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The future of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf

- February 10, 2015

A Muslim Brotherhood supporter in front of the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Cairo on Jan. 13, 2013, protesting the trial of 94 people in the UAE, including some Egyptian citizens, on charges of trying to overthrow the government. The banner reads “What did the Egyptians do in order to arrest them? Freedom for the honorable men.” (Nasser Nasser/AP)
This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is going through the most difficult stage in its political history since the Nasserist period. However, unlike the 1950s and 1960s, the Brotherhood can neither count on political support from nor find a safe haven in the conservative monarchies of the Arab Gulf. An intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) feud that pitted the pro-MB Qatar against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia has come down decisively in favor of the anti-MB forces. Combined with the significant challenges that the MB in the Gulf was already facing from disaffected youth cadres and Salafist competitors, the current hostile environment will make it impossible for the MB to maintain their previous level of social and political influence inside the Gulf countries.
The MB has a long and influential history in the Arab Gulf. It was brought to the region during the MB’s earliest days, in some cases through personal contacts with the MB’s founder, Hassan al-Banna. The group deepened its presence in the 1950s and 1960s as crackdowns on the MB organizations in Egypt and Syria forced activists to seek refuge in the Gulf. Their influence grew as governments found them suitable allies in countering Arab nationalism and manning rapidly expanding state ministries. Brotherhood members organized in informal networks and where possible established societies for social reform along with Islamic charities. In those states that had political openings and active parliaments – Kuwait, Bahrain – the MB formed political societies which competed in elections and came to increasing political prominence in the 1990s. While their experience varies significantly from country to country, it is fair to say that the MB played a substantial role in shaping Gulf societies and had a significant impact on national politics.
Despite this pivotal role, MB influence in the Gulf was not unchallenged. The entry of Salafis into politics in the 1980s introduced new Islamist rivals who competed with and at times surpassed the MB in parliamentary elections, government posts and societal influence. Throughout the 2000s, the MB faced disparagement from a growing Salafi trend accusing them of political opportunism and questioning their commitment to Islamic doctrine.
At the same time the MB faced challenges in recruiting the younger generation. In contrast to the more informal Salafi networks, the MB has a hierarchical structure based upon deference to elders and compliance with the decisions of the organization. The MB’s lengthy process of admission and advancement has appeared more onerous as alternatives for public engagement and entertainment outside of religious societies have increased in the expansion of public spaces such as restaurants and cafes and virtually through social media. The openness and diversity of views found in these spaces and expanding media has increased the disaffection with the secrecy and discipline of MB organization. Some youths also chafed at the unwillingness of the MB to adopt more confrontational methods to achieve political change.
Indicators of the younger generation’s frustration with the culture and gradualist policies of the MB can be seen in the emergence of independent blogs by MB youths, the issuance of independent statements by MB youth cadres taking positions that diverge from the MB organization and in the prominence of ex-MB youths among Gulf opposition organizations and networks that emerged around the time of the Arab uprisings of 2011. At the same time, social media enabled new means of organization outside of Islamic organizations, empowering new unaffiliated youth movements in the Gulf.
Gulf MB organizations have begun to adapt to these cultural changes. Evidence of this adjustment includes the shortened recruitment protocols implemented by Saudi Brotherhood networks; the proliferation of open volunteerism programs across the Gulf, some instrumentalized by the MB to capture a broader cross-section of youths; the more creative use of video and popular music by MB-affiliated initiatives; and new programs crafted especially for youths within the MB organization. Nonetheless, the broader generational challenge remains.
In addition to these competitors and challenges, the MB has faced a less permissive environment in the Gulf since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. International scrutiny of Islamist movements and their financing understandably increased, but that is not all. Gulf ruling families also began to shift their political calculations. This rethink began in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s as the Saudi ruling family faced their most serious challenge since 1979 in the form of the Islamic awakening or Sahwa that openly challenged it, albeit in limited mobilizations. It became clear that the ruling family resented the Muslim Brotherhood for this counter-politicization of the religious field in the bitter comments of then-Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 2002, blaming all of Saudi Arabia’s problems on MB betrayal. Meanwhile, political successions in both the UAE and Kuwait brought new and much less sympathetic leadership – and in the case of Abu Dhabi emirate, outright hostility – toward the MB organization.
There are exceptions to this trend: The Qatari leadership has been supportive of the MB abroad, and the Bahraini leadership needs the support of Sunni Islamists to counter the Shiite opposition. Still, when the Arab uprisings initially appeared to empower the MB, goodwill among Gulf leaders was absent or contingent and mistrust was plentiful.
In several Gulf countries the MB sought to use the regional wave of popular mobilization to establish new political constraints on Gulf ruling families. MB members joined public petitions in the UAE and Saudi Arabia calling for political reforms to include elections for the Federal National Council (FNC) and Shura Council. In Kuwait, the MB has consistently been in the coalition of political societies protesting initially for the resignation of the prime minister and later for constitutional amendments to further empower the parliament toward the creation of a full parliamentary monarchy.
