A New Arab Cold War: Saudi Arabia Pressures Qatar on Muslim Brotherhood, American Think Tanks

(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.

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Related video:

PressTV: S Arabia, UAE, Bahrain withdraw envoys from Qatar

8 Responses

  1. Interesting analysis. In the spirit of comparative political parallels, I was reminded of the christian-conservative wing of the neocons, who tend to think of the brotherhood and “terrorism” in the same sort of self-serving, reductionist terms.

  2. Moreover, the Saudi’s obviously have a quiet alliance with Israel, which in turn leads the Saudis to bribe Egypt into blocking aid to and commerce with Gaza. The Egyptians under Sisi have destroyed the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza, and now enforce the cruel blockade of Gaza which Morsi and the Brotherhood at least had relaxed (until of course threatened with a cut-off in aid from the U.S.). Of course, Hamas is seen as part of this supposed international conspiracy of the Brotherhood, which gives Sisi cover for his actions. But it is still a foul piece of business for Arab states, whether the Saudis of the Egyptians, to once again turn their backs on the plight of the Palestinians.

    May Sisi share a room in hell with Mubarak and both Abdullah’s (Saudi and Jordanian) for betraying the Palestinian people.

    • Hugh,
      How do you reconcile your statement with where you choose to live (or have you been marching on the streets of Houston since 2002)?

  3. -Due to the highly personalized rule of Sheikh Hamad (who handed over power to his son in 2013), “the country’s foreign policy has an idiosyncratic and unpredictable quality. The emir should not be seen as firmly adhering to any particular religious or political ideology. He is driven by the motivation to secure his dynasty’s rule and the independence and autonomy of his tiny, but very rich country. Much larger and politically aggressive countries, such as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, surround Qatar and the emir has to accommodate the military presence of the U.S. in the Gulf, which provides Qatar and the other Gulf Co-operation Council countries with protection from both Iran and eventually a resurgent, Shia-dominated Iraq. Qatar has had a long history of contending with imperial and regional hegemons, and this has made its rulers non-ideological and practical in their outlook and in the policies they pursue. But unlike its smaller neighbours, such as the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait, for example, Qatar has chosen a hyperactive style of diplomacy and foreign policy, acting as a mediator and financial supporter whenever and wherever possible in an attempt to make itself valuable to all sides. Qatar’s success overseas, moreover, translates domestically into greater popularity and legitimacy for the ruler and his family: success abroad has made the regime more popular at home. And when it comes to foreign affairs, rarely has Qatar adopted a position from which it cannot reverse direction.”
    -“The Qataris, like the Saudis, welcomed members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were persecuted by the nationalist and socialist regimes of Jamal Abd al-Nasser in Egypt from the mid-1950s onwards and later by the Baath regime in Syria from the late 1970s (culminating in the massacre at Hama in 1982). Many of the Muslim Brothers became teachers and public servants in the religious institutions of both host states. [The Muslim Brotherhood was anti-communist and anti–Arab nationalist: two threats to the Saudi Royal family.] The Saudis, however, broke their ties to the Brotherhood after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait when [the Brotherhood] sided with Saddam Hussein. The Saudis also never forgave the Brotherhood for politicising their youth, who became radicalised against the regime in Riyadh in the 1990s, culminating in al-Qaeda’s attacks against the regime.”
    link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  4. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy since the 2011 revolutions began is essentially a failing and futile attempt to defend a collapsing and outdated regional order. People in the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly rejecting the domination of grossly inequitable dictatorial modes of control. Saudi Arabia feels threatened by everything that emerges from these revolutions and thus will oppose their outcomes no matter what. Monarchies are not going to emerge from these popular uprisings.

    Whether it is the Ikwan, the liberals, the so-called left, Nasserism, or any other political party that wins the first elections, the Saudi autocracy views it as a mortal peril to their own mode of rule.

    Saudi opposition to revolutionism is based on the same mentality as to why they opposed the spread of Nasserism and Nasserite Egypt’s bid for regional hegemony. They also opposed Saddam Hussein’s plans for expansion, even though they originally were not nearly as hostile toward him.

