Wary of the Muslim Brotherhood
The year after 9/11, the official Saudi attitude to the Muslim Brotherhood underwent a revolutionary change. In 2002, the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz commented about the Muslim Brotherhood as follows: “We have given too much support for this group. The Muslim Brotherhood has destroyed the Arab world.” Nayef’s comment was important. He was the powerful interior minister of Saudi Arabia, responsible for protecting the Saudi monarchy from domestic threats. Nayef’s attitude should be noted for another reason. This October he was promoted to become the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia – and with King Abdullah having turned 87 years old this past year, Nayef is likely to become the next king of Saudi Arabia.
Nayef’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood came as a surprise in light of Saudi history. During the 1960s Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser oppressed the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1966, the Egyptians hanged its chief ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, in prison. During those years, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood activists were given political refuge in Saudi Arabia. Muslim Brotherhood activists from Jordan and Syria soon followed. The Saudis wanted to build up the Muslim Brotherhood as a counterweight to Nasserism and Arab socialism.
With the offer of Saudi protection, Muhammad Qutb, the brother of Sayyid Qutb, escaped Egypt and became a lecturer at King Abdul Aziz University in Jidda; he was joined by Abdullah Azaam from the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. In the late 1970s the two Muslim Brotherhood lecturers had a Saudi student named Osama bin Laden, who would later follow Abdullah Azzam to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.
The Saudis also gave the visiting members of the Muslim Brotherhood employment in their large global charities which were used to spread the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. The most important of these charities for the Muslim Brotherhood was the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), which also spread Muslim Brotherhood propaganda to Muslim countries. Its first director, Kamal el-Helbawy, came from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
WAMY also employed Mohammed Mahdi Akef, before he became the previous Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. (It also employed a young Turkish activist Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister of Turkey.) Up until six or seven years ago the Saudis used all these charities to provide funds to Hamas, which it should be remembered is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now the Iranians are Hamas’ largest backers.
Recently, there have been increasing signs that this alliance between the Saudi leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood was ending. CNN reported in January 2011 that the Saudi government was investigating how the Muslim Brotherhood was using money from Saudi donors to spread its influence in a number of Arab and Islamic countries. The Saudis were also looking into how Muslim Brotherhood money was reaching al-Qaida.
There was also a report in al-Hayat this year that the Saudi Education Ministry had decided to withdraw extremist books by Hasan al-Bana, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and of its great ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, from libraries and schools. There were Saudis who doubted the effectiveness of this initiative since this literature has influenced education in Saudi Arabia for at least 30 years. Nonetheless, it provided further indication of how Saudi Arabia wanted to distance itself from its old ally, the Muslim Brotherhood.
In fact, the Saudis made a connection between the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and growth of international terrorism. In 2005, a former Kuwaiti Education Minister, Dr. Ahmad Al-Rab’i, argued in the Saudi-owned newspaper, a-Sharq al-Awsat, that the founders of most modern terrorist groups in the Middle East emerged from “the mantle” of the Muslim Brotherhood. Two years later, Hussein Shobokshi, a regular columnist in a-Sharq al-Awsat wrote that “to this day” the Muslim Brotherhood “has brought nothing but fanaticism, divisions, and extremism, and in some cases bloodshed and killings.” The Saudi media were directly blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for the new Islamic terrorism that the world was facing.
Mishari al-Zaydi, a Saudi journalist and the opinion editor of a-Sharq al-Awsat, decided on Nov. 5 to rename the “Arab Spring” the “Muslim Brotherhood Spring.” Given the Saudi attitude over the last few years, it is no wonder that they have been the leading opponents of the upheavals in the Arab world. They have given refuge to the toppled leader of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and refused to extradite him for a Mubarak-style trial. The Saudis are undoubtedly aware of Iranian efforts to exercise influence over the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia has to be careful about the rise of a revolutionary regime in Egypt. Historically, Egypt was the country that invaded the Arabian Peninsula and threatened the Saudi patrimony. In the 19th century, during the regime of Muhamad Ali, an earlier Saudi state was destroyed by Egyptian troops and its leader was sent to the Ottoman Sultan for execution in Istanbul. In the early 1960s, Nasserist Egypt intervened in the Yemen Civil War and deployed Russian bombers there that the Egyptians used to bomb Saudi towns. An activist Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt might well challenge the legitimacy of Saudi rule, as part of its anti-Western policy, in general.
What the Saudi reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood illustrates is that the Islamic trend in the Arab world today cannot be painted with one brush, and that under the surface there are deep rivalries and differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and states that until recently were their closest allies.
This article was originally published in Israel Hayom