Invisible Strife in a Moribund Middle East
In a fractious, rife-with-conflicts Middle East, nothing is spared; worship houses are attacked; sport clubs, schools and markets become unsafe with continued upticks in violence. Now, attention is focused on the Syrian dilemma, which has been colored in a sectarian hue: Sunni- Shiite/Alawi conflict. Nevertheless, another invisible fray is taking place in that region, but it is so very dim that one might barely be aware of it.
Though the dust of the coup in Egypt has not yet settled, a piqued US administration expressed its resentment, mostly because it was not expecting it. It had already sought to foster closer ties and forge relations, either knowing or hoping that the new “moderate” Islamists in power would deliver what their predecessors did not. Yet, with Egypt’s June 30 coup, or what many call “the Second Revolution,” regardless of our assessment of whether it was or was not serving Egypt’s national interests, serious repercussions followed and a big surprise resonated on the other side of the Red Sea.
Saudi Arabia’s position came as a surprise, not only opposing the US, but rather supporting and funding Egypt’s new rule. How did this happen? This firm and clear position comes despite the two countries’ alliance and after decades of absolute harmonious positions on regional issues. Libya under former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, Iraq under former President Saddam Hussein, Iran and Syria are just a few examples. Since the oil crisis in the seventies of the last century, Saudi official positions seemed calm in dealing with regional crises and its national and regional interests have been to a large extent in line with US positions.
There has not been any change in the structure of Saudi decision-making to make us think that the reason for this particular change is of a strategic nature. The Saudi political line has remained consistent and in accordance with previously adopted positions on regional issues (i.e. Saudi Arabia’s stance toward the US decision to attack Syria went along with the US position). Therefore, there must be a strong reason, one that is powerful and made Saudi Arabia not only defy the US, but also provide full support to the new government in Egypt.
After the toppling of Saudi Arabia’s number-one ally in Egypt, former President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia swiftly approached former President Mohammed Morsi and proposed to supply Egypt with billions of US dollars to solve its economic difficulties. Nevertheless, during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not exceed regular protocol and some believed that Saudi Arabia could rise above the existing tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabis. However, Saudi’s haste to support the toppling of Morsi proved otherwise. But what are the origins of the dispute between Wahhabis and Muslim Brotherhood?
For a start, the Muslim Brotherhood has never seen the rule of the Saudis (or Wahhabis, named after Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, who formed an alliance with Muhammad Ibn Saud and founded the first Saudi state), as anything but part of colonialism who yanked out a Muslim ruler “Ottomans”. The official Muslim Brotherhood website published an article by Graham Fuller, wherein the article stated that the money of the Saudi government have supported the Wahhabi movement around the world, and although Wahhabism is not necessarily a violent movement, they have a narrow and literal interpretation of texts in an intolerant manner of other Islamic sects, to the point that sometimes atone Shiites. Wahhabis cannot be the force that could lead to the unity of neither Arabs nor Muslims. The article highlights that they will not lead to the strengthening of the Muslim world, but they would lead Muslims towards weak education and isolation from the rest of the world.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Ghazali, who published a book “Wahhabi: deformation of Islam” and criticizes Wahhabis in a different article, “You kept inciting and using mercenaries to attack true Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who uphold the word of God “Allah” and promote virtue, using books, tapes and the like, and have translated these books into numerous languages and distributed them for free.” This fact was referred to by Joseph Nye in his book “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics,” when he pointed out, “Because funding of Wahhabist institutions comes from both Saudi government ministries and private charities, it is virtually impossible to estimate the total spending.”
On the other side, Wahhabis (Salafists which stemmed from of the Wahhabis) see themselves as the one group that aims at the promotion of virtue and the return to pure Islam through following the Quran, the Sunnah and the path of their ancestors, and not entirely relying on the four Islamic schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Abu Hanifa, Al Malki, Shafi’i, and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal). Wahhabis see in the Muslim Brotherhood a movement that seeks the division of Muslims and it is considered the archenemy.
In the same vein, when former Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz was discussing the causes of extremism in the Muslim world, he primarily blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, believing that they are the reason behind most of the suffering, violence and extremism in the Muslim world, saying “The Muslim Brotherhood are a scourge and the source of all problems.” Prince Nayef added that the Muslim Brotherhood caused several problems for Saudi Arabia, pointing out that a number of MB leaders like Hassan al-Turabi, Rashid Ghannouchi, Abdel-Rahman Khalifa and Necmettin Erbakan, starkly attacked Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1991, according to an interview quoted in Graham Fuller’s article.
Saleh bin Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, Saudi minister of Islamic and religious affairs, says of the Muslim Brotherhood: “What distinguishes the Muslim Brotherhood is that they have no respect and do not like the rest of the Sunnah, even if they do not show it.”
One should concede that the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia has vacillated between periods of ambivalence and periods of engagement. For instance, the relationship was better during the rule of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, especially after the crackdown on Islamists following the assassination attempt on him. However, the inability to contain the MB’s ideas and ideology put an end to this relationship.
In this context, Ahmed Saleh al-Faqih remarks in his article “The Wahhabi opinion in the Muslim Brotherhood”, which explains that during the fifties, the Muslim Brotherhood was closely linked to the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf because of their common war against Arab nationalistic regimes. Nevertheless, they were divided in the wake of the events of September 2001. In effect, the Muslim Brotherhood is prevalent in almost every Arab country, yet their presence in Saudi Arabia remains limited.
Syria remains the consolidated divisive dilemma between the two camps. While both seek the toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (who fought both Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood), they disagree on the means. On one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood supports Turkey’s approach and its allies on the ground, while signs and Western sources suggest that Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf states support the Salafist groups in Syria.
Apart from Syria, and with the ousting of Morsi, it seemed as if Saudi Arabia had breathed a sigh of relief and opted to support the new regime in Egypt with the aim of stifling a potential and potentially dangerous competitor. Taking geography into consideration, this stance can be understood, particularly when the Saudis are fully aware that the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would cement the movement’s status as a major religious power in the whole region and pose a significant menace.
This fact was stated by Menatallah Hariri in her article in the Al Masry Al Youm newspaper where she suggests that Saudi Arabia realized that if the Muslim Brotherhood set up their own state in Egypt, political boundaries would not prevent them from spreading in all directions and Saudi Arabia is the closest neighbor. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood would be in a position that would facilitate their chances to lead the Arab and the Islamic world, certainly making the Saudis dread the prospect of their rule being overthrown with the support of Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, Egypt and Turkey. This, according to Hariri, is the major reason behind this state of affairs, which led the Saudi leadership to support the downfall of Morsi.
The chasm of mistrust was reflected in the response of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Saudi Shura Council Abdullah al-Askar to Aljazeera to a question about the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood to the national security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, when he said: “We have to differentiate between two lines within the Muslim Brotherhood, traditional conservatives who can pose a threat, and the new generation who are open and believe in change and dialogue and are not a threat.”
This is only the tip of the iceberg when decision-making dovetails with religious and ideological beliefs. State relations come to be based on faith, bypassing governments, dealing with parties and groups and marginalizing ruling regimes which linger. Needless to say, when this comes in the midst of a growing rift between beliefs, it serves nothing but to spread the clouds of doubt hanging overhead and leads to an upsurge in the already existing discord and state of polarization.
Also Appeared in: Today’s Zaman, Iran Review, EurAsia Review, International Political Academy, Akademik Perspektif Dergisi, the Daily Jounrlaist, Middle East Monitor, Arab Media Network, Jol Press ,Pakistan Tribune and Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute