom designated the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist” group.
But since Saudi King Salman‘s rise to power following the death of King Abdullah last January, Saudi policy seems to have shifted from a full-on battle against the Brotherhood and their respective offshoots across the region, to a sharper focus on the supposed rise of an Iranian regional threat.
This shift was highlighted soon after Salman assumed the throne, when then-Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal declared that his government did “not have an issue with the Muslim Brotherhood group per se, but only certain members within the organisation”.
“Under Abdullah, a brand of Sunni Islamism that called for political participation and electoral legitimacy, of which the Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps the best example, was seen as almost an existential threat, because it offered a different model of Islamist politics to that of the Saudi state,” Mouin Rabbani, co-editor of the e-zine Jadaliyya, told Al Jazeera.
Considering that Salman came to power at a time when Iran was on the verge of signing a nuclear deal with Western powers, and following the significant setbacks the Brotherhood has suffered, Rabbani said there has been “a more significant change in Saudi regional policy than is usually the case with the succession of Saudi kings”.
One key policy shift took place over Yemen which became a priority for King Salman, as the Houthi movement (who, by virtue of following the Zaydi sect of Islam, have been described by some media pundits and government officials as close to Iran’s Shia Muslim government) began expanding its influence across Yemen, eventually seizing the capital Sanaa last September.
The Saudis have since accused Iran of backing the Houthis both militarily and financially. The war waged by Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen since March has been described by many analysts as a “proxy war” between the two regional powers, despite the internal dynamics in Yemen.
Indeed, the sectarian nature of the conflicts in Yemen and Iraq, as well as the one being waged in Syria between the Iranian-backed Assad regime and the Arab Gulf- and Western-backed rebel groups, has only become increasingly prevalent.
It is in this context that Saudi Arabia’s apparent new policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates may be understood: To reconstitute an alliance against Iran and its allies.
In addition to the perceived threat Saudi Arabia feels Iran poses, according to Emad Shahin, a visiting professor of political science at Georgetown University, “the vacuum being created by crushing moderate and mainstream political Islam and by targeting the Muslim Brotherhood in particular” is being filled by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and this factor has added to Saudi Arabia’s desire for rapprochement with certain Sunni groups that could help in the fight against ISIL.
The Brotherhood appears to be reciprocating Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement. It did not take the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Yemen’s Islah party or other regional Islamist groups very long to declare their support for the aerial bombardment of Yemen and the Houthi movement by Saudi and other Arab regional forces – despite Saudi’s support for an aggressive crackdown on these groups in the region over the past few years.
Since then, leaders of the Islah party, the branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, have met regularly in
The Muslim Brothers will be in a position now to make use of any rapprochement or mediation that can reduce or minimise some of the brutal measures taken against them.
Riyadh – a clear change in policy to when the party and the Saudis, who at one point backed former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, were at odds with one another.
Meshaal’s recent visit also demonstrated a significant step, particularly since Saudi Arabia’s sudden arrest of eight Hamas members for political campaigning during the waning days of Abdullah’s reign nearly eight months ago, suggested that the Saudis may have been following in the footsteps of Egypt and targeting the group. Only a couple of days following Meshaal’s visit, the Hamas members were released from prison.
Though some reports in the Iranian media have taken to attacking Meshaal and Hamas for the supposed warming of relations with Saudi Arabia, according to Mohammad Marandi, dean of the faculty of world studies at the University of Tehran: “Iran does not take Meshaal’s Saudi visit very seriously, because they know that Hamas would not be able to receive any military support from the Saudis. Hamas is very much in need of Iran and Iran’s support.”
Marandi added that there appears to be a division within Hamas, as the Palestinian group’s military wing remains very close to Tehran, whereas some elements in its political division appear to favour closer ties with Riyadh.
These political leaders within Hamas may have felt pressure to release a statement in support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, despite the fact that Hamas has always made clear its refusal to take official positions on regional conflicts that do not concern the Palestinian issue, for instance when the civil war in Syria broke out.
“The Muslim Brothers will be in a position now to make use of any rapprochement or mediation that can reduce or minimise some of the brutal measures taken against them,” Shahin told Al Jazeera.
Historically, the Brotherhood’s relationship with the Saudi government has always depended on one factor: the Saudis. Shahin agrees that whenever relations were bad between the two sides, it was always due to the Saudis cooling their relationship with the group, rather than the other way around.