    The Saudi elite seems to have three paramount goals (their domestic and foreign policies overlap in many ways):

    1. Maintain to the maximum extent possible the idea that the only viable for of government is system in which a dictatorial elite controls access to power and wealth.

    2. Support the principle of hereditary succession or something that approximates it as closely as possible.

    3. Promote the dominance and leadership of the Saudi elite over Muslims worldwide.

    The new revolutionary wave threatens all three goals to an extent never seen in the 20th century.

    The overwhelming preponderance of North African and Middle Eastern dictatorships, even those that started out as populist nationalist, have evolved into stationary, sectarian, misogynist systems that are very open to Saudi influence. They have moved closer to the past military dictatorships that Pakistan is trying to escape from. Some of these governments are now hereditary systems, albeit, not as extreme as North Korea.

    Any new dictatorship that emerges can only receive Saudi backing if it is not too independent. It has to be at least somewhat open to supporting Salafism as well; they absolutely will not back an Ataturkist system. Nor will they back democratic nationalists, like Hamdeen Sabahi, against the so-called religious right.

    Assad’s Syria is an exception to the general pattern of Saudi support for dictatorship because it still operates outside the Saudi framework and is viewed as an Alawite Shiite government by the Saudi elite. Like they cannot support the current Iraq, they can’t support the Assads.

    As for Iran, the Saudis will not like any Iranian government. They didn’t even like Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi all that much, given that they oppose Shiism, opposed the Shah’s interest in dominating the Persian Gulf, and his willingness to use force in territorial disputes.. A book could be written on this subject, but suffice it to say, an Iran controlled by the Green movement would not be viewed any less negatively by the Saudi elite or by their Wahhabi allies. The Bahraini dictatorship would be put in even more peril by a different type of Iran.

    The trouble for Saudi Arabia is that the revolutionary wave is only going to get more extreme. The Sisi cult-deep state alliance is failing catastrophically and is destined to be thrown on the historical trash heap as a failed example of counter-revolution.

    Generally, religious conservatives tend to do fairly well in societies transitioning to democracy for the first time in their history. The Ikwan was just the first to obtain some measure of success and wasn’t all that revolutionary or willing to embrace hardcore revolutionary tactics.

    What will happen when either liberalism or the so-called left seizes power? Either of these is profoundly more threatening than the Ikwan from the Gulf monarchies. What will happen when Sisi falls to a new Egyptian movement that promotes and supports democratic dissidents in these monarchies?

    Decades ago, these monarchies exerted every effort to destroy Nasserism, the liberals, and the socialists. Probably the worst case scenario for them is if some kind of populist “left” movement takes hold as the new predominate force after the religious conservatives. There would be no community of interests between the plutocratic monarchies and those movements.

    The only reason why the Gulf dictatorships fixate so much on the Brotherhood is because they fail to grasp the nature of popular uprisings. They are so out of date and detached from reality that they actually believe that a liberal-Brotherhood-Masonic-foreign alliance of conspirators plotted the overthrow of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, and other dictators.

  5. The Saudis and Emiratis mistake the real meaning of the Brotherhood’s electoral success. They read into “evidence” that there supposedly are no youth movements or youth discontent. This false interpretation is going to keep getting more costly.

    Never underestimate how detached from reality the elites ruling these countries are. For evidence, one need look no further than the fraudulent HIV cure being put forward by the Egyptian military.

    It some cases, the conflicts between the monarchies or other dictatorships is simply a manifestation of the fact that competing megalomaniacs cannot agree on a plan to carve up the world or coexist. Each wants to be predominate.

  6. To add to all the problems that Saudi rulers are facing, Saudi women are also becoming restive and are demanding their rights. In an incredible and unheard of interview with the British Channel 4 tonight, King Abdullah’s second wife says that her four daughters are kept as virtual prisoners in Saudi Arabia and have suffered years of abuse in a royal compound in Jeddah. She calls on Saudi authority to free them from their captivity and allow them to travel to the West for medical treatment
    link to channel4.com
    This interview will be a great embarrassment for King Abdullah and the entire Saudi ruling family and is bound to intensify the demands of Saudi women for equality or at least better treatment.

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