Journal Essay

The GCC and the Muslim Brotherhood: What Does the Future Hold?

Matthew Hedges and Giorgio Cafiero

Spring 2017, Volume XXIV, Number 1

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.

This essay is only available in the print edition of Middle East Policy.

Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal articles.

Subscribe Today