Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia

Place(s) of Operation:
Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

The Saudi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—Al-ikhwan al-muslimun al-saudiyyun (i.e., Saudi Brotherhood)—has been banned from operating in the kingdom since March of 2014, when the government designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.Stephanie Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,” Project on Middle East Political Science, March 9, 2014, http://pomeps.org/2014/03/20/saudi-arabias-muslim-brotherhood-predicament/. Since then, there have been reports that the Brotherhood has been quietly removed from the Kingdom’s terrorism list. When asked, Saudi authorities have neither confirmed nor denied these claims.Hussein Ibesh, “Saudi Arabia’s New Sunni Alliance,” New York Times, July 31, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/01/opinion/hussein-ibish-saudi-arabias-new-sunni-alliance.html. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia joined the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain in June 2017 in cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar in response to that country’s ongoing support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist and terrorist groups.Patrick Wintour, “Gulf Plunged into Diplomatic Crisis as Countries Cut Ties with Qatar,” Guardian (London), Jne 5, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/05/saudi-arabia-and-bahrain-break-diplomatic-ties-with-qatar-over-terrorism.

The Saudi branch of the Brotherhood was founded in the 1940s and 1950s when Saudi Arabia reportedly served as a haven for Brotherhood members from other Arab countries.Lorenzo Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood, Columbia University Press (New York, US), 26. During a trip to Saudi Arabia in 1948, Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna was the target of an Egyptian-sponsored assassination plot that Saudi authorities uncovered and helped to thwart. The Saudi Brotherhood initially suppressed any theological differences with the local brand of Islam, adapting its global Islamist message to accord with Saudi Arabia’s conservative Wahhabi ideology.Lorenzo Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood, Columbia University Press (New York, US), 26. Nonetheless, the Saudi state remained officially opposed to the Brotherhood, which carried out its work in a clandestine manner.Stephanie Lacroix, “Osama bin Laden and the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood,” Foreign Policy, October 3, 2012, http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/10/03/osama-bin-laden-and-the-saudi-muslim-brotherhood/.

Until 2014, the lack of an official government sanction allowed the Saudi Brotherhood to form four distinct organizations within the Kingdom: one in Saudi Arabia’s western province, called the Brotherhood of the Hejaz (ikhwan al-Hijaz); and three in the central region — two named after their alleged founder, the Brotherhood of al-Sulayfih (ikhwan al-Sulayfih) and the Brotherhood of al-Funaysan (ikhwan al-Funaysan), and one called the Brotherhood of Zubayr (ikhwan al-Zubayr).Stephanie Lacroix, “Osama bin Laden and the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood,” Foreign Policy, October 3, 2012, http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/10/03/osama-bin-laden-and-the-saudi-muslim-brotherhood/.

The influence of the Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia led to the emergence of an Islamist movement known as the Sahwa (Awakening). As part of the movement, a variety of Islamist groups, including the Saudi Brotherhood, propagated Islamist writings, especially at universities.Stephanie Lacroix, “Osama bin Laden and the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood,” Foreign Policy, October 3, 2012, http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/10/03/osama-bin-laden-and-the-saudi-muslim-brotherhood/. The groups formally distanced themselves from foreign organizations in an effort to avoid arousing suspicion.Stephanie Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,” Project on Middle East Political Science, March 9, 2014, http://pomeps.org/2014/03/20/saudi-arabias-muslim-brotherhood-predicament/;  Stephanie Lacroix, “Osama bin Laden and the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood,” Foreign Policy, October 3, 2012,  http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/10/03/osama-bin-laden-and-the-saudi-muslim-brotherhood/ Local financing helped conceive the formation of multiple Brotherhood-aligned organizations, including the Muslim World League (1962), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (1972), and others.Lorenzo Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood, Columbia University Press (New York, US), 27.

It was during this period that al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden reportedly became a member of the Saudi Brotherhood. According to al-Qaeda co-founder Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden joined the Saudi Brotherhood but was later expelled from the group on account of his determination to fight with the jihadists in Afghanistan, a position at odds with the Brotherhood ideology at the time.Stephanie Lacroix, “Osama bin Laden and the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood,” Foreign Policy, October 3, 2012, http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/10/03/osama-bin-laden-and-the-saudi-muslim-brotherhood/.

Since then, the Saudi Brotherhood has encountered greater resistance from the government. In 2002, Saudi Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud—then-minister of Interior—accused the Brotherhood of serving as the “source of all evil in the Kingdom.”Stephanie Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,” Project on Middle East Political Science, March 9, 2014, http://pomeps.org/2014/03/20/saudi-arabias-muslim-brotherhood-predicament/. After the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, the Brotherhood formally aligned itself with the protesters, a position that prompted the Saudi monarchy to offer assistance to vulnerable governments. When uprisings upended the Mubarak regime in Egypt and replaced it with an elected Brotherhood government, the Saudi royal family increased its aid for Egypt’s military, which deposed the Brotherhood government a year after its election.Stéphane Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,” Washington Post, March 20, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/20/saudi-arabias-muslim-brotherhood-predicament/.

Brotherhood-aligned clerics in Saudi Arabia protested Saudi support for the Egyptian military. In a public letter dated August 8, 2013, 56 sheikhs—some of them known to be close to the Saudi Brotherhood—condemned the “removal of a legitimately elected president” in Egypt as a violation of “the will of the people.”Stéphane Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,” Washington Post, March 20, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/20/saudi-arabias-muslim-brotherhood-predicament/. The letter continued: “We express our opposition and surprise at the path taken by some countries who have given recognition to the coup … thereby taking part in committing a sin and an aggression forbidden by the laws of Islam.” The letter ended on an ominous note: “[T]here will be negative consequences for everyone if Egypt enters a state of chaos and civil war.”Stéphane Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,” Washington Post, March 20, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/20/saudi-arabias-muslim-brotherhood-predicament/.

