Much has been made of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. After decades of marginalisation, the Brotherhood is back, stronger than ever. Beyond Egypt, and in the Gulf in particular, however, it is a much different story.
There is no single explanation of the Brotherhood’s history in the Gulf because each country has had different experiences and different ways of dealing with it. But any examination begins with Saudi Arabia, which has gone through a cycle of pragmatic, mutually beneficial relations with the Brotherhood punctuated by periods of hostility.
In the mid-1930s, the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan Al Banna, made a Haj visit to the kingdom, marking the beginning of relatively close relations with King Abdulaziz. But 12 years later, that relationship imploded when a Brotherhood-affiliated group assassinated Yemen’s Imam Yahya Hamidaddin.
Where the Brotherhood saw an opportunity in a new Yemen to spread their movement across the region, Saudi Arabia saw a threat. The kingdom cut ties with the organisation, but not with individual members. The Yemeni uprising, which failed after 26 days, also brought the house of Al Saud closer to the monarchs in Egypt.
The relationship changed again with the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser and pan-Arabism. From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, the rivalry between Riyadh and Cairo, as each sought regime change in the other, saw a resumption of the Saudi-Brotherhood alliance against the Egyptian military regime.
At the same time, the forces of communism, pan-Arabism and religious extremism were starting to take root within Saudi society. The kingdom used the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members had experience debating communists and pan-Arabists while offering a less extreme religious discourse, as a counterweight.
During this period, the Brotherhood flourished in the kingdom and began to spread its ideology across the wider Gulf, particularly through its presence in Mecca during the Haj season. By the early 1960s, students from the Gulf who had joined the organisation while at university in Egypt were starting to return to their home countries.
These former students, as well as Egyptians who came to the Gulf as teachers, spread the ideology in the educational institutions. By the early 1970s, the organisation had branches in almost every Gulf state and had become increasingly more active and outspoken, especially after the 1979 revolution in Iran.
There were sporadic purges of education systems, but it was not until the mid-1990s when there was a systematic shift against Brotherhood-related groups. In 1994, Omani authorities arrested more than 300 people, eventually trying 131 for their alleged membership in a “subversive group”, conspiracy to subvert national unity, and the misuse of Islam. Two defendants were sentenced to death, although those sentences were later commuted to prison terms, while the others received three to 15 years in prison.
In the UAE, Brotherhood members, particularly in the education sector, were given a choice of either renouncing the group, or finding jobs outside the Education Ministry and refraining from promoting the ideology.
A policy of “de-Ikhwanification” (from the word Ikhwan for Brotherhood) of the education system has been in force since 1994. In the process, hundreds of expatriate Brotherhood members or sympathisers have been deported. Just last month, UAE authorities revoked the citizenship of six members of a Muslim Brotherhood-linked organisation for their involvement in “acts threatening the national security of the UAE through their connection with suspicious regional and international organisations and personalities”.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar dissolved its organisation in 1999 and advised its counterpart in the UAE to do the same. In the UAE, many have since renounced their membership although others still remain in conflict with the state. Meanwhile in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the Brotherhood’s presence has been undermined by Salafis.
Two issues have made confrontation with the Gulf states inevitable. The first is the Brotherhood’s influence within education institutions and its opposition to “westernised” education. In the UAE, for example, the group campaigned successfully to impose gender segregation in universities. They also unsuccessfully opposed a plan to teach English and maths during students’ foundation year.
The second point is the requirement for Gulf members to pledge allegiance to a figurehead in Egypt, currently the eighth general guide and nominal leader of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badi. This pledge is seen as disloyal to their countries of citizenship. According to Al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre, authorities are unclear about the nature of this allegiance and members also give inconsistent accounts.
Despite alliances with powerful individuals in Gulf countries, alliances that survived the crackdown since the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood has not established an unfettered presence in the region. Experience has created a deep distrust between the Gulf states and the organisation.
In Kuwait, where the group has a relatively strong presence, Sheikh Soud Al Nasser Al Sabah accused it of conspiring with Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi invasion. In 2004, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz (now the crown prince) described the organisation as the “source of all problems”. Many Gulf intellectuals have also been critical of the organisation for its shifting relations with countries in the region.
The organisation is witnessing a sharp decline in the Gulf as countries follow more systematic regulations to prevent its spread and to monitor financial flows. But its political presence in Egypt may lead the Brotherhood to seek better relations for pragmatic reasons rather than attempting to spread its ideology.