Matthew Hedges and Giorgio Cafiero
Mr. Hedges is an adviser at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical-risk consultancy and a PhD candidate and associate researcher at Durham University, United Kingdom. Mr. Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics.
The history of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB or Ikhwan) movement in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has varied considerably among its six members. Influenced by distinct political, social and theological landscapes, as well as differing foreign-policy agendas, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have always assessed the MB differently. Some Gulf Arab monarchies view the movement as a threat to their very survival and regional security. Others perceive the MB as a useful political ally or, at least, a legitimate opposition group, in the face of other internal and external threats such as the expansion of Iranian/Shiite influence and the rise of more extreme Sunni Islamist actors such as Islamic State (Daesh) and al-Qaeda.
For decades, leadership preferences, foreign-policy strategies and realpolitik have prompted GCC policy fluidity towards the Ikhwan. The formal rise to power of the Egyptian MB and the movement's prominent influence in Jordanian, Libyan, Tunisian, Turkish and Yemeni politics have reemphasized the challenge to GCC rulers. According to some of the MB's critics, its ambiguous agenda within Middle Eastern society lends weight to the argument that the MB is inherently an entity predisposed to concealing its true modus operandi. At its core, the Ikhwan is an anti-establishment republican entity determined to accumulate power.
While the GCC states have fragile social dynamics — from sectarian strife to tribal rivalries and competition among merchant families — it is their regional policies that have predominantly formed Gulf Arab rulers' perception of the MB. The evolving relationship between Saudi Arabia and the MB best exemplifies this point. Under the leadership of King Abdullah (2005-15), Saudi Arabia had generally poor relations with the Ikhwan, viewing it as a threat to the kingdom's own Islamic legitimacy. In the aftermath of the Arab world's 2011 uprisings, Saudi Arabia and the UAE actively pressured other GCC members to crack down on the movement in an effort to establish a "Muslim Brotherhood-free security environment" in the Arabian Peninsula.1
The MB's presence in the peninsula dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when Egypt's secular regime began purging the country's Islamists, forcing many to flee to the conservative Gulf. Then, with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, MB followers in the Gulf Arab nations grew increasingly confident in their quest to usurp power through revolution. Since the MB became an increasingly influential actor in the GCC's political and social arenas during the 1980s, the ruling families have engaged with the movement's followers differently. Power vacuums resulting from the Arab uprisings of 2011 shook the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to its core and provided Islamist parties, including the Ikhwan, an opening into electoral politics. From the perspective of most GCC rulers, such a development was unsettling, as there was a history of Sunni Islamist and liberal forces in the Gulf, seeking political reforms that mirrored the wishes of revolutionary movements in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. Gulf Arab leaders felt the winds of more political and social change blowing into the GCC. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia had experienced their own uprisings in 2011-12, with varying degrees of confrontation between security forces and demonstrators.
The MB's penetration of GCC societies has ebbed and flowed over the years. The Hanbali foundations of the Ikhwan connect large portions of the GCC's population to the movement. However, key political schisms have undermined the MB's potential to gain greater support among Gulf Arabs. A central aspect of the legitimacy and authority of GCC rulers is the adherence to Islamic principles, with the state serving as the authoritative actor. The MB lacks sensitivity to specific interpretations of Islam and Arabian tribal culture. Its modernist application of conservative Islamist principles ignores the Gulf Arab cultural and social framework, pitting the movement against the state.
The MB's pledge of allegiance (baya) is critically important regarding the Gulf Arab narrative that the movement's transnational connections undermine the GCC's collective security. Loyalty is a sacred issue in the Gulf Arab states. A perceived lack of it has aggravated social tensions and polarized communities. The baya explains apprehension within some GCC states toward the movement, whose political direction is often dictated by elements from outside the community.
Hassan al-Banna, founder of the MB, traveled from Egypt to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj in 1932. His visit laid the foundations for cordial relations between the movement and King Abdulaziz, with Banna even blessing the nascent kingdom. At the time, this gesture was particularly symbolic, given that Egypt's King Fuad had his own aspirations to be caliph of the Islamic world.
King Abdulaziz ordered Deputy Finance Minister Mohammed Srour al-Farham to offer the MB financial support. Rather tellingly, however, the Saudi ruler never permitted the movement to establish a branch in the kingdom. According to historians, King Abdulaziz refused Banna's request in 1936, declaring, "We're all brothers and we're all Muslims."2 Nonetheless, in 1946, the king hosted a feast to honor Banna. Reportedly, two years later, when the Egyptian monarchy plotted to kill the Ikhwan founder in Saudi Arabia (attempting to portray a group of Yemenis as responsible), the kingdom's officials provided Banna with a special vehicle and private bodyguards in his capacity as an honored guest.
Throughout the kingdom's first two decades of existence, the MB assisted the Saudis with jurisprudence issues resulting from the challenges of modernization, which many traditionalists argued amounted to proof of "unbelief." Thus, Banna's movement helped strengthen the Islamic legitimacy of Riyadh's moves through legal support.3 However, the assassination of Imam Yahya Hamidaddin amid Yemen's 1948 Alwaziri coup, carried out by an MB-affiliated group, caused the Al Saud rulers to begin viewing the movement as a threat.4 The Saudis severed relations with the Ikhwan, yet maintained ties with individual members, an early indication of how officials in Riyadh would treat the MB.
The rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s heralded a new era in relations between Saudi leaders and the MB. United against Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Saudis and the Egyptian MB had a common cause in seeking to overthrow the secular Arab-nationalist leader. Marxism, communism and socialism also gained ground in the Arab world, prompting the kingdom to use the Ikhwan as a counterweight. Other Gulf Arab states, conservative and anti-Communist to their core, employed this same tactic. King Faisal understood that a key threat in the MB's rhetoric was their message of Pan-Islamism. In response, he fostered the ideology of Muslim solidarity (al-tadamun al-islami) in an attempt to neutralize aspects of MB ideology within the kingdom.5
Once Nasser began expelling large numbers of the Ikhwan, forcing many to flee to the Arabian Peninsula, the movement flourished in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Many of the MB Egyptians were educated, intellectual and upwardly mobile. A sizable number were teachers who used the Gulf's British-style educational institutions as a means of spreading the movement's agenda. The Saudi ruling family supported the Ikhwan in several other key ways, granting asylum to the movement's members and working with the MB to establish Saudi-based Islamic charities, including the Muslim World League (MWL) in 1962 and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth in 1972.6 The influence of the MB in the construction of the MWL is especially evident as their community outreach and social work share many similarities.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, the MB played a key role in various governmental ministries (predominantly education and judiciary), gaining political influence across the kingdom. In later years, the Sahwa, an Islamist movement within the MB's ideological orbit, grew without jeopardizing its good standing with the Al Saud. However, the Saudi leadership eventually came to see it as an alien entity.7 The Sahwa movement is a clear attempt to fuse political ideology with activism, which both Saudi liberals and Wahhabi purists have attacked as an interpretation of Ikhwan ideology within a Saudi context. Giles Kepel argues that the creation and development of the Sahwa was due in large part to the Islamist diaspora from Syria and Egypt. If true, this would represent a worrying trend for other GCC states today.8 Indeed, one group under the Sahwa banner became officially known as the "Saudi Muslim Brotherhood," yet claimed to be independent of the Egypt-based transnational movement.9
The 1979 Iranian Revolution made the MB increasingly influential in the GCC. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's rise to power added momentum to Islamist causes across the MENA region, particularly the MB in the Arabian Peninsula, despite the sectarian divide. The foundations of both movements shared political and ideological traits and were aimed at replacing Western-backed monarchies through a veneer of legitimacy based upon Islamic principles. Furthermore, Iran's revolution acted as a beacon of hope for Islamist organizations, proof that they could achieve revolutionary objectives through mass mobilization. Islamist factions such as the MB grew in confidence and capability. Sudan, where there are virtually no Shiites, exemplifies this point. The country's 1989 Islamic revolution, which brought President Omar al-Bashir to power in a military coup, took inspiration from Iran's own revolution a decade earlier.