The sheikhs’ public letter in support of the Egyptian Brotherhood broadly reflected national sentiment. In the wake of the August 2013 “Rabba massacre” in Cairo—in which Egyptian security forces raided camps of demonstrators—thousands of Saudis replaced their social media profile pictures with the Rabaa sign in solidarity with the Egyptian Brotherhood.Stéphane Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,” Washington Post, March 20, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/20/saudi-arabias-muslim-brotherhood-predicament/.

National support for the Egyptian Brotherhood was soon met with a crackdown. On February 4, 2014, in a move largely believed to be targeted at Brotherhood supporters, a royal decree from the kingdom announced that “belonging to intellectual or religious … groups that are extremist … or showing sympathy for their ideas and methods” will be punished by a prison sentence “of no less than three years and no more than twenty years.”Stéphane Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,” Washington Post, March 20, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/20/saudi-arabias-muslim-brotherhood-predicament/. On March 7, 2014, Saudi Arabia formally designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.“Saudi Arabia designates Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group,” Reuters, March 7, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-security-idUSBREA260SM20140307. As with the decree, the designation was widely viewed as a measure intended to marginalize the Brotherhood across the region and diminish support for the group from Western governments.“Under the Gun,” Economist, April 2, 2014, http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2014/04/muslim-brothers-and-gulf.

After the designation, Riyadh steadily clamped down on Brotherhood activity. In December 2015, for instance, Saudi authorities ordered schools to remove books by scholars affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.“Saudi Arabia orders Muslim Brotherhood books removed from schools,” Middle East Eye, December 1, 2015, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/saudi-arabia-orders-muslim-brotherhood-books-removed-schools-302622603#sthash.q6325Oq4.dpuf. Saudi Arabia has also been slow to arm and equip the Syrian rebels, reportedly out of fear of bolstering the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood aligned against the Assad regime.Guido Steinberg, “The Gulf States and the Muslim Brotherhood,” Project on the Middle East Political Science, March 9, 2014, http://pomeps.org/2014/03/21/the-gulf-states-and-the-muslim-brotherhood/. On March 5, 2014, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Qatar in protest of the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.Stephanie Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,” Project on Middle East Political Science, March 9, 2014, http://pomeps.org/2014/03/20/saudi-arabias-muslim-brotherhood-predicament/. In December 2015, Saudi Arabia ordered schools to remove books by scholars affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Sayyid Qutb, and Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna.“Saudi Arabia orders Muslim Brotherhood books removed from schools,” Middle East Eye, December 1, 2015, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/saudi-arabia-orders-muslim-brotherhood-books-removed-schools-302622603#sthash.q6325Oq4.dpuf.

Nonetheless, there were also signs of a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the regional Muslim Brotherhood movement.Ali Al-Arian, “Is Saudi Arabia warming up to the Muslim Brotherhood?” Al Jazeera, July 29, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/07/saudi-arabia-warming-muslim-brotherhood-150727121500912.html. In June 2015, Saudi Arabia received a high-level delegation from Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s offshoot in Gaza.Hussein Ibesh, “Saudi Arabia’s New Sunni Alliance,” New York Times, July 31, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/01/opinion/hussein-ibish-saudi-arabias-new-sunni-alliance.html. The kingdom also hosted a number of Brotherhood-affiliated leaders, including Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Brotherhood-linked Ennahda political party in Tunisia, and Abd al-Majeed al-Zindani, the leader of the al-Islah political party in Yemen.Ali Al-Arian, “Is Saudi Arabia warming up to the Muslim Brotherhood?” Al Jazeera, July 29, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/07/saudi-arabia-warming-muslim-brotherhood-150727121500912.html. That month, Saudi-backed proxies in Yemen helped to bring the Brotherhood-oriented al-Islah party to power in the southern city of Aden.Hussein Ibesh, “Saudi Arabia’s New Sunni Alliance,” New York Times, July 31, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/01/opinion/hussein-ibish-saudi-arabias-new-sunni-alliance.html. In late 2016, Saudi officials reportedly met with Brotherhood leaders to discuss removing the Brotherhood from its terrorism list.“Saudi to remove Muslim Brotherhood from terrorist lists,” Middle East Monitor, December 8, 2016, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161208-saudi-to-remove-muslim-brotherhood-from-terrorist-lists/. Saudi Arabia reportedly planned to normalize relations with the Brotherhood and provide the group with political support in exchange for unspecified understandings between the kingdom and the international Brotherhood.“Saudi to remove Muslim Brotherhood from terrorist lists,” Middle East Monitor, December 8, 2016, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161208-saudi-to-remove-muslim-brotherhood-from-terrorist-lists/.

However, in June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in response to that country’s ongoing support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist and terrorist groups.Patrick Wintour, “Gulf Plunged into Diplomatic Crisis as Countries Cut Ties with Qatar,” Guardian (London), June 5, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/05/saudi-arabia-and-bahrain-break-diplomatic-ties-with-qatar-over-terrorism.

History

 

Designations by Governments and Organizations


For a complete list of countries and organizations that have designated the Muslim Brotherhood, please see the Muslim Brotherhood's full report

In Their Own Words