In the tangle of Middle Eastern geo-politics, there is a thread that is especially hard to follow. That is, the relationship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Historically, this rapport has been on a roller coaster of highs and lows. The KSA and the movement are almost the same age. Imam Hasan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, in Egypt, cheered the birth of Saudi Arabia in 1932, under its first King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. Al-Banna was fascinated by Saudi Wahhabism, while was less than happy with King Fuad’s aspiration to become the new era Caliph.
Al-Banna was always welcome in Saudi Arabia. In the 1950s and 1960s, the KSA offered refuge to those Muslim Brothers persecuted in Egypt, in Syria and Iraq (it was the time of the Arab socialism inspired by Nasser.) However, when Iraq invaded Kuwait (1990-1991), the Muslim Brotherhood sided with Saddam Hussein, while the KSA, along with the rest of the Gulf, hurried to call the United States to rescue.
In 2002, then Minister of Defence, Prince Nayef, went as far as declaring that the Muslim Brotherhood was indeed the main cause of distress in the region, and the main source of problems for Saudi Arabia.
This capsizing of relations might seem utterly surprising. Yet, few lines can easily account for it. Al–Banna’s movement had supported King Abdul Aziz in his endeavour to modernise the Country with sympathetic jurisprudence. At the time, the most rigorous Salafi groups opposed the reforms as un-Islamic. However, the Muslim Brotherhood promotes the establishment of an Islamic State on an electoral basis that is at odds with the nature of the Gulf monarchies. In fact, during the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood supported the idea of a constitutional monarchy in Kuwait.
When the Arab Spring erupted, the Muslim Brotherhood supported the uprising. Consequently, the KSA sensed the danger inherent in the blossom of an Islamic, yet democratic, power.
Saudi Arabia adopted a strategy that the Egyptian case exemplifies best. In July 2013, a military coup ousted the democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. The KSA did not hesitate in backing the instigator of the coup, former Minister of Defence, General Abdel Fatah al–Sisi. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia declared the movement a terrorist group.
Only a couple of years later, while the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Egypt has become strained, the rapport between the KSA and the Muslim Brotherhood is improving steadily. Members of the Tunisian en-Nahda, including its leader Rachid Ghannouchi, members of the Yemeni Hizb al–Islah, and members of Hamas, all of which are considered to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, paid a visit to Riyadh.
Egypt cannot be happy with these developments. Ghannouchi maintains that it should reconcile the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is notoriously at odds with al-Sisi’s regime since it sealed the tunnels into Gaza. Yemen is a sore point, since al-Sisi failed to deliver the military contribution to the Saudi-led coalition that he had promised.
How can one make sense of this further capsizing of the relations between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates? First, one must bear in mind that in January 2015 late King Abdullah died. Next in line was King Salman. While the former was first and foremost concerned about the rise of an Islamic Sunni movement that called for political participation and elections, the latter is absorbed in the struggle for hegemony against Iran.
Since the thawing of relations between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the world, the KSA is playing its (sectarian) cards to ensure that the Shiite rival goes nowhere close to gain supremacy in the region. One telling example of the strategy espoused by King Salman is the proxy-war in Yemen. On that stage, al-Islah became an ally of the Saudis.
The rapprochement with Hamas might be harder to grasp. Hamas relies on Iran’s logistical support. In fact, last March, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal paid an official visit to Teheran. Little later, Riyadh invited him, too. He did not decline. In July, Meshaal met King Salman, marking a historical event and disappointing his Iranian friends.
However, Iran seems confident that Hamas could never renounce its support. Some observers say that Hamas military wing is indeed keen on continuing co-operation with Teheran, while the political wing is interested in normalising relations with the KSA.
The reshuffling of cards suggests that King Salman’s Saudi Arabia is ready to go all in and bet on its anti-Iran Sunni front. A front that would also fight Daesh, both militarily (as the newest coalition of Muslim countries, including Shiite countries, testifies) and ideologically, filling the void left by the repression of moderate political Islam.
On their part, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates appear to welcome Saudi rapprochement, although they keep in mind the contingent nature of the rationale that drives the KSA. What is left to ask is whether Saudi Arabia is playing too a hazardous game. Granting support to the Muslim Brotherhood means allowing an ideology contrary to the very nature of al-Saud’s power.
Forecast on the Middle East is indeed dicey. Nonetheless, here is one possible scenario: The KSA is facing a contraction in its revenues, and that might change the nature of the social contract between the royal family and the Saudi people; the Muslim Brotherhood, freed from repression, could gather enough consensus to challenge the legitimacy of undemocratic, albeit purportedly Islamic, regimes. The question is, could the Sunni front turn against its creator? We will see.
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