In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia continued to welcome Ikhwan members from Syria amid Hafez al-Assad's crackdown on the movement during its uprising against his Alawite-led Baathist regime (1976-82) and other Arab governments.10 During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89), the movement helped the Saudis maintain steady flows of fighters and arms through the MB's transnational networks. When the current ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, was governor of Riyadh, he established and oversaw the development of Islamic charities such as the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) and later was involved with entities such as the al-Haramain Foundation, the World Muslim League (WML), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the Abdulaziz bin Baz Foundation. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, these organizations have been indicted for their involvement in terrorist financing. King Salman was also central to the operations of the Popular Committee for Aiding Martyrs' Families, the Prisoners and Mujahidin of Palestine and the Popular Committee for Fundraising, later known as the Saudi Relief Committee.11
As highlighted earlier, the WML's structural design was under MB guidance. It later became one, if not the central, vehicle for organizing and funding the Afghan mujahadeen. Abdullah Azzam and Abd al-Rasul Sayyaf were integral to this effort, using their networks and positions at the International Islamic University, King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, and the University of Medina as well as the dispersal of journals (al-Mujtama) and books (Signs of the Merciful in the Afghan Jihad) to empower and solidify the organization as an informal pillar of Saudi foreign policy.12 An early application of these entities was to help fund and provide manpower for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Bosnia (directed by the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovnia [SHC]) and other global conflicts.13 A central aspect of the effort was the connection between King Salman (then the governor of Riyadh) and the Ikhwan, as it allowed the Saudi leadership to capitalize on the MB's ability to rally support for social issues.
Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the GCC's response, however, ended the MB's high standing in Saudi Arabia. Prominent figures in organizations affiliated with the MB, including Hasan al-Turabi of Sudan, Necmettin Erbakan of Turkey and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Afghanistan, backed Saddam Hussein and opposed the deployment of U.S. military forces to Saudi Arabia to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait.14 In addition to criticizing Riyadh's close ties with Washington and accusing Saudi rulers of failing to protect the Muslim world, the Sahwa initiated a domestic campaign aimed at enacting reforms within the kingdom. This involved sending letters directly to the king.15
By the mid-1990s, the Al Saud were not willing to tolerate any further offense. Perceiving direct links between the MB and the Sahwa, authorities in Riyadh began cracking down on its activities and expelling Ikhwan members. The Saudi leadership's contempt for the MB was on display in 2002, when Minister of the Interior Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud labeled the movement the "source of all evils in the Kingdom."16
In the mid-2000s, relations somewhat normalized between the kingdom's rulers and the Sahwa, which was reintegrated into the country's religious and social institutions, based on an agreement that its leaders would refrain from criticizing government officials. Following the deaths of two prominent Saudi Islamic scholars, Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz and Muhammad ibn al-Uthaymeen, and amid the al-Qaeda insurgency (2003-06), the Saudi leadership turned to Sahwa and MB branches outside the kingdom to secure greater legitimacy for Riyadh's campaign against al-Qaeda.17
The Arab uprisings of 2011 brought new tension to the Al Saud's relationship with the Sahwa. Viewing the Arab Spring as a means to reenter Saudi Arabia's political arena, numerous Sahwa figures signed petitions in 2011, including "Towards a State of Rights and Institutions" and "A Call for Reform."18 Although the Sahwa leadership did not endorse the March 11, 2011, demonstrations, the kingdom's unease toward Saudi Islamists worsened, and officials in Riyadh began taking stock of the MB's political gains at the ballot box in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.19
In Egypt, as president and leader of the country's MB political wing (the Justice and Freedom Party), Mohammed Morsi took measures to avoid a backlash from Cairo's Gulf Arab allies, chiefly Saudi Arabia. By making the kingdom his first official foreign destination, he sought to assure the Saudi leadership of his intention to maintain Cairo's strong loyalty and ease the kingdom's tense relationship with the Ikhwan.20 Nonetheless, Morsi also made diplomatic overtures to Iran in pursuit of a "constructive relationship" with the Islamic Republic. He became the first Egyptian president since Anwar Sadat to visit Iran when he attended the Non-Aligned Movement's (NAM) summit in Tehran on August 30, 2013, snubbing the United States and Israel by joining 119 other countries and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in showing support for Iran's then-sanctioned nuclear program.21 In February 2013, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a three-day visit to Cairo, the first by an Iranian head of state in 30 years.22
Of course, under Mubarak's rule (1981-2011), Egypt was closely aligned with Saudi Arabia. Cairo's foreign policy was hostile toward the Islamic Republic, and Mubarak often invoked Egypt as the Sunni Arab world's strongest bulwark against the spread of Iranian influence. Thus, the unfreezing of Egyptian-Iranian relations after the MB's rise to power unsettled Saudi rulers. Growing suspicion that Morsi's Egypt would make a geopolitical shift toward Iran and away from Saudi Arabia was a factor that prompted the kingdom and other Gulf Arab states (with the notable exception of Qatar) to fully support the Egyptian military's overthrow of Morsi on July 3, 2013.
Throughout the summer of 2013, prominent figures in the Sahwa expressed their opposition to the Egyptian military's ousting of Morsi. Some of the figures made religious arguments against the coup, maintaining that it is "forbidden to rebel against a Muslim ruler," while identifying the political crisis in Egypt as a "struggle between the Islamic project and the Westernizing project opposed to Islam." A number of members of the Sahwa invoked concepts of rights and democracy, speaking out against the "removal of a legitimately elected president" — rooting legitimacy in "the will of the people." After the massacre of August 14, 2013, when Egyptian security forces raided two large protest sites and killed nearly 1,000 protesters, thousands of Saudis expressed solidarity with Morsi's supporters via social-media platforms.23
In lock-step with Egypt's government, on March 7, 2014, Saudi Arabia designated the MB a "terrorist" organization, a move on Riyadh's part toward countering the Ikhwan within both the kingdom and the region.24 Riyadh continued its harsh anti-MB crackdown, targeting traditional institutions, particularly in education.
Viewing a stable Egypt under military rule as important for rallying the region against the MB, three GCC states put together a $12 billion aid package for the regime in Cairo one week after Morsi's ouster; Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE contributed $5 billion, $4 billion and $3 billion, respectively.25 This was part of Riyadh's long-term strategy of using financial clout to foster strategic alliances. From the kingdom's perspective, the Egyptian regime would be more inclined to align with Saudi Arabia under a political establishment led by the military rather than the MB. There were also regional concerns that Egypt would fall into chaos, and even state collapse, a situation officials in Riyadh and other GCC capitals were not prepared to accept.
Yet, since the January 2015 ascent to the throne of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, more sympathetic to conservative Islamist movements than his predecessor, the kingdom has softened its tone. This should be understood within the context of Riyadh's efforts to unite the Sunni Muslim world against Iran and its influence among Shiite communities across the Arab world, underscored by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's announcement last December of a 34-member (now 41) Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT).26
In other words, the kingdom has placed efforts to counter Iranian influence above Riyadh's interest in weakening the MB. A clear sign of this policy shift came in February 2015, when Saudi Arabia's then-Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal declared that the kingdom's leaders "don't have any problem with the Muslim Brotherhood" and only oppose a "small segment affiliated with the group."27 That same month, Ahmed al-Tuwaijri (King Abdullah's Royal Court adviser) called the designation of the MB as a terrorist organization "completely unreasonable" and identified the movement as Riyadh's "natural ally."28
Tuwaijri's comment that the Ikhwan served as a "natural" and pragmatic ally of the kingdom likely reflected reality. In Syria and Yemen, the movement shares Riyadh's objectives of toppling the Baathist order in Damascus and restoring Yemen's internationally recognized government in Houthi-occupied Sanaa. With King Salman at the helm, the Saudis have been seeking to unite the Sunni world against the expansion of Iranian/Shiite influence, and this has entailed strengthening ties with the three main pro-MB states: Qatar, Sudan and Turkey.29 Evidently, King Salman's focus is on unifying the Sunni world behind IMAFT rather than cracking down on the movement's branches across the region. In sum, the current Saudi leadership does not see it as strategically feasible to attempt to contain both Iran and the MB.
