Saudi Arabia was once a haven for Muslim Brotherhood leaders who fled persecution in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Now the Saudis are pouring money into Sisi’s regime in order to destroy them.
When the revolt against Mubarak broke out towards the end of January 2011, it was expected that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) would gain control of Egypt. The Saudis did not hesitate to express their opposition to this possible outcome. In June 2012, when Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammed Morsi became the president of Egypt, he tried to calm the Saudis, but to no avail, and they supported General Sisi when he deposed Morsi in July 2013.
Since Morsi’s fall from power, Saudi Arabia has granted Sisi billions of dollars to support him in preventing Morsi from returning to the presidential office. Saudi Arabia has also come out publicly against the position of the US which called for Sisi to reinstate Morsi.
Saudi opposition to the “Brothers” can be seen in its willingness to hand over members of the movement who escaped to Saudi Arabia after Morsi was deposed, when the Egyptian regime began to search out Muslim Brotherhood activists after defining the movement as a terrorist organization. The obvious question is why the Saudis hate the Muslim Brotherhood so much, even though both groups are devout Sunnis, and why it chooses to help the secular Sisi supporters.
This question becomes even more acute considering past relations between the Saudis and the “Brothers”. Once Saudi Arabia was a safe haven for many of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders who fled persecution in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
There are several answers to this question that, together, form a synergetic whole.
1. The name “al-Ikhwān” – “the Brothers” – was, at the start of the 20th century, the name of the militia of Ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi Arabian dynasty. This was a cruel militia that sowed panic among the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, and ended the rule of Sherif Hussein Bin Ali, King of the Hejaz. When Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, he took the name of Ibn Saud’s militia and added the adjective “Muslim”, to emphasize that the Egyptian members of the organization were truly Muslim, as opposed to Ibn Saud’s army.
Ibn Saud did not forgive this treachery to his dying day in 1953.
2. Saudi Arabia is a tribal country, where religion makes the tribal cohesion even stronger, through laws, rules and tradition, whereas the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood believes that religion takes the place of tribal-family loyalties which should disappear from politics entirely. The Muslim Brotherhood’s policy allows it to enlist people from all sectors and turn members into a developing civilian society that is culturally self-sufficient, while the Saudi model depends on a closed family group which cannot absorb people from outside its framework.
3. Islam in Saudi Arabia is institutionalized. The Sharia scholars and legal arbiters have been inseparable from the regime since the founding of the kingdom, and all their legal writings – books, treatises and decisions – are meant to strengthen the regime and give it religious legitimacy. In contrast, the religious approach of the “Brothers” is inherently oppositionary and intended to enable anti-institutional activities in the countries in which the organization functions – Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, among others. The Palestinian branch of the “Brothers” created a terror organization, Hamas. All the religious writings of the MB scholars is intended to justify their struggle against the governments of the countries in which they reside. It is impossible to bridge the gap between Saudi institutionalized Islam and the MB’s revolutionary Islam.
4. The organizational model of the “Brothers” allows them to expand their activities and influence to other countries, including those without a Muslim majority, such as Israel, Europe and the USA. In contrast, the family organizational model of the Saudis is limited to Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates, and its influence can only reach outside those countries by buying supporters and involving itself financially in efforts to spread Islam.
The fact that the “Brothers” can expand their influence and presence to new communities causes the Saudis and the Emirates to feel that they are losing the contest for supremacy.
5. The Saudi approach to Islam is “Salafist”, which sanctifies the original, glorious past of Islam as a religion whose states are ruled by uncompromising . religious tenets. The Saudis view the “Brothers” as a modern political movement that has transformed Islam into a pragmatic ideology willing to reach compromises with other prevalent civilian ideologies, even those that oppose Islam or do not hold its beliefs. The official positive attitude of the “Brothers’ to the Egyptian Copts, for example, infuriates the Saudis.
6. The lslamic legal system prevalent in Egypt is the Hanfit system, whereas the one prevalent in Saudi Arabia is the fundamentalist and extreme version of the Hanbal system, known as Wahhabism. Since the Hanfit system is less stringent than Wahhabism, the “Brothers” are seen by the Saudis as lacking respect for Islam. Wahhabists, for example, force a woman to cover her face with a niqab when going outside in public, forbid her from going out without a male family member as escort, prevent her from driving and working in most professions. The Hanfists, on the other hand, allow a woman to go out by herself, uncover her face, drive and work in any respectable field. The Saudis have no religious expectations from the Egyptian military, but the irreverent attitude of the “Brothers” angers them.
7. In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates there are quite a few people who are not connected to the tribal system and the ruling families, so that the “Brother’s” ideology is suited to their way of life and thinking. They would like to see the Saud famiy ruling the country and the ruling families in the Emirates exchanged for a non-family-tribal cadre. The rise of the “Brothers” to the position of Egyptian president encouraged this trend and spread suspicion among the ruling families who fear that the “Brother’s” ideology may threaten the stability of their regimes. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, the head of the Dubai police, said that the danger the “Brothers” pose to the Emirates is greater than that posed by Iran.
