Saudi Arabia has launched a diplomatic overture toward the Muslim Brotherhood that appears aimed at limiting Iran’s influence with some branches of the Sunni Islamist organization.
The Saudi move follows the recent nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran and marks a dramatic departure from an aggressive policy that saw Riyadh label the group a terrorist organization in March 2014 and attempt to eradicate it from the Gulf region.
Most striking was last week’s official visit to the kingdom by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. The Palestinian Brotherhood offshoot has long relied on Tehran's patronage. It was all the more striking considering that just six months ago Saudi Arabia pressured its Gulf neighbor Qatar into closing Meshaal's political office there.
Meshaal visited Mecca, prayed with King Salman, and held meetings with Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman – the king’s son and an ascending political star, Hamas officials and the Saudi Press Agency confirmed.
That wasn't the only sign of a Brotherhood rapprochement. Rachid Gannouchi, head of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood, Hammam Saeed of the Jordanian Brotherhood, and Abdulmajid al-Zindani of the Yemeni Brotherhood, have all visited the Kingdom recently. Observers say signs point to a strategic “recalculation” by Riyadh.
“These visits are all part of a grand strategy to contain Iran,” says Mustafa Alani, director of defense studies at the Jeddah-based Gulf Research Center. “The first part is to distance the Muslim Brotherhood from Iran; the second is to use the Muslim Brotherhood to counter Iranian influence.”
Saudi officials banned the local press from discussing the subject until today, when Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a press conference there was nothing political about the visit. But Saudi insiders say the visit marked an “important understanding” between Hamas and the House of Saud.
“During the visit, the delegation reiterated its appreciation for Saudi Arabia’s support for the Palestinian cause as well as its efforts to restore the legitimate government in Yemen,” said a palace source unauthorized to speak to the press.
“The delegation also offered its support for efforts to prevent Iranian designs on the region and [for] the war against extremism,” the official said.
An old alliance
Despite recent hostilities, Saudi Arabia has an extensive history of using the Brotherhood against its regional rivals. In the 1950s and ’60s the kingdom supported the Brothers as a way to weaken the nationalist republican regime of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although banned from political activity in Saudi Arabia, Brotherhood members were active in academia and had substantial influence in the kingdom’s secondary schools and universities.
But that alliance was always an uncomfortable one. The Brotherhood's ideology is as hostile to monarchs like the House of Saud as Nasser's Arab nationalism was and relations turned particularly bad following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, which were ultimately backed by the Brothers and which terrified the Saudi government.
In 2014 the alarmed late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz banned the group and labelled it a regional terrorist organization, as did the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Riyadh condoned the arrests of Brotherhood leaders by Jordan and Egypt and pressured Qatar to expel Meshaal in January.
But the ascension of King Salman to the throne in January marked a new atmosphere for Saudi-Brotherhood relations. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood had been tossed out of power by a coup in 2013. Meanwhile, Iranian influence was expanding in Syria and the Saudis blamed Iran for a Shiite-led rebellion that broke out against their client in Yemen.
Then came the nuclear deal, which should leave populist Iran in a much stronger position to oppose its old Saudi rival. Suddenly, the Brothers seemed less like a threat than an opportunity.
Mutual interests in Yemen
“King Salman was clear in the beginning that gaining the support of the Brotherhood and steering it away from the Iranian sphere of influence was a priority,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, an Amman-based political analyst and expert in Islamist movements. “The Iranian nuclear deal... accelerated this policy.”
An emerging point of mutual interest between Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood is Yemen, where Riyadh is embroiled in a four-month-long military campaign to beat back the Shiite Houthis – which it claims are Iranian proxies – and reinstall the pro-Saudi government.
The Brotherhood in Yemen, known as the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, or Islah, has several thousand fighters opposing the Houthis and is playing a critical role in the battle for Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city.
Riyadh has rewarded the Brotherhood for its loyalty.
Just hours after Meshaal left the kingdom, Abdulmajid al-Zindani, co-founder of the Yemeni Brotherhood, arrived in Riyadh and is now reportedly sitting in on discussions with Saudi officials and Yemeni political groups over Yemen’s future, in which Islah is to play a major role.
Fight against the Islamic State
Saudi Arabia has also extended the olive branch to the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood to shore up its support in the fight against the Islamic State (IS).
In a rare visit to Saudi Arabia this month, Hammam Saeed, overall leader of the Jordan Brotherhood, met with Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Saleh bin Abdul Aziz al Sheikh, and the two reportedly discussed the Jordanian Brotherhood’s support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the war against IS.
According to those close to the proceedings, Riyadh urged the Jordanian Brotherhood to throw its political and even theological support behind the war, particularly as Jordan is a member of the US-led coalition and borders IS territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq. An estimated 2,000 Jordanians are also fighting alongside IS.
In return, Riyadh promised to ask Jordan – a longtime ally – to ease a crackdown on the movement that has seen Amman withdraw the group’s license and transfer its assets to pro-regime Islamists.
“Saudi Arabia no longer sees us as enemies, they see us as partners,” says Salem Fallahat, the former leader of the Jordanian Brotherhood.
“The war against extremism and the war against Daesh is one of the many areas for our cooperation,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Limits on the alliance
But Saudi observers and insiders note there are limits to the resurgence of the alliance.
Although Riyadh is reportedly “displeased” with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s arrest and trial of Brotherhood leaders, it does not wish to see the Islamist movement return to power in Egypt.
Then there is the Gulf, where observers say Riyadh has set a “red-line” for Brotherhood activity.
“There is one golden rule, and the Brotherhood understands it – any activity in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries is forbidden,” says Mr. Alani, of the Gulf Research Center. “Saudi Arabia will treat them as allies abroad, but they will stay as terrorist organizations in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain.”
Saudi officials reiterated that today’s “alliance of convenience” may not lead to a Brotherhood renaissance tomorrow.
“In the kingdom’s interest and in the world’s interest, we are reaching out to any party to curb the Iranian threat,” said the palace official.
“We are not treating the Brotherhood as a state – and never will.”