In March 2015, MB branches across the region indicated their support for the Riyadh-led Operation Decisive Storm against Yemen's Houthi rebel movement. Amr Darrag, the exiled head of the Egyptian MB's political bureau, stated: "We hope that the recent military alliance, led by Saudi Arabia, reflects [the] stance of the new administration of the Kingdom to support the will of the people in Yemen and elsewhere. I support any action that would restore democracy in Yemen and ensure [the GCC's] security."30
After receiving support from the Yemeni MB, al-Islah, for the military campaign in Yemen, Saudi Arabia coopted the country's MB branch in an attempt to bring an end to the conflict.31 Yemeni President Abdrabu Hadi installed al-Islah affiliate member Nayef al-Bakri as governor of Aden province in July 2015. However, he later reappointed Bakri as minister of youth and sports in September 2015. President Hadi had been making these decisions from Riyadh.
Recent visits to the kingdom by prominent Ikhwan political leaders, including Rachid al-Ghannouchi of Tunisia's Ennahda party, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani of Yemen's al-Islah and Hammam Saeed of Jordan's Islamic Action Front (IAF), highlight the improved relationship between Riyadh and the MB.32
Despite a history of hostile relations with Hamas, largely due to the Gaza-based MB offshoot's close ties to Iran, the isolated Palestinian group, eager for a lifeline, was quick to endorse Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015. By July, Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas, traveled to Mecca to meet with King Salman.33 Fundamental differences, however, strain the Saudi-Hamas relationship: the July 2016 trip to Israel by a high-level Saudi delegation prompted the Palestinian group to express disapproval.34
Based upon its Islamic legitimacy, the MB has the ability to compete with Saudi Arabia (and Iran) for religious authority. Understanding this threat, Riyadh initiated a process in December 2015 to remove educational materials written by leading Islamist figures from Saudi institutions. Saudi Arabia had reacted to previous challenges to its religious legitimacy by endowing the monarchy with titles such as custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, engaging in ideological conflicts such as King Fahad's Pan-Islamism project versus Arab nationalism and increasing its central role in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It is crucial for the Al Saud leadership to maintain a monopoly over religious legitimacy, upon which its position within society rests.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia's recent investments in Egypt, especially the increase in funding for al-Azhar University, showcase a growing determination to control the global Islamic discourse, as well as the Ikhwan and affiliated groups. Saudi Arabia's investment in al-Azhar was an indication of a second "Salafization" of the MB, the first having occurred during the waves of MB emigration to the Gulf following their exile from various Arab countries. To avoid legitimizing the religious credentials of the Ikhwan, however, Riyadh continues to dismiss MB-affiliated scholars — despite a cooling of tensions within the context of Saudi Arabia's vision for the region.
If Saudi Arabia can continue to deflect Ikhwan discourse away from its opposition to the Al Saud reign, and more in line with Riyadh's religious discourse, it will maintain its ongoing interaction with the group. The optimal result for the Al Saud is a politically acquiescent, religiously motivated, popular force that Riyadh can use to promote and defend its own interests abroad.
In contrast to Saudi Arabia, where throughout the past several decades domestic and regional developments have shifted the Al Saud rulers' perception of the MB, officials in the UAE have maintained their proactive opposition to the movement since the Emiratis began clamping down on its local branch in the early 1990s. As in Saudi Arabia, the history of the Ikhwan in the Emirates dates back to Nasser's crackdown on the movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The UAE needed educated foreigners to make up for the lack of capable Emirati nationals, and by 1971, there was already a plethora of expatriate workers in the public sector. Many MB members quickly acclimatized to the UAE and dominated its educational and judicial systems, significantly influencing its early post-independence history.
Foreign-educated Emiratis, occasionally with Islamist political leanings, returned home and united in 1974 to officially establish the UAE branch of the MB, the al-Islah Reform and Social Guidance Association.35 The growth and success of Al-Islah is largely attributed to its Kuwaiti counterpart, from which it received substantial support; the Kuwaiti Reform Society furnished the UAE's MB headquarters.
The al-Islah branch in Dubai became the second civil-society group to obtain approval from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. In fact, the emir of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum, made financial contributions toward al-Islah's formation. Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum was the first chairman of the board of directors of the UAE's MB chapter. Soon afterward, the Emirati MB founded branches in Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah. Sharjah and Ajman, on the other hand, denied the Ikhwan authority to establish branches in their emirates.
The UAE authorities' patronage of the Islamist movement must be understood within the context of the country's early efforts to counter communism and Arab nationalism. In 1978, the group established a magazine titled al-Islah, which was staunchly anti-communist and anti-Arab-nationalist. At times, the publication even went so far as to allege that members of the UAE state apparatus were secretly communists. Al-Islah presented itself as an NGO committed to the protection of conservative social values in the Emirates by addressing issues ranging from religious education to the ills of Western culture such as alcohol.
Like the MB's activities in other Middle Eastern nations toward the end of the Cold War, al-Islah became deeply involved in the UAE's educational, religious and social affairs, including sports and charity. The group's members held important government posts. Al-Islah's founding member, Shaykh Said Abdullah Salman of Ras al-Khaimah, served as minister of housing. In 1977, Muhammad Abd al-Rahman al-Bakr became the minister of justice and Islamic affairs. Other al-Islah figures held posts in the Ministry of Education, enabling the Emirati MB to have a long-lasting impact.36 For eight years, Sheikh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qasimi was president of Ras al-Khaimah's MB affiliate and the head of curriculum at the Ministry of Education.
During the 1980s, as Emirati rulers saw the new regime in Tehran as a grave threat, officials in the UAE began efforts to depoliticize Friday sermons. In 1986, Dubai's Ministry of Awqaf called on religious figures "to steer clear of contention." In early 1988, Emirati authorities mandated preachers to "deposit written, advance copies of their Friday sermons with the Ministry and to avoid all areas of controversy and sectarian sensitivity, limiting their remarks to guidance on Islamic practice."37
By the 1990s, al-Islah had become the UAE's most influential and vocal non-state actor, controlling student governments as well as teachers' and jurists' associations.38 At this time, the government's suspicion of Emirati MB politics caused the authorities to begin viewing al-Islah as a threat to the Emirates' national cohesion, given its alleged loyalties to the Brotherhood's General Guide.39 This suspicion had already started to destabilize Ras al-Khaimah's relationship with the federation — traditionally a moot point.
The Emirati leadership began interpreting the Ikhwan as a single international organization. As a matter of fact, in the early 1990s, Egyptian security services claimed that al-Islah had been funding Egypt's Islamic Jihad through its Committee for Relief and Outside Activities. UAE officials started their own investigations into MB influence in the country's education system and imposed restrictions on al-Islah members' activities, finally prohibiting the movement's members from holding public office.
Friction between the state and al-Islah worsened in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Because two of the 19 hijackers, Marwan al-Shehhi and Fayez Bani Hammad, were Emirati nationals, officials in the UAE were committed to demonstrating to the West that the Gulf Arab federation had no tolerance for terrorism or extremism. Throughout 2002, the State Security Directorate (SSD) arrested over 250 Emiratis on terrorism charges, although the majority were released within two years.40 Since then, the UAE has been a prominent advocate of counterterrorism policies, working intimately with Western partners.