8. During the twentieth century, an economic rift developed between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on the one hand, and the poor populations of Egypt and other Arab countries, people who are the natural breeding ground for the “Brothers”. The stark contrast between the wealth of the Arabian Peninsula and the poverty, neglect, backwardness, diseases and ignorance in the other Arab lands created envy, hate, suspicion and intrigues between the two sides.
Evening papers in Arab countries portray the Saudis and leaders of the Emirates as grotesquely fat and round, an image not divorced from reality. Undoubtedly, the “Brothers'” popularity with the vast Arabic masses is much greater than that of the ruling House of Saudi, a situation which causes the Saudis much discomfort.
In a cartoon, a typical Palestinian Arab in Khan Yunis says to the Saudis: “You are all traitors” because of their silence on what is going on in Gaza. The artist? Omia Jucha, wife of one of the heads of Hamas, Rami Saad.
9. The Peninsula countries have had a symbiotic relationship with the West for decades. They supply the West with oil and gas, while the West protects them from external threats, such as Russia, Arab nationalism of the Gamal Abdul Nasser kind and the undercover activities of the Baath regimes of Syria, Iraq and Iran. To the Muslim Brotherhood, the West is the main enemy of the Middle Eastern nations: the British conquest of Egypt in the last quarter of the 19th century, the British and French conquest of the Levant after WWI, the establishment of the State of Israel, materialism, theft of natural resources, political hegemony and permissiveness that pervade the western media and reach every home in the Middle east are viewed by the “Brothers” as a Western attack on Islamic culture, policies and economic interests.
The contrast between Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude towards the United States and that of the Arabian Peninsula exacerbated the tension between the two sides.
10. Jerusalem remains the central point in the conflict between the “Brothers” and Saudi Arabia, although this dispute is not waged in public and must be read between the lines. The “Brothers” made their views on Jerusalem clear on May 1, 2012, in a speech by MB leader Sheikh Safwat Hijazi to hundreds of thousands of supporters during Morsi’s presidential election campaign: “We have seen the dream of the Islamic Caliphate, the Land of the Caliphate, come to pass – Allah willing – the group (MB, ed.) and its party. We have seen the great dream that we all dream of, the ‘United Arab Nations’. The ‘United Arab Nations’ will return, Allah willing, by this man’s hand, with the help of his party. And the capital of the ‘United Arab Nations’ will be Jerusalem, Allah willing (loud approval from the crowd). Our capital will not be Cairo, nor Mecca nor Medina, Allah willing, and our slogan will be “Millions of shahids march on Jerusalem” (as the crowd fanatically shouts the slogan).
Another instance of Jerusalem’s centrality to the MB occurred in 2001 when the leader of the Northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Raad Salah, announced his intention of bringing water from the Zamzam well in Mecca to Jerusalem, in order to stress Jerusalem’s holiness and its connection to Mecca. When the Saudis heard of his plan, they kept him from attending the Haj. They did not offer an explanation, but everyone knew why he was not allowed to reach Mecca.
In general, the Saudis hardly mention Jerusalem, and when they do, it is to say that it must be returned to the Palestinians. This keeps them from being seen as Zionists, but it seems as if they fear that if Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state, it will become the focus of Islamism rather than Mecca. The Palestinian Arab leader might call himself “Guardian of the El Aksa Mosque”, a title that overshadows the Saudi king, who is “Guardian of two holy places.
It is important to note that the rivalry between the Hijaz center of Islam with Mecca as its holy city and Medina its capital, and the political center in Greater Syria (Alsham) with Damascus as its capital and Jerusalem its holy city, broke out in the seventh century, almost 1400 years ago. That was when the first Umayyad Caliph, Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, moved the capital from Medina to Damascus. Later on, in 682 C.E., he chose Jerusalem as an alternative for the Haj because of a revolt that broke out in Mecca, preventing Syrian pilgrims from attending the Haj. The great Islamic arbiter Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), whose decisions are adhered to by the Saudi Wahhabists, lowered the level of Jerusalem’s importance and holiness to that of every other Islamic city, because he knew that its “holiness” was only the result of a political, ethnic and personal dispute. The rivalry between the two centers – the Hijaz Mecca and the Alsham Jerusalem continues to this day, and adds to the tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia.
Egypt has Salafist groups which are growing and spreading; their Islamic practice and way of life is becoming similar to that of the the Saudis. They oppose the “Brothers” and cooperate with Sisi and his security forces against the “Brothers”. Thus, the “Muslim Brotherhood” in Egypt and the Hamas, its cohort in Gaza, find themselves caught between the hammer of Sisi and his security forces and the anvil of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates. This is one of the main factors behind Hamas’ search for ways to go back to cooperating with the PLO.
The abyss separating the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, except for Qatar, and the “Muslim Brotherhood” is wide and deep, and the developments of the past three years in the Middle East have only served to make it wider and deeper.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University. He served in IDF Military Intelligence for 25 years, specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena.