(By Juan Cole)
Saudi Arabia’s listing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and the withdrawal of the Saudi,
Kuwaiti United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain ambassadors from Qatar signal a big geopolitical realignment in the Middle East.
Qatar is the Red Prince of the Middle East. Despite being fabulously wealthy because of its natural gas exports, its foreign policy has been populist, showing a special fondness for the Muslim Brotherhood and a dislike of the Middle East’s secular authoritarian dictators, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Qatar has used its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood as a form of soft power in places like Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt. Its popular Aljazeera Arabic news channel cheered on the 2011 popular upheavals in the region.
Saudi Arabia’s octogenarian princes were furious about the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. Although the Saudi official religious ideology is the hard line Wahhabi sect, the Saudi state likes order and stability more than it likes political Islam. The Saudis have therefore often been entirely happy to back secular leaders, as long as they could help keep the masses quiet. Moreover, Wahhabis are often political quietists and those in Saudi Arabia fully support the monarchy. The Saudis view the Muslim Brotherhood, which took over Egypt for a year from June 30 2012 to July 3, 2013, as a political cult, as a set of secretive revolutionary cells attempting to take over one country after another, rather as Stalinist cells took over Hungary and Czechoslovakia after the end of WW II. I.e., the Saudi leadership now looks at the Brotherhood rather as the American Right wing looked at Communism in the McCarthy period. And it looks at Qatar as the patron of the Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia has another big anxiety, which is Khomeinism or Shiite Political Islam, the ideology of the Iranian state. Some 12% of Saudis are Shiite and they live over the kingdom’s petroleum. The Saudis think Iran is behind the restiveness of Bahrain’s majority Shiites (it isn’t), and sent troops into Bahrain to shore up the Sunni monarchy. The Saudis are also upset that Iraq has now been taken over by pro-Iranian Shiites (the majority there). And they are disturbed by Bashar al-Assad’s alliance with Iran, as well as the role of Lebanon’s Hizbullah as foot soldiers for Iran in the Levant.
I suspect that from the point of view of a Wahhabi absolute monarchy, the Muslim Brotherhood and Khomeinist Shiism look very similar. Both are populist movements. Both advocate a republic and are hostile to monarchy. Both challenge the Establishment in the Middle East. So from King Abdullah’s point of view, the opening toward Iran conducted by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi last year was confirmation that the two forms of political Islam were operating in tandem.
The Saudis are furious with the Obama administration. It reluctantly acquiesced in the fall of Mubarak and ultimately endorsed the Arab Spring. It accommodated to the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. And now it is trying to make an opening to Iran.
Last year this time, the momentum in the region was with Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. The Brotherhood had taken Egypt and was becoming more powerful in Libya. A religious center-right party was ruling Tunisia (though it wasn’t a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate). Qatar and Aljazeera were widely influential. At the same time, Iran’s alliance with Syria and Hizbullah was keeping the latter in place and powerful against Saudi allies like Saad Hariri in Lebanon and Sunni Salafis in Syria. Saudi Arabia appeared to be in a vise.
Then the Saudis caught a break, with the Rebellion (Tamarrud) movement in Egypt and the military take-over there last July 3. The Saudis, the Kuwaitis and the United Arab Emirates offered Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi $24 Billion, with a promise of much more, to stabilize the Egyptian economy, which is in free fall. In December, the military-appointed government in Egypt declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization after the bombing of a provincial state security building, even though it wasn’t proven that the Brotherhood was behind it.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has gone from ruling Egypt to being a proscribed terrorist organization in just a year. Now the Saudis have followed suit in forbidding it. While the fringes of the Brotherhood had violent people in them, the leadership gave up violence in a 1970s bargain with then Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat, and had largely adhered to their pledge. To now declare a major form of Arab political Islam to be simple terrorism is Arab McCarthyism (or Arab Bushism, since W. liked that kind of approach, and the ‘war on terror’ language in the Arab world is being lifted directly from Bush).
Saudi Arabia is determined to crush its ideological rival, the Brotherhood. Hence the pressure on Qatar and the threat to cut the peninsula off from food and other imports by land. The Saudis also allegedly want Qatar to close branches of the Brookings Institution and the Rand Corp in Doha. This demand is not just a manifestation of a new Saudi anti-Americanism but is likely aimed at particular scholars at those institutions who lean toward the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia isn’t supporting any particular alternative to the Brotherhood and pro-Iranian states and movements. Its counter-moves are pragmatic and ad hoc. Secular nationalists will do, like Gen. al-Sisi. They just have to be against populist political Islam, whether of the Brotherhood or the Shiite variety. (How messy this pragmatism can be is shown by the Egyptian military’s new preference for the Baathist government of al-Assad in Syria, in contrast to Saudi policy). The Saudis themselves might have supported the Baathists in Damascus (and did, in the 1970s and 1980s) except that the latter made an alliance with Iran. Now Riyadh wants al-Assad overthrown, but wants to be sure that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, with its Qatari ties, isn’t the organization that does the overthrowing.
That the Brotherhood can effectively be eliminated seems to me unlikely. My guess is that some 20% of Egyptians support it at least vaguely, even now. The harsh moves taken by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to criminalize Brotherhood membership will push some fringe elements into violence, risking the development of a long-term low-intensity guerrilla war or terrorist struggle. In short, the region could be Iraqized.
Saudi Arabia is also now bruiting the induction of Egypt into the Gulf Cooperation Council, presumably with the proviso that Egypt will be allowed to extract enormous strategic rent from the GCC. In return, Egypt will protect the very wealthy but very weak GCC from Iran and Shiite Iraq, and from the Brotherhood.
Anonymous Egyptian sources I saw quoted in the Egyptian press when I was there last week were speculating that if al-Sisi becomes president, he can bring in $240 billion in investments and aid from the Gulf. Given the high price of gasoline for several years, Saudi Arabia has a rumored $850 billion in reserves, and other Gulf states like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are also flush. That would be a trillion and a half Egyptian pounds. Al-Sisi said Thursday in an interview that Egypt needed a government budget of a trillion pounds in order to back on the right path economically and to re-do infrastructure.
Iraq is pushing back on the Shiite side, accusing Saudi Arabia of being behind Sunni terrorism in Iraq, as a way of keeping the Shiite government weak. Turkey doesn’t agree with the ban on the Brotherhood, though it is allied with the Saudis on Syria.
So this is the Saudi grand strategy: prop up anti-Brotherhood Egyptian nationalism, isolate Qatar, overthrow Bashar al-Assad (Iraqis maintain that a. If it all worked, the Saudi Kingdom would have uprooted populist political Islam from the region. It isn’t likely to work.