Beginning in 2003, the soon-to-be Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, hosted talks with al-Islah, aiming to convince it to cease its activities within the UAE and cut off relations with the transnational movement in exchange for state support. Al-Islah, however, rejected this offer to function without any independent organizational structure. Soon afterward, Hassan al-Dokki, one the UAE's MB leaders, began using proselytizing jihadist rhetoric and fundamentally distanced the group from the Emirati government and society. UAE rulers sought to weaken al-Islah's influence among the youth, transferring roughly 170 of the movement's members to other departments in the government.
In March 2011, when Arab Spring activism was spreading across the MENA region, 133 Emirati intellectuals (including a number of al-Islah members as well as liberals) signed a petition directly addressing Sheikh Khalifa, president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, and the Supreme Council of Rulers.41 The signatories' main grievance was the government's decision not to introduce any legislation to further democratize the nation's one elected legislative body, the Federal National Council (FNC). In the words of al-Islah leader Said Nasser al-Teniji: "The petition demanded the establishment of an elected national assembly. At present, only 30 percent of UAE citizens are allowed to elect only half of the assembly members. The petition was unequivocal; it demanded that all UAE nationals be allowed to elect a full House with teeth."42
The following month, the government waged a crackdown on al-Islah in response to the petition, arresting five of the signatories and charging them with "publicly insulting" Sheikh Khalifa. By November, the five were convicted and received prison sentences of up to three years, though a presidential pardon soon resulted in their release. In December of that year, the Emirati authorities revoked the citizenship of a group of individuals known as the "UAE 7" for "threatening national security." Soon afterward, the UAE arrested 94 individuals, mainly MB members, for demanding that authorities release the "UAE 7." Emirati officials accused them of plotting an overthrow of the state with foreign backing. Among these 94 individuals were prominent senior civil servants, economists, bloggers, lawyers and tribal leaders, including a member of Ras al-Khaimah's ruling family.43
Al-Islah received most of its support in the northern emirates (Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain), largely due to lower living standards than those in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This, however, is changing with large investment projects and upgrades to logistics and infrastructure capabilities leading to the development of the historically poorer northern emirates.44 The timing of investments so soon after the Arab Spring and the crackdown on Al Islah indicates the seriousness of the perceived threat these groups may pose in the UAE's lesser-developed communities.
The UAE's distrust for the MB has been a key driver of its regional policy. Abu Dhabi has been helping the Sisi regime maintain its power since Morsi's fall in July 2013, as well as opposing Islamist movements in Libya, Syria, the UK and Yemen.45 Furthermore, there has been tension between the UAE and Turkey, often wary of each other's motives. The MB's allegiance of baya remains a significant concern for Emirati authorities, who interpret the MB as a single centralized organization.46 In 2014, the UAE passed Federal Law No.7, officially listing al-Islah, the MB and affiliated organizations, as well as several others, as terrorists.47
The most recent example of tension between the UAE and the Ikhwan has been in the Yemen conflict. Since the start of the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis, the UAE has been extremely cautious regarding its cooperation with groups on the ground. Emirati distrust of al-Islah in Yemen led to Abu Dhabi's backing certain Salafist groups in Aden and later Taiz in a bid to reduce al-Islah's influence.48 This was further compounded by the UAE's request to dismiss Saudi-backed al-Islah officials from the regions that Emirati armed forces"liberated" in southern Yemen. Reportedly, al-Islah has commandeered and stolen weapons and munitions destined for UAE-backed tribal fighters, Yemen's popular resistance. The UAE's conclusion that al-Islah has direct connections to forces in Yemen that have attacked Emirati personnel underscores the mutual distrust between Emirati officials and the Yemeni MB.49
The appointment of Deputy Chief of Staff Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar as vice president of Yemen in April 2016 infuriated the Emiratis, who saw the move as a double-cross.50 In the context of the growing involvement and influence of MB-related activity in Yemen and Riyadh's complicity as leaders of the coalition, as well as the main support of the Hadi government, the Emiratis may be inclined to pursue their own policy towards Yemen — one that possibly contradicts Saudi Arabia's. The clear difference in tactical and political approaches within the Saudi-led coalition, emerging mostly from the perceived role of the MB in a future Yemen, has decreased operational efficiency and, at one point, suggested the possibility of Emirati withdrawal from the conflict area. Ultimately, Riyadh's and Abu Dhabi's differing perceptions of the MB in Yemen, in addition to other Sunni Islamist actors, have added friction to Saudi-Emirati relations, though the kingdom and the UAE maintain an alliance that, on balance, is extremely strong.
In Libya, Abu Dhabi has backed General Khalifa al-Haftar in his quest to rid the beleaguered North African nation of the MB and other Islamist forces. The UAE even engaged in direct military intervention in August 2014 against MB-backed Libya Dawn fighters, in tandem with Egypt.51 In Syria, where King Salman's Saudi Arabia has come to see the local MB as a Sunni partner in the campaign to topple Bashar al-Assad, the UAE has not joined other GCC members in sponsoring Islamist militias fighting the Damascus regime.
Based on a continuing message of distrust and scorn, UAE policy vis-à-vis the MB is the most coherent of those of all GCC members. During the Arab Spring revolts, Emirati society was strong enough to absorb waves of turbulence from the revolutionary turmoil. Al-Islah attempted to exploit the power the MB as a movement usurped throughout the region amid great upheaval, but failed to realize the weakness in their message and its incompatibility with the UAE's domestic audience. It is unlikely that al-Islah will hold any influence in the Emirates, as the federation's strong tribal culture is resistant to Islamist ideology. The UAE will continue to proactively counter Islamist ideology, prolonging its interpretation of the global MB movement as a gateway to al-Qaeda and Daesh.
In Oman, the world's only Ibadi Muslim-majority country, the Sunni MB has extremely limited fertile ground for obtaining power. Nevertheless, in 1994 and 2004-05, officials in Muscat waged separate crackdowns on the movement, exposing the Ikhwan as the most credible threat to Oman's rulers since the defeat of the Dhofar insurgency in 1976.
In May-June 1994, Omani authorities arrested over 300 people, interrogated roughly 430 and tried 131 for the alleged crime of joining a "subversive group," conspiring to damage the sultanate's national unity and misusing the Islamic faith. Among those tried were high-ranking officials, including Muhammaed al-Rasi (a former Omani ambassador to the United States), Khamis Mubarak al-Khayumi (undersecretary for industry), Musallim Salim (undersecretary for fisheries) and Talib Biram (former air-force commander). Others included employees of Petroleum Development Oman, other military officers and university professors from Egypt and Jordan. According to Oman's Information Ministry, the group was "linked organizationally and financially with foreign parties."52 The arrest of Muhammad al-Ghazali, a religious leader from a wealthy family in Oman's southernmost Dhofar governorate, was notable. Omani security forces landed a helicopter on his palace with armed officers arresting al-Ghazali commando-style.
This large-scale arrest of MB members followed a public letter from "Islamic militants" that denounced the government in Muscat for permitting Israeli officials to visit Oman (in 1994, Yitzhak Rabin visited the sultanate and met Sultan Qaboos) and accused Oman's head-of-state of coming under too much Western influence.53 The state's security apparatus perceived this letter as a threat to topple Oman's government. By arresting these "fundamentalists," officials in Muscat sent a clear message that the sultanate would not tolerate any official opposition.
Of the 131 who went on trial before a State Security Court in November 1994, two received death sentences, which Sultan Qaboos later commuted to life; the rest received prison terms ranging from three to 15 years.54 Nonetheless, on National Day in November 1995, Sultan Qaboos freed all those accused of state subversion and Islamist extremism as part of an amnesty.
However, the crackdown of 1994 was not the final chapter in the sultanate's efforts to eradicate Islamist opposition. In December 2004 and January 2005, the press reported that Omani authorities arrested 100-300 civil servants, members of the military, academics and religious scholars in the aftermath of a road accident in which security forces found "computers, cameras, a GPS system, about 40 Kalashnikov rifles, revolvers, maps of Oman, about 35 books dealing with military training, explosives and how to face interrogations, as well as a large quantity of ammunition."55 Allegedly, the weapons were part of a campaign to terrorize the Muscat cultural festival, an event that infuriated a number of Omani Islamists, who saw it as a violation of Islamic values.
At the time, Omani officials alleged there was a "religious extremist" plot linked to al-Qaeda, "an attempt to form an organization to tamper with national security."56 Yet by March 2005, the public learned that authorities had only arrested 31, explaining that, despite previous statements, "the arrests [had] nothing to do with terrorism or foreign parties."57 The following month, the accused were put on a three-day trial in the State Security Court. Authorities permitted only family members of the accused, journalists, and members of Oman's two legislative bodies (Majlis al-Shura and Majlia al-Dawlah) to attend.
The charges levied were for forming, joining and financing the al-Bashaer military group, holding secret meetings, smuggling and selling illegal weapons, seeking to usurp control of the nation's oil and gas fields, and spreading the organization's message through seminars and camps. Several of those on trial confessed to joining the secret group, yet denied seeking to overthrow the government. Their lawyers maintained that the intentions of the accused were to spread Ibadi Islamic jurisprudence and teachings to protect against deviance and "external currents." One of the accused admitted to hiding arms in his farm's cement pillars. On May 2, 2005, six defendants received 20-year sentences; 31 others, from one to 10 years. On June 9, 2005, Sultan Qaboos pardoned all 31 despite originally having ratified their sentences.
Given unknown variables surrounding the country's looming succession question, some analysts have raised the possibility of old political fissures resurfacing in the post-Qaboos era. However, it is not clear the extent to which the MB, which lacks a strong appeal among Omanis, has the potential to shape the sultanate's political arena and social landscape. As Sunnis are a minority in Oman, the prospects for the Ikhwan's becoming an increasingly important actor in the sultanate's political, social and religious landscapes are relatively dim.
Kuwait's leadership permits the MB to formally participate in the political arena. The Kuwaiti MB's political wing, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), also known as Hadas, runs candidates in parliamentary elections and has achieved modest successes over the years. Hadas picks and chooses its battles, often avoiding confrontation. The party works pragmatically in coalitions with other Sunni Islamists (Salafists and conservative tribalists), liberals and young intellectuals, to achieve common political objectives within the GCC's most democratic state. Although the party portrays itself as an opposition movement, on occasion Hadas has sent members to the cabinet. Accepting its limited ability to transform Kuwait without gaining a majority of seats in parliament, Hadas' expectations appear relatively modest and realistic. To maintain its livelihood in Kuwait without alienating the royal family, Hadas has gone to pains to demonstrate its loyalty to Kuwait's political structure.
The history of the Ikhwan in Kuwait dates back to the 1950s and 1960s. During the organization's first several decades, its activity focused on charity, culture, education and religion, seeking to create a more Islamic society. The strategy of expansion through the education sector saw the establishment of MB institutions and societies such as the Islamic Guidance School (Madrasat al-Irshad al-Islamiya) and the Scientific Phalanges (al-Katib al'Almia).58
In the earlier years of Kuwait's political scene, MB parties and members failed to advance their agenda. The Al Sabah rulers, however, coopted the Ikhwan against Arab-nationalist and leftist ideologies in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Kuwait's leadership feared the prospect of an Islamist revolution's toppling the monarchy (despite the newly installed Islamic Republic's being Shiite). Within this context, Kuwaiti officials began collaborating with Salafist elements in an effort to divide the nation's Sunni Islamists.59
Once Kuwait's parliamentary life was resuscitated in 1981, following the emir's closure of parliament in 1976, the local MB won several seats, despite the Al Sabah's perception of the Islamist movement as a threat. Throughout the 1980s, the Kuwaiti MB established itself as the most influential political faction in the country. They helped ratify legislation such as the ban on alcohol sales and the restriction of citizenship in Kuwait solely to Muslims. These elected MB deputies had a more confrontational approach to their parliamentary politics, which contributed to the parliament's suspension in 1986.
Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, however, provided Kuwait's MB a new opportunity to define itself. The Kuwaiti MB transformed its position in Kuwait's political and social arenas because of its resistance activities and community service during the occupation by Iraq (August 1990 to March 1991), leading to the official establishment of Hadas on March 30, 1991.60
Hadas claims to be a charitable nonprofit entity, yet its political arm contests seats in elections and has even produced a document, "Towards a Constitutional Islamic Strategy for Rebuilding Kuwait." It has achieved notable success and support from Arab expatriates and the educated class in Kuwait. Yet, as elsewhere in the region, it has failed to expand its support base within tribal circles.
Growing divisions in the nation's parliamentary politics, as well as regional developments, have created greater polarization in Kuwait in recent years. After joining a diverse coalition made up of Islamists (Hadas, the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, the Salafist Movement, the Umma party, National Principles Assembly), populists (the Liberal Movement, the Kuwaiti Democratic Forum, the National Democratic Alliance, the Progressive Kuwaiti Movement) and independent parties, Hadas boycotted the December 2012 election. This led to a considerably lower voter turnout. In 2013, Hadas suffered another blow in parliamentary elections, which it again boycotted.61
In the snap parliamentary elections of November 2016, Salafist and MB-linked candidates scored well, taking nearly half the 24 seats (out of 50) that the opposition won; four out of the five Hadas candidates won their races.62 It is notable that the latest elections resulted in Shiite losing representatives in the National Assembly. Given the Sunni Islamists' louder voicing of concerns about Iran's expanded regional influence, there is a risk that a stronger Salafist and MB presence in the parliament will have a negative impact on sectarian relations in Kuwait, especially if they direct their anti-Iranian sentiments towards the country's Shiite minority.63 In light of recent trials of Kuwaiti Shiites for alleged ties to the Islamic Republic and regional Shiite militias such as Lebanese Hezbollah, and growing concerns in Kuwait about Tehran's foreign policy, the MB may benefit politically from developments throughout the Middle East. At the same time, given Kuwait's close relationship with the Egyptian government in power since 2013, the MB-linked parliamentarians will have to carefully choose their battles and the extent to which they seek to criticize the state's allies.
At the same time, recent regional developments have also created challenges for Hadas. Kuwait's support for the Egyptian military's ouster of the Morsi government fueled tension between Kuwait's rulers and Hadas. The party's social media pages were filled with content highly critical of the Kuwaiti and Egyptian governments, calling Morsi's ouster a "coup" and "undemocratic." Hadas also criticized the emir of Kuwait for welcoming Egypt's then-interim president Adly Mansour during his official visit to the GCC.64 Hadas's political opponents jumped on an opportunity to condemn the party, accusing it of being loyal to the Egyptian MB, sponsoring global terrorism, promoting corruption, and seeking to topple Kuwait's government. Following Morsi's overthrow, Kuwaiti authorities also deported several Egyptians, charging them with belonging to the MB.
As the Syrian crisis quickly internationalized, wealthy Kuwaitis provided large sums of money to Sunni fundamentalist militias fighting the Assad regime. With growing concern about Kuwaiti Islamists' ties to extremist groups in Syria, Hadas has received ample criticism for its alleged support for al-Qaeda and Daesh.65
Domestically, the Kuwaiti MB has attempted to find a line between social conservatism and political liberalism while remaining loyal to the state and the monarchy, which it must continue. The MB in Kuwait tends to make pragmatic decisions, fully taking stock of the high risk of antagonizing a politically mature society with institutions and political norms that are remarkably democratic, transparent and liberal by Gulf Arab standards.
Ultimately, Kuwait's vibrant political arena — observers call the Gulf Arab country a "half democracy" — has afforded Hadas a unique opportunity to hold seats in the national legislature, which wields more power than any elected body in the GCC. The Al Sabah, however, are under pressure to maintain solid alliances with fellow Sunni Arab states, the most important being Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while not angering an Islamist constituency at home. Achieving this balance will be difficult, particularly as sectarian temperatures rise, Sunni Islamists and members of Kuwait's influential Shiite minority continue to spar in public, and the Saudi-Iranian geo-sectarian rivalry escalates.
The Bahraini MB's well-established political wing, Islamic Minbar, has held seats in the nation's elected legislature since 2002.66 Islamic Minbar has deep connections to members of Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family that the country's rulers have used to counter the Shiite opposition. Islamic Minbar has inherent links to Kuwait's al-Islah movement (the social arm of Hadas), Hadas itself and the Egyptian MB. However, it is fiercely loyal to the Khalifa regime. Since the uprising in 2011 and its political fallout, the Al Khalifa have come under more pressure to deepen cooperation with Islamic Minbar and protect a unified front of support for Sunni rule in Manama.
Founded in 1984 by Sheikh Isa bin Mohammed al-Khalifa (one of King Hamad's uncles), Islamic Minbar enjoys firm support from Bahrain's academic and financial sectors, reflected in its core voter groups.67 The 1990s was a politically turbulent period for Bahrain, but King Hamad's ascension in 1999, the declaration of the National Action Charter, and the return of exiled leaders led to a restoration of relative stability for a short period.
After the 2002 elections, Bahrain's two predominant Sunni Islamist societies, Islamic Minbar and al-Asala, cooperated to counter al-Wefaq (Bahrain's dominant Shiite society) in the ensuing elections. Growing sectarianism continued to polarize Bahraini society, and the violence culminated at the Pearl roundabout in 2011, resulting in a protracted internal conflict that still besets the archipelago kingdom.
In 2011, one week after the Shiite-led uprising began, Sunni opposition groups formed the National Unity Gathering (NUG).68 As a nonaligned Sunni grassroots movement, the NUG sought to distance itself from the traditional line of Sunni participation and gain greater parliamentary power, while also purging Iranian-backed anti-Al Khalifa rhetoric from Shiite groups. Later a breakaway section of the NUG formed under the banner of Sahwat al-Fatih (al-Fatih Awakening). While at first many observers deemed the establishment of these groups a regime creation designed to reduce sectarian opposition against Bahrain's Sunni leadership, the discourse has moved in a worrying direction from the Al Khalifa family's perspective. Both the NUG and the al-Fatih Awakening have asked for political liberalization, with the latter demanding more extreme changes, both politically and theologically. Islamic Minbar joined forces with the NUG, adding a veneer of legitimacy to both organizations. Portrayed as an opposition movement, the NUG engaged in government-led peace talks in 2011. However, the inclusion of the NUG reinforced the understanding that the umbrella group was pro-government by design.
At times, officials in Manama, increasingly dependent on Saudi Arabia for financial aid and security since the 2011 uprising, have come under pressure to balance positive ties with the Bahraini MB while maintaining "loyalty" as a GCC member. To strike this balance, Bahrain's rulers have not labeled Islamic Minbar a "terrorist organization," but Manama has backed Saudi and Emirati foreign-policy agendas vis-à-vis the MB in other Arab countries — particularly Egypt — to demonstrate commitment to Council unity and Manama's close bonds with Riyadh. This split in policy is at odds with other Gulf Arab officials, especially the Emiratis. Manama does not view the movement as a single ideology and organization. Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa, Bahrain's foreign minister, however, voiced a contradictory opinion on Twitter: "The Muslim Brotherhood is a global movement." This highlights the dichotomy of Bahrain's MB policy, shaped by both internal sectarian tensions and shifts in the MENA region's geopolitical order.69
Bahrain's tense sectarian atmosphere has promoted violence on both sides of the sectarian divide. Regional developments have contributed to this toxic environment with the rise of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Over 100 Bahrainis have joined up, and the exacerbating geo-sectarian rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is playing out in Bahrain's own divided landscape, particularly following the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on January 1, 2016. Several Shiite activists in Bahrain have accused the authorities of turning a blind eye to militant Sunni Islamist extremism. Before he fled to Libya, and later Iraq and Syria (where he became Daesh's Grand Mufti), Turki al-Binali held demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy in Manama without punishment from Bahrain's authorities, and from the Levant he has encouraged Bahraini Sunnis to join Daesh and abandon loyalty to the Al Khalifa. Speculation that Binali may become Daesh's next caliph is a concern in Bahrain. Although authorities in Manama canceled the extremist cleric's citizenship, if the 31-year-old Bahraini becomes Abu al-Baghdadi's successor, his rise in the caliphate could inspire more young Gulf Arabs, vulnerable to the trap of radicalization, to join his cause.
In the aftermath of the 2011 protests, groups such as Islamic Minbar and the al-Fatih Awakening started to deviate from their quietist relationship with the regime, expanding their regional view towards policy that has much in common with violent extremist groups. The potential for further radicalization within pockets of Bahraini Sunnis will only enforce the connection between the MB and Islamist extremism. This fact, in combination with the country's high sectarian tension, underscores a negative trend in Bahraini society that might exacerbate strife between the Al Khalifa and the Bahraini MB.
However, as Shiite opposition remains steadfast, it is unlikely that Manama will make moves to isolate its support base with Bahrain's Sunni minority. Ultimately, Manama should be extremely cautious with regard to regional concerns about the movement and must pragmatically assess how its domestic and foreign policies might affect its internal stability and regional alliances. It remains to be seen whether the Al Khalifa will continue to view Islamic Minbar as a useful ally against Shiite activists, who receive moral support (if nothing else) from Tehran, or a dangerous organization with links to Sunni Islamist extremists operating in the region — including in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where the group's terror cells have spilled much blood since Daesh carved out a de facto state the size of Great Britain in western Iraq and eastern Syria amid the two countries' chaotic political crises in mid-2014.
Qatar is the GCC's most prominent backer and defender of the MB. Host to influential clerics such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Hamas's Khaled Meshaal and a branch of the Afghan Taliban, Doha is a center of financing and logistics for the MB and various other Islamist groups. The reasoning behind Qatar's support is rooted in a mutual agreement that influences Doha's domestic and foreign policies, with the small Gulf emirate utilizing the Islamist movement as a tool for shaping a new order in the Middle East.
Most analysis on the Ikhwan in Qatar has largely overlooked its domestic influence. As in the other GCC states, the MB presence in Qatar dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when politically mature Arab immigrants from across MENA traveled to the Arabian Peninsula. Among them were ostracized Islamists from Egypt, Libya, Palestine and Syria, who quickly flooded Qatar's education sector, attracting prominent MB figures such as Abdul-Badi Saqr (who had spent time in jail with al-Qaradawi), Ezzedine Ibrahim (an Islamic scholar), Abdel-Moaz al Sattar (Hassan al-Banna's personnel emissary to Palestine) and Kemel Naji (director of education at the Qatari Ministry of Education).
Palestinian refugees comprised a considerable portion of the MB's base of support in Qatar, some of them high-level PLO cadres: Rafiq Shaker al-Natshah (PLO representative to Saudi Arabia and later minister of labor and chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council), Mahmoud Abbas (incumbent leader of Fatah), Hani Hassan (political adviser to Yasser Arafat and minister of interior) and Mohammed Yusuf al Najjar (a founding member of Fatah). Indeed, Qatar's ongoing support for Hamas occurs within a rich historical context.
In Qatar's earlier post-independence years, Egyptian-sourced textbooks flooded its education program. It is alleged that during a 15-year period starting in 1959, secondary-school exams were set and marked in Egypt. The state of Qatar and al-Azhar University in Cairo established a key informal partnership, enabling Doha to absorb much-needed educational talent while incubating MB ideology and discourse. During the reign of Emir Tamim's grandfather, Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani (1972-95), Qatar's relationship with the MB ebbed, as he attempted to promote more pan-Arab political leanings. The British and a wide range of Qatari elites, however, thwarted his efforts.