The crackdown on the MB was initiated in the UAE, where the government arrested nearly 100 Emirati members of the MB-inspired al-Islah organization with the charge of “forming a secret organization plotting to overthrow the regime.” This hardline position gained traction across the Gulf as the regional dynamic shifted with the overthrow of the MB-led Mohamed Morsi government in Egypt. MB activists in both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were public in their criticism of their governments’ political and financial support for Egypt’s new military-led government. They also were openly supportive of the rebels in their deepening civil war in Syria. Both positions likely contributed to the decision of the Saudi government to adopt a new anti-terrorism law in early 2014 which took the extraordinary step of specifically naming the MB among a list of banned terrorist groups. The UAE followed with its own anti-terror law in November 2014, officially designating the MB and significantly its civil society organizations in the West as terrorist organizations. The UAE and Saudi Arabia also pressured Western governments to follow suit, leading to an official inquiry into the MB organization in Britain.
The UAE-Saudi campaign to delegitimize and diminish, if not destroy, the MB was then brought to bear on regional maverick Qatar. The strength of the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s resolve can be seen in their hardline tactics, including the withdrawal of ambassadors from Qatar and the threat of economic blockade. Their demands focused on Qatar ending its support for Egypt’s embattled MB but significantly also pressed for the cessation of support for MB dissidents within the Gulf region in line with a security agreement signed by GCC interior ministers in 2012. According to leaked copies of that unpublished agreement, it commits Gulf states “to cooperate with each other to hunt down those who are outside law or the system, or who are wanted by states, whatever their nationality, and to take necessary action against them,” to include active pursuit across borders and extradition.
These new legal frameworks – implemented at both the national and GCC level – place MB members under continuous risk of prosecution. In practice, with the exception of the UAE, there have not been campaigns of arrests against the organization. Nonetheless, the comprehensive nature of the laws – the Saudi terrorism law deems not only belonging to the MB a crime, but also associating with it at home or abroad or showing any support or sympathy for its causes via any form of media – act as a check on MB activities.
Even in those countries without such terrorism legislation, the threat of prosecution or extradition via the GCC security agreement remains. This has dampened the once open and extensive campaign in support of the former Morsi government and jailed MB members in Egypt. It has also prevented Gulf MB activists from supporting each other: Several Kuwait MB members faced possible extradition after a case brought by the UAE accusing them of materially supporting the Emirati al-Islah. More recently, a former MB member of Kuwait’s parliament had a case filed against him by the Kuwait parliament for criticizing Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
The extent of the political challenge for the MB across the Gulf is on view in Kuwait and Bahrain, where the MB openly maintains political societies. Despite the unquestioned loyalty of Bahrain’s MB and its key role in standing by the ruling family in Bahrain’s ongoing political crisis, the government undertook electoral redistricting in September 2014 widely perceived to be to the MB’s disadvantage. In the November parliamentary elections, the MB won only one seat, while they did not even choose to run candidates in municipal elections where they previously had good representation. They also had their ministers in the cabinet dropped and are having their influence curbed in Bahrain’s Ministry of Education.
Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), the political wing of Kuwait’s MB, has observed an opposition boycott of the parliament since the emir unilaterally changed the electoral system in 2012. This has been a costly strategy, depriving the movement of the benefits that accrue from legislative presence, both in publicity and in access to government revenue streams, jobs and contracts. It has also left them without the parliamentary platform to confront policies damaging to their future such as the current purge of MB from the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs and constraints placed on MB and Salafi charitable activities.
The threat of political retribution against its numerous charities and civil society organizations has led the Kuwaiti MB to take the momentous decision to separate the political apparatus represented by the ICM from the nizam or mother organization. While this is expected to be an ongoing process the ICM already has independent decision making authority and has plans to accept non-MB members in the future.
The MB’s troubles have redounded to the benefit of their Salafi competitors. In Bahrain, Salafi candidates gained on the MB in Bahrain’s parliamentary elections of 2014 and now hold 50 percent of the municipal council chairmanships. In Kuwait, Salafi loyalists maintain representation in parliament and enjoy excellent relations with the Kuwait government.
While the Gulf’s MB groups – with the exception in the UAE – have been spared the massive crackdown witnessed in Egypt, they face an uncertain future. The antagonistic political and legal environment should significantly hamper recruitment and the functioning of their many civil society organizations. Moreover, as the Islamist movement most committed to and dependent upon political participation, the MB will suffer more than their Salafi competitors from the growing intolerance for Islamic political activism. At the same time, a retreat to a less public position – the secret society model – is less viable in today’s networked era.
Yet it remains an open question whether Gulf political authorities have provided sufficient alternative pathways for engagement with MB’s constituencies. State-affiliated ulama have been losing credibility for decades, and new formations to counter the MB such as the Emirati-based Muslim Council of Elders have yet to prove their popular appeal. This leaves the Islamic political field up for grabs at exactly the time it faces its most ambitious suitor: the Islamic State.
Kristin Smith Diwan is an adjunct professorial lecturer at the American University School of International Service and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.