“The relationship tends to oscillate from oppression to toleration,” Shahin said. “The Muslim Brotherhood is an organisation that most of the time has been under pressure, and the survival of their organisation has always been a priority. To expect a proactive foreign policy from a non-state actor is very difficult.”
But according to Amr Darrag, a senior member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, although he views the meetings between Saudi officials and leaders of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates like Meshaal and Ghannouchi as “a very positive sign”, he still does not believe “that they signify a complete shift in Saudi policy [towards the Brotherhood in general]”.
Shahin and Darrag also emphasised that for Saudi Arabia, its attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood is not
always holistic, meaning that the Saudis generally view their relationships with various groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood on a case-by-case basis, depending on its own interests – whether it is with regards to Yemen, Syria, Libya, or elsewhere – unlike Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who have taken a hardline stance against any group affiliated with the Brotherhood.
However, recent developments across the Arab world have signified a small but noticeable shift in attitude, not just from the Saudis, but from the Brotherhood as well.
In Libya, a surprising development concerning the Justice and Construction party, the political arm of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, took place with the initialling of a document during negotiations in Morocco between the two main opposing factions in Libya.
The document legitimised the Tobruk government, the government acting in opposition to the one in Tripoli, as well as the army of General Khalifa Haftar, the renegade Libyan general who has been waging a war against the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in Libya.
And while Haftar has been receiving much of his military support from the Egyptian and UAE governments, the Saudis have been linked with playing a role in supporting the Libyan general’s war.
Elsewhere, in Syria in recent months, an effort has been made to unify the opposition groups under an umbrella called the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fath).
According to Rabbani, one of the primary challenges facing the various rebel groups has been organisation and unification. Given the locality of many of the groups and the lack of a national vision, the disparate groups have tended to be beholden to their foreign sponsors, fighting among each other as much as the Syrian government.
Rabbani told Al Jazeera that whereas before “Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were vying for influence among these groups, Turkey has now taken the initiative to unify these groups under a single umbrella without Saudi obstruction” – something which “almost certainly wouldn’t have been the case a year ago”.
As such, Saudi Arabia’s previous policy of undermining Turkish influence in Syria seems to have taken a
backseat to their more significant priorities at hand: cutting Assad’s gains, challenging Iran, and presenting this unified anti-Assad front to the world – thereby making al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, which represents a significant portion of the Syrian opposition, more digestible to Western nations under the “Army of Conquest”.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, it appears that the country’s leader, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is at complete odds with Saudi Arabia’s warming of relations with Brotherhood affiliates. In a recent interview, one of Sisi’s most ardent supporters and veteran journalist Mohamed Hasanayn Haykel denounced the Saudis’ policy in Yemen and Syria, and defended the policies of Iran and Hezbollah.
Media pundits in Egypt, well-known for towing the line with regards to the Egyptian military’s policies and for their overt praise of Sisi, have also launched scathing attacks against the Saudi regime and its most recent foreign endeavours.
Moreover, the Egyptian government has just recently allowed members of the Houthi movement in Cairo to organise a symposium and a photo exhibit meant to display alleged atrocities committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
This change in tactic displays Egypt’s clear anger that Saudi Arabia’s “war on terror” no longer appears to concern the Brotherhood and its affiliates, but rather ISIL as well as Shia movements in the region, which the Saudis generally brand as clients of Iran. And as the conflict in Egypt continues to show no signs of de-escalation, it is possible, according to analysts, that Saudi Arabia will consider mediation, which could spell out a bad future for Sisi.
“The majority of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would not consider a future that includes Sisi. He is a polarising figure, the same way the call for the restoration of [former president Mohamed] Morsi is also a polarising issue,” Shahin said.
According to Shahin: “The two sides need to move beyond this deadlock,” and it is possible that the Saudis may end up playing a role in such a future. Interestingly enough, sources told Al Jazeera that the UAE, one of Sisi’s most vigorous supporters of the crackdown on the Islamist movement, may be considering a future without Sisi – although these same sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, indicated that the UAE’s close connections to the Egyptian military in general remain strong.
As the Muslim Brotherhood and its various affiliates play ball with the Saudis in an effort to present a challenging front to the Iranians, it remains to be seen what, if anything, the Brotherhood will get in return.
Only time will tell whether these political manoeuvres by the various Brotherhood affiliates represent political maturity and wise pragmatic calculations, as some of their leaders argue, or political expediency and desperation, as their critics contend.