The 1990s was a turbulent period for Qatar, not only domestically but also for Doha's relationship with other MENA states. Qatar's 1992 border dispute with Saudi Arabia resulted in the deaths of two Qatari nationals and one prisoner. This clash severely strained Riyadh's diplomatic ties with Doha, which responded by suspending the 1965 border agreement and canceling Qatar's participation in the GCC's Peninsula Shield exercises. The emergence of Sheikh Hamad and his entourage of political elites worried Riyadh and Cairo as Doha's reinvestment in the MB and the emergence of Al Jazeera challenged Saudi Arabia's regional dominance.
Doha's new leadership further attempted to frustrate Saudi Arabia by accepting an Israeli trade office in 1996. More significant, however, Qatari officials walked out of the 1994 GCC summit when Saudi diplomat Jamil al-Hejailan was nominated to the position of GCC secretary general (he subsequently served from 1996-2002). By insulting the ruler and founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, after he attempted to mediate the Qatari-Saudi spat, Qatar further enflamed this petty dispute among the GCC's royals. In turn, Abu Dhabi hosted deposed Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad. A year later, when the emir thwarted an attempted palace coup to restore Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad to power, Qatar accused its GCC neighbors and Egypt of directly supporting the endeavor.
The emphasis on Sheikh Hamad's ties with the Ikhwan brought Qatar into direct confrontation with several MENA states, in particular Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Officials in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi believed not only that their counterparts in Doha were promoting political reforms too quickly, thus endangering the entire region, but also that Doha was allying itself with forces detrimental to the GCC's collective security. The year after the inception of Al Jazeera saw a soft-power conflict unfold between Qatar and Egypt, cumulating in the visit of Egyptian head of intelligence Omar Suleiman to Doha to demand an end to the "propaganda" network. Qatar's growing ties with the pro-MB regime in Sudan further fueled tensions in Doha's relationship with both the Saudis and the Egyptians. Indeed, there is a history of officials in Cairo accusing their counterparts in Khartoum of sponsoring terrorism in Egypt.
More recently, Qatar's unambiguous sponsorship of the MB has greatly affected its regional foreign relations. During Morsi's presidency, Qatar established itself as Egypt's key energy partner and provided the country with $8 billion in foreign aid. United behind the MB, Doha and Ankara maintain strong relations, and the Qataris and Turks have directly cooperated on sensitive portfolios such as those of Syria and Libya. Following the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, Qatar has demonstrated its solidarity with the Erdogan government as, according to Qatari state-owned media, Turkey's president praised Emir Tamim for being the first foreign leader to call him to offer support.70 Doha also backs the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), the Libyan MB's political wing. Formidable links exist between Qatar and Tunisia's Ennahda party (the political wing of its MB branch), whose founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, is a regular visitor to Doha. Ghannouchi's son-in-law, Rafik Abdul Salam, formerly a researcher for Al Jazeera in Doha, served as Tunisia's foreign minister from 2011 to 2013.71
In the years leading up to the Saudi military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, Qatar used its relationship with the local MB party to assert Doha's influence, challenging Riyadh's in the impoverished nation. Qatar also has a public relationship with Hamas, known as the MB's Palestinian offshoot, which grew in late 2011, once the Hamas leadership protested the Syrian regime by relocating its political headquarters from Damascus to Doha. Once the Syrian MB took up arms against the Syrian regime, it received support from Qatar while competing with a host of Saudi-backed Sunni Islamist factions seeking to define a post-Assad order on their own terms. Doha's backing of the MB also extended to Morocco, where the movement has a formal political wing, the Justice and Development Party (JDP).72
Doha's support for Sunni Islamist groups throughout the region has become a pillar of Qatar's foreign policy. Doha has attempted to walk a very fine line, pursuing a pro-MB foreign policy while concurrently denying the movement the right to promote its services within Qatar. During the Arab Spring, Qatar's foreign-policy trajectory certainly damaged Doha's regional and global reputation. Claiming to stand for political liberalization and the inclusion of nonviolent and moderate Islamist factions in Middle Eastern political arenas, Qatar attempted to place itself on the "right side of history." Yet international organizations' criticism of Qatar's human-rights record and growing anger at Doha's sponsorship of Islamist parties pushed the Emirate into a period of some isolation and tainted its image. Some Arab states now view Qatar as a destabilizing and predatory actor, as exemplified by officials in Cairo blaming Qatar and the MB for the December 11, 2016, bombing of the city's main Coptic church, which resulted in 25 deaths and 35 injuries. In February 2016, the Egyptian military responded to the Daesh killing of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by bombing sites in that North African country. Although the Arab League endorsed Cairo's action, Doha officials expressed reservations, due to Cairo's acting unilaterally and threatening innocent Libyans while taking sides in the civil war in favor of the internationally recognized secular-leaning government in Tobruk. A high-ranking Egyptian diplomat lashed out at Qatar, accusing the emirate of supporting "terrorism," prompting Doha to recall its ambassador to Cairo.73
Last June, Qatari leaders condemned a court in Cairo for sentencing two Al Jazeera employees to death after finding them guilty of transferring Egyptian security documents to Doha when Morsi was in power. Accusing the Cairo court of failing to uphold a "proper sense of justice" and condemning the "surprising and unacceptable" verdict, officials in Doha voiced their staunch opposition to the ruling. This again prompted Egyptian authorities to accuse Qatar of having "devoted resources and efforts over the past years to mobilize its media mouthpieces to be hostile to the people of Egypt and its state and institutions."74
In response to Qaradawi's endorsement of suicide bombing following the July 4, 2016 blast in Medina, Emirati officials had harsh words for the Doha-based cleric. UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted: "Does everyone remember when the honorable (Saudi) scholar, the late Bin Baz denounced suicide attacks and called them un-Islamic? Now does everyone remember when the mufti of the Muslim Brothers, al-Qaradawi, legitimated and encouraged those very same attacks?"75
Internal factions within the Qatari elite exploited support for the MB and its principles to gain greater access to power and support within Doha. Driven by a desire to stand apart from the other GCC states, the Qatari elite sought to exploit avenues that would enhance the emirate's standing internationally and at home. The watershed moment in Qatar's history was the coup of 1995, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa overthrew his father. Sheikh Hamad entered the fray off the back of an underdeveloped and underutilized economy and industry, which many within the royal family and the Qatari elite thought could be used to advance the country.
Two figures who stand out as central to Qatar's policy navigation are Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Hamad bin Jassim (HBJ). The Egyptian-born Qaradawi is an Islamic scholar whose combative interactions with Egyptian authorities landed him in prison numerous times. The cleric's extremely conservative views have also prompted denial of access to the UK and France, as he also has direct commercial links to institutions that are sanctioned for their involvement in terrorist financing. Qaradawi has been heavily involved with the Ikhwan since the movement's inception and positioned himself as a key clerical figure from its early days. A regular commentator on Al Jazeera and the website IslamOnline, Qaradawi is often seen as the unofficial mouthpiece of the movement. There is a distinction, however, between his religious overtures and potential political leadership, which Qatar would not be able to support while he resides in Doha. Qaradawi has overtly attacked the neighboring GCC states through official Qatari media outlets, making his behavior a central issue in Doha's GCC relations.
HBJ stands out. He was one of the most influential figures during the reign of Sheikh Hamad, serving as both prime minister and foreign minister. HBJ understood Qatar's limitations and sought to position the state ideologically in line with the common understandings and desires of Middle Eastern populations, and thus generate and exploit potential soft-power capabilities. He attempted to mediate conflicts in Darfur, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, as well as to help resolve a border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti. Furthermore, the creation of Al Jazeera under his tutelage provided a new information outlet that enabled Doha to realize its foreign-policy objectives. HBJ understood that, if Qatar could have a discourse and ideology distinct from those of its neighbors, it could compensate for its diminutive size. HBJ and Qatar's elite envisioned Islamist groups becoming the biggest political benefactors of the Arab Spring revolutions, which created new openings for the MB.
