In spite of recent media leaks and statements, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will strategically alter its opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. The rhetorical softening of the new monarch’s position toward the Islamist movement is instead part of efforts to better manage Saudi Arabia’s regional challenges. In order to effectively fight the Islamic State, Riyadh needs to build a regional anti-jihadist alliance — of which the Muslim Brotherhood could be a part. However, Saudi Arabia will need to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood cannot threaten Arab states already weakened by the Arab Spring. If it loosens its tough stance, Saudi Arabia risks igniting worse regional problems.
On Feb. 17, Saudi King Salman held a meeting with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, during the latter’s visit to Riyadh. The meeting occurred only days after Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said, “We do not have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood. Our problem is with a small group of people who demand allegiance from the people.” The statement and the meeting made many observers speculate that the new king could change from a zero-tolerance policy toward the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood to one of tepid engagement.
However, talk of a changing perception of the Muslim Brotherhood misses a key point. Such analysis gives too much agency to specific personalities. An examination of both the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi state shows that a strategic reconciliation between the two is highly improbable.
The Saudi state rests on a model of quietist Salafism that stands in stark contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood’s view of religion. The movement’s ultimate goal is a republican form of government — a long-term threat to the Saudi monarchy. In the near term, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamism threatens to destabilize Arab states, especially Egypt’s military government, at a time when states are crumbling across the Arab world.
Escalating Regional Threats
At the moment, though, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the most immediate threat to Saudi interests. (In Egypt, the 2013 coup has kept the movement in check.) The bigger threat to Riyadh and the Arab states comes in the form of the Islamic State and its control of territory in the cross-border regions of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The Islamic State’s goal of an international caliphate and its militant tactics are a clear and present danger to Arab states. The Muslim Brotherhood’s method to establish Islamist states through democratic means, meanwhile, is a long-term threat.
In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia also faces Iran, Qatar,Turkey, the Syrian government as well as al Qaeda, Arab Shiite groups, and Saudi pro-democracy forces in the country and the wider region. Simultaneously, the United States, the traditional Saudi ally, is nearing a strategic rapprochement with Iran, an ethnic and sectarian enemy of the Arab world. This burgeoning relationship has aggravated tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia, forcing Riyadh to pursue a difficult unilateral foreign policy. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are expending considerable financial resources to contain the growing anarchy in the region — all at a time of declining oil prices — fearing the turmoil will allow Iran to expand its regional geopolitical footprint. Along with the emergence of the Iran-leaning al-Houthi movement in Yemen, Riyadh increasingly finds itself in conflict with Iran and its allies as well as the Islamic State.
Of these two challenges, Riyadh must first neutralize the Islamic State before turning to Iran. The more intense the sectarian conflict against Iran gets, the more operational space it creates for jihadists. The Islamic State has skillfully exploited the geopolitics of sectarian conflict in the regionfrom the start of the movement in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Saudi kingdom realizes that it must assemble a broad alliance of Sunni Arabs to successfully combat the militant group, forcing Riyadh to rethink the Muslim Brotherhood, a major opponent of the jihadist movement and potential ally.
The Price of Realignment
Saudi Arabia has aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood before. During the 1950s and 1960s, Riyadh worked with the Islamist movement to contain left-wing Arab nationalist forces, most notably the movement of Gamal Abdel Nasser, founder of Egypt’s military government. Today, Saudi and foreign elements exist within the kingdom that are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Riyadh can draw on these to work out a new relationship with the movement. There are, however, risks to this course of action — the Muslim Brotherhood would put a high price on cooperation.
The Muslim Brotherhood would likely ask for Saudi Arabia to get Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to ease his crackdown on the movement. But Riyadh does not want to empower the Muslim Brotherhood in order to fight the Islamic State. Neither does Saudi Arabia want to weaken the Egyptian government.
This strong dislike for the Muslim Brotherhood within the political and religious establishments presents yet another conundrum for Saudi Arabia that has led to internal differences on policy options. Cairo is also worried about reports of the new Saudi king seeking to shift policy. Egypt knows that this is a tactical move but fears that it could still weaken the military government at a time when the political economy is struggling and dependent upon the Khaleejis, or the group of Arab states along the gulf.
Egypt is already concerned that elements from within its own security establishment have leaked private conversations by government officials to Muslim Brotherhood-controlled media organizations and sympathetic international news outlets. Unconfirmed leaks alleged that al-Sisi said the Gulf Cooperation Council nations “have money like rice” and insinuated that Egypt deserves a share of that wealth. On the audio, al-Sisi’s chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Abbas Kamil, is also reportedly heard labeling the Khaleeji nations as “half states” that need to “pay up” because they “are living a fancy life and have piles of money.” The identity and precise intent of the leakers is not yet known, but the leaks could aggravate Cairo’s paranoia, especially now that Saudi leaders are apparently rethinking their policy toward the Islamist movement.
A shift in Saudi policy encouraged by Qatar and Kuwait, which has steered clear of taking a strong stance against the Muslim Brotherhood, would aim to strengthen mediation between Cairo and the Islamist movement. The Saudi king and his allies believe the movement can be managed by maintaining ties instead of isolating it. However, such a policy would create friction between Riyadh and Cairo and also between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The United Arab Emirates lacks Saudi Arabia’s Salafist establishment, which serves as a counter to the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the United Arab Emirates has been cracking down on Muslim Brotherhood cells engaged in so-called domestic subversion.
Riyadh’s efforts to enter a tactical arrangement with the Muslim Brotherhood will be difficult. Though the Muslim Brotherhood would be useful against the Islamic State, any shift in the Saudi position toward the Brotherhood carries too much risk. For this reason, Saudi Arabia’s struggle against the Islamic State is unlikely to improve.