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The Saudis Rethink the Muslim Brotherhood

The death of King Abdullah on January 23 of this year, and the accession of his brother Salman, raises the question of what this portends for the Kingdom and the region. Will he bring reform? Change policy toward Iran? Decrease oil production to boost sagging world prices? Negotiate with Syria’s Assad to end the civil war and defeat the Islamic State?

King Salman has much to decide about his country, internally and abroad. To the surprise of many, he has given a sign that Saudi Arabia may seek rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood – the powerful transnational organization that stretches across much the Islamic world. The Kingdom and the Brotherhood have a mixed history, especially in Egypt. In the fifties and sixties Riyadh supported the Brotherhood against Nasser but turned on it when it began to gain influence inside the Kingdom. More recently, Riyadh helped violently depose the Brotherhood’s government in Cairo and replace it with the military.

The enmity between the House of Saud and the Muslim Brotherhood is deep and widespread, making rapprochement a longterm and difficult effort – one that may never pan out. However, the Saudis’ motives and the possibilities of change should be explored, as should the opposition to rapprochement.

Rivalry with Iran

Sectarian conflict in the Islamic world is at its highest and deadliest point in decades, if not centuries, and the Saudi move will seek to weaken Iran’s position in the region. Indeed, this may be the driving force in Saudi calculations.

Despite the deepening Shia-Sunni fissure, Iran and the Brotherhood share a common opposition to Saudi Arabia – Iran over sectarian and geopolitical issues, the Brotherhood over the issue of monarchal power. Iran backed the Brotherhood government in Egypt until it was ousted by the army, with Saudi backing. Iran also backs the Brotherhood in Tunisia, Gaza, and elsewhere.

The Saudis want to end Iran’s ties with the Sunni world. Lavish subsidies of course will be their most effective tool. However, the Brotherhood’s hostility to Riyadh is quite strong, and even after a cooling period, the Brotherhood may choose to play the two sectarian rivals against one another. It could cleverly take subsidies from both sides, without siding with either, and emerge from the diplomatic rivalry more powerful than ever.

Paradoxically, the Brotherhood could then become an important balancer providing a welcome cooling effect on sectarian hatred, which at present may devolve into even more bloodletting than we are already witnessing.

Popular support in the region

Riyadh has built a measure of popular support in the Middle East by general subsidies and direct support of Salafi schools in several countries. These schools impart an austere form of Islam resonant with the Kingdom’s Wahhabism and with its ideals and ambitions.

Salafists, in return, are grateful to their teachers and benefactors in Riyadh. Egyptian Salafis were important popular opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood government and are important supporters of the military-oligarchic regime that Saudi Arabia helped bring to power. This almost certainly stemmed from Riyadh’s directives.

Enticing the Muslim Brotherhood into Riyadh’s patronage network could greatly increase Saudi Arabia’s popular support in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Turkey. The Brotherhood above everything else is a highly disciplined organization that has a loyal and obedient following. If allied with the Salafis – no easy task, this – they would bring the Saudis a formidable popular base in the region.

Though the Brotherhood’s numbers inside Saudi Arabia is uncertain – the organization is outlawed there – it enjoys at least a modicum of support there owing to its reformist and anti-monarchal positions. Accordingly, rapprochement could bring greater popular support for the House of Saud at a particularly critical period, when a new generation of rulers will come to power – and face the pressing issue of liberalization.

Problems inside the Kingdom

Rapprochement with the Brotherhood may bring greater and perhaps unrealistic hopes for liberalization. This is will not be welcome in many parts of the Saudi government, especially conservative clerics and tribal elders. The result may not be a gradual and successful liberalization process, only repression and dashed hopes.

Riyadh’s efforts to woo the Brotherhood will be expensive – this at a time when oil revenues have plummeted and the Kingdom is already spending immense sums in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, and Pakistan. Resentment at these foreign expenditures will grow among young Saudis who see no opportunity for meaningful employment at home but do see the chance for military glory abroad.

Problems outside the Kingdom 

Saudi influence in the region is already worrisome in many states. Partnership with the Brotherhood will greatly increase this worry and of course encourage rival powers to try to prevent it, individually or in concert.

Presently, the Saudis have brought into their sphere Bahrain, the Emirates, Kuwait, and to some extent Pakistan. Factions in Syria and Yemen are beholden to Riyadh. If Egypt moves even closer to the Saudis, it would give them tremendous influence in the region and sway with the most powerful army in the Arab world.

Several states will look askance at increased Saudi influence in the region. Qatar has tried to thwart Saudi hegemony by supporting none other than the Muslim Brotherhood and that small Gulf state, which a Saudi prince dismissed as a few thousand people and a television station, will use all its tools to keep the Brotherhood out of the Saudi orbit.

The Brotherhood itself comprises several national branches, making Saudi diplomatic efforts a highly complicated effort. Success with one national branch may elicit resentments or worries in one or more of the others. Turkey, for example, wants to establish its own influence in the changing region, and will oppose Saudi encroachments.

Israeli policy has cozied somewhat toward the Saudis in recent years as both states oppose Iranian influence and its nuclear program. The prospect, however, of a unifying Sunni world, with Riyadh holding the upper hand, might reprioritize Israel’s security outlooks and perhaps lead to a rapprochement of its own with the strongest opponent of Saudi Arabia – Iran.

As implausible as this sounds given today’s tensions, it might be noted that numerous implausible if not preposterous events have taken place in the Middle East in only the last five years. And it might be recalled that Israel and Iran were strategic partners since the founding of Israel in 1948 until the early 1990s – hardly an eternity in geopolitical terms. Events are calling for a rethinking of strategic partnerships. Leaders should be listening.

Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of  The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com

(Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing) 

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Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of  The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com (Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing) 

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