However, the MB's shortcomings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere demonstrated how Qatar's political investments across MENA backfired. By 2013-14, the Qatari leadership took stock of the MB's failure to ride the wave of revolution that erupted in 2011; thus, there was a requirement for a "generational shift in strategic thinking."76 In June 2013, this resulted in an unforeseen succession shift, elevating to the throne Emir Tamim, who accepted Doha's high price for his successors' ambitious pro-MB foreign policy.
Indeed, Qatar's investment in the Ikhwan has produced diminishing returns for the hyper-rich emirate. The rise of Mohammed Morsi as Egypt's first democratically elected president marked a major victory for Doha. Yet the Islamist president's fall in July 2013, at the hands of secular elements of the Egyptian "deep state," delivered a major blow to Qatar's foreign-policy agenda. In Tunisia, Ennahda's October 2011 election victory made the Qataris increasingly optimistic about extending their influence throughout North Africa. However, the Tunisian MB later lost power in an election won by a secular party, diminishing its influence in Tunis.
Perhaps the most illustrative case of Qatar's foreign-policy shortcomings is Syria, where Doha's efforts to promote regime change and the rise of a Sunni Islamist political order in Damascus have proven futile and costly. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA), in tandem with Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese forces, has achieved on-the-ground victories over Qatari-backed rebel factions including the Syrian MB, underscoring Doha's failure to achieve its objectives in the civil war. Doha's relationship with Libya's GNC/GNA may be materially successful, but, seen in the context of the failed state, its gains are questionable at best. Furthermore, while Qatar continues to fund Hamas in Gaza, its failure to generate substantial influence across the spectrum of Palestinian groups leaves it somewhat isolated, especially when other GCC states are working towards unity among these groups.77
Qatar ostracized itself from its Arab neighbors and invited scorn for its intentions and position within the GCC. By March 2014, tensions between Doha and other Gulf Arab states had reached an unprecedented level when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE recalled their ambassadors.78 The diplomatic spat arose after officials in Manama, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi accused Doha of failure to sign a non-interference pact in the middle of a transregional policy war against the Ikhwan, and thus actively working against the GCC's common interest. Tensions ran so high that Saudi Arabia even threatened to impose a land and sea blockade on Qatar if Doha failed to sever ties with the MB, close Al Jazeera and expel two American think tanks (the Brookings Doha Centre and the Rand Qatar Policy Institute).79 Eight months later, however, Manama, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi returned their ambassadors to Qatar, officially ending the largest intra-GCC diplomatic crisis since the Council's establishment in 1981.80
Doha continues to back the MB, but a simple question remains: Why? The Ikhwan's ideas run contrary to the state's current existence as an unelected monarchy, and the Islamist movement is anti-monarchical. The Qatar-MB relationship is indeed paradoxical, given that the group currently has no formal voice in support of or opposition to the Al Thani rulers. In fact, the Qatari MB voluntarily dissolved its formal presence in Doha in 1999, as it believed the state was appropriately adhering to its religious obligations, according to Jasim Sultan, a former member of the Qatari MB.81 The movement and the Al Thani rulers reached an agreement whereby Qatar agreed to sponsor the Ikhwan across the Arab world as long as the Islamist group never challenged the Qatari royal family's legitimacy.
It was a pragmatic political gambit that prompted Doha to back the MB. Driven by a desire to promote itself and the Qatar brand, Doha envisaged the future MENA region to be dominated by MB-affiliated groups. If Qatar supported their rise, they would have widespread support and space to continue extending influence despite the contradiction. "Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood," according to Chrisa Case Bryant, was "partly a bet on the longevity of people-powered political movements."82
Yet, understanding the price Doha paid for Sheikh Hamad's ambitious and controversial foreign policy, Emir Tamim has toned down some of the perceived excesses of his predecessor's reign and prioritized a deepening of relations with Qatar's fellow Gulf Arab states. This action has prompted Doha to dispel regional fears that it will follow Sheikh Hamad's strict support for the group and has partially muffled the voice of the MB from Doha, expelling numerous high-profile figures to appease the GCC states after the recent lull in relations.
Beyond this expulsion, Doha has either been unable or unwilling to severely clamp down on the MB's base of operations. Qaradawi's reaction to the July 4, 2016, attacks in three Saudi cities, in which he condoned the suicide bombings, may have taken his inflammatory rhetoric too far — from the standpoint of Doha's relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.83
Ultimately, Qatar hosts controversial Islamist figures to advance its own interests. The perceived benefits of this policy have often arisen in contradiction to the seemingly unnecessary hostility caused to Doha's relationship with other GCC states. It is likely that Qatar will continue to back the MB, yet still attempt to prevent the movement from gaining formal recognition within the emirate's domestic political scene. Officials in Doha must manage this fine line cautiously. While Doha-Riyadh relations have improved, Qatar's overt support for the MB remains a source of tension within the GCC, particularly in terms of Emirati-Qatari relations.
The Arab Spring presented an opportunity for the MB to make its claim to authority — by the people and for the people — and enter new political arenas throughout MENA, where secular regimes had oppressed Islamists for decades. Instead, the organization's intolerant rhetoric and promotion of violence prompted a region-wide increase in violent extremism targeting its opponents, women and minorities, and thus contributing to the collapse of security and social relations.
The post-uprisings era highlighted the numerous threats posed by the Ikhwan. Nonetheless, some GCC rulers still believe that cooperating with the MB against perceived threats — internal and external — remains a viable option.
The connection between the MB and Islamist extremism is often claimed and seemingly justified. Within MENA and the GCC, this is often a direct and present threat; however, as demonstrated, some states have attempted to exploit the group for foreign-policy purposes. The Saudi and Qatari leaderships will likely continue to interact with elements of the group abroad. Bahrain and Kuwait will likely continue to allow the organization to formally exist, to avoid angering a politically aware, extremely conservative portion of society. From the perspective of most Gulf Arab rulers, there simply cannot be any nongovernmental organization or civil-rights movement that demands greater allegiance and loyalty than the state.
The MB's growing influence across MENA has highlighted the gap between Gulf Arab unity on paper and in practice. Qatar's support for the Ikhwan will continue to ruffle intra-GCC relations. At the heart of this issue is the fact that officials in Doha had a fundamentally different reaction to the MB's growing presence in the Arab world's political arenas following the 2011 uprisings. Whereas most GCC states viewed the movement's rise as an existential threat, Qatar viewed it as an opportunity to extend Doha's influence in a region undergoing political and social transformation.
Although Emir Tamim has taken steps to ease tension between Qatar and other GCC members — the most important being Saudi Arabia — Doha's relationship with the MB continues under his rule. This remains a source of friction within the family of Gulf Arab states. The fact that Qatar continues to permit controversial MB figures such as Qaradawi and to broadcast Al Jazeera contributes to the sustained perception, especially in the UAE, that Doha sponsors Islamist terrorism and extremism, disregarding the GCC's collective security. Numerous spats have highlighted that Qatar's continued sponsorship of the MB remains a source of tension in the emirate's relationship with Egypt and the other GCC states.
Nonetheless, at a time when the Al Saud are determined to unite Riyadh's Sunni allies behind the Saudi-led IMAFT, the tension between the MB's backers in Qatar and Turkey, on one side, and the UAE, on the other, will undermine King Salman's agenda of establishing a pan-Sunni front to counter the expansion and consolidation of Iranian-Shiite influence in the Middle East. Unless Riyadh can successfully urge Qatar to sever its ties with the world's largest Islamic movement or ease Emirati concerns about the MB's agenda, the question about the future of the GCC's relationship with the MB will likely continue to hinder the unified Gulf Arab bloc against revolutionary Islamist activism.
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8 G. Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds (Harvard University Press, 2006).
9 Stéphane Lacroix, "Saudi Arabia's Muslim Brotherhood Predicament," Washington Post, March 20, 2014.
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11 Hegghammer, 25.
12 Ibid., 41.
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