Observers believe that the reason why some Gulf states have launched a campaign against Muslim Brotherhood members is because they are worried of the group’s reaching power in the Arab Spring countries. Adding to their worries is the developing relationship between Muslim Brotherhood governments on the one hand and the Turkish Republic, which seems to have found in the organization a new ally that could help Turkey extend its influence in the Arab region.
In this report, we examine the background of the relationship between Muslim Brotherhood groups and the Gulf states, and the cause of the dispute, as seen by experts from the Persian Gulf to the Arab Spring countries.
After supporting them since they were founded, the Gulf and the Brotherhood clash. The Gulf countries anticipate a Brotherhood revolution:
In June 2011, following the dismantling of a network accused of plotting against state security, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being involved in the plot. He said, “The Muslim Brotherhood ideology does not believe in the state nor in state sovereignty, and so it is not surprising that that global organization called the Muslim Brotherhood is working to undermine the state’s prestige, sovereignty and laws.”
That incident was a turning point in the deteriorating relationship between the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. As the Muslim Brotherhood was rising in the Arab Spring countries, it was retreating in the Gulf. This was illustrated by Dubai Police’s campaign — led by Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan — against anyone belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Interestingly, before the relationship deteriorated, many Gulf governments had supported the group since its inception. Brotherhood leaders from around the world have been meeting during the Hajj and Umrah pilgramage seasons in Saudi Arabia since the reign of King Abdul Aziz al-Saud in the 1930s.
The Saudi kings and the Gulf rulers kept finding reasons to support the group or to at least overlook its activities. At one point in time the Brotherhood was one of the best intellectual and religious tools against the socialist/nationalist current in the Arab region. The Brotherhood later became a means to renew Islamic thought. Arab religious elites became attracted to the group, whose charitable, social and educational activities created a social base in the Gulf states, especially among the emerging elites. Those later became the nucleus of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf.
But after persons affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood reached power in Egypt and Tunisia, the Gulf regimes found themselves facing political movements instead of the intellectual and religious movements they dealt with in the past. Many political observers assert that the Gulf monarchies are afraid of the global Muslim Brotherhood because the movement does not recognize national boundaries, but only the concept of Dar al-Islam [the Domain of Islam]. This means that what happened in the Arab Spring countries could also happen in the GCC countries, whereby the Muslim Brotherhood will be used to overthrow existing Gulf regimes. What’s worrying the Gulf countries even more is that the Muslim Brotherhood has found a Middle East model and ally from which to draw strength. The Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab region now considers Turkey to be proof that the movement can bring about the desired changes in the Arab and Islamic world. Because of that, analysts believe that the Gulf states will find themselves surrounded and threatened by Iran and Turkey, which is seeking to restore its role in the Muslim world on the heels of changes in the region and the absence of a role by leading Arab and Sunni countries.
Jamal Sultan, an expert on Islamist groups, to El-Khabar: The UAE is attacking the Islamists because it fears that the Arab Spring will spread.
Jamal Sultan, an expert on Islamist groups, thinks that the UAE is accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to overthrow the Gulf regimes because it fears that the Arab Spring will spread and cause a change in the traditional Gulf political structure and harm the ruling families’ interests.
Sultan told El-Khabar that the Gulf states are anxious and panicking over the Islamist trend in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, since the latter is the most prominent Islamist group in the Gulf. He pointed out that “some countries are concerned that the Arab Spring will spread. There are countries that understood the changes that happened in the Arab region and calmly dealt with them, while others panicked, as was revealed in the statements by a number of UAE officials …The Gulf states fear that the traditional Gulf political structure will change and result in harm to the ruling families’ interests, especially after the calls for transitioning from monarchies to constitutional presidential systems, or some other modern system.”
In that context, Sultan ruled out a clash between the Islamists and the Gulf states, saying: “The attacks [on the Brotherhood] by some UAE officials are because they are worried that the Arab revolutions will spread, as is clearly happening in Algeria. But I do not think that the statements amount to a clash because that would not be in the interest of either party. What’s more, the Muslim Brotherhood wants to turn the page and have a good relationship with the Gulf. On more than one occasion, President Morsi has said that Egypt will not export the revolution and is not interested in changing other regimes.”
Sultan thinks that Gulf fears of Arab revolutions will end after the Arab Spring countries stabilize, which will be followed by cooperation between the Gulf and the Arab Spring countries. He added, “I am certain that the UAE fears caused by the Islamist takeovers in Arab Spring countries will eventually dissipate.”
Brotherhood leader Mohamed Jamal Heshmat to El-Khabar: Khalfan’s remarks will not lead to a clash with the UAE, but he should be punished.
Mohamed Jamal Heshmat, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and member of the Freedom and Justice Party’s high commission, said that the continued attacks by Dubai’s police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan, on the Muslim Brotherhood are not justified and are intended to distract the people’s attention from the problems in his country. Heshmat said to El-Khabar that Khalfan’s attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood are due to his fear of a popular revolt in the UAE. He added, “But that fear does not justify attacking and insulting others. We call upon the UAE to punish him because he does not appreciate the sensitivity of the post he occupies. We demand a clarification about his insulting remarks.” Heshmat discounted the possibility that those remarks will trigger a conflict between the Brotherhood and the UAE, saying that “Egypt’s relationship with the Gulf is strong and bigger than those remarks. Over the years, we have confronted much worse campaigns than this one. No one, whoever it was, can make us enter into a conflict with any country or any particular side, especially when the whole thing is about a few irresponsible remarks that represent the opinions of one individual.”
Regarding Khalfan’s accusation that the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide is trying to sow sedition among the Sunnis, Heshmat said that “the Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist group that calls for unity, not division. And we work toward political, social and economic reforms from an Islamic point of view. It is Khalfan who has made wrongful and disrespectful remarks.” Heshmat asserted that Khalfan’s comments indicate that he is of the same mentality as Egypt’s state security organs, which used to scare the world about the Muslim Brotherhood during Mubarak’s era, when a lot of people were killed.
The GCC countries, between anxiety and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Political science professors in the Gulf region have diverse opinions with regard to Gulf fears over the Muslim Brotherhood’s reaching power in the Arab Spring countries. Qatari political science professor Ali al-Kawari asserted that when we say that the Gulf countries fear that the Arab Spring will spread via the Muslim Brotherhood, that implies that it is the Brotherhood who triggered the Arab Spring and the popular revolts. He added: “In my opinion the popular uprisings were not caused by the Muslim Brotherhood but by the dictatorship, corruption and the dead-end reached for implementing reforms, in addition to a declining standard of living and the absence of democracy and social justice in all Arab countries. And therefore any fears that the Muslim Brotherhood will cause popular uprisings are misplaced.” He added that Arab countries, be they monarchies or republics, should accept making radical reforms.
Professor Jassem al-Ghannam, a visiting Kuwaiti political science professor from King’s College, said that it’s partly true that the Muslim Brotherhood would like to expand into the Gulf and see the removal of some regimes there but “that will not happen by force because the people differ between countries. What happened in Egypt and Tunisia is different with what the Gulf people are experiencing. The people in the Gulf are not under economic pressure to the point of revolution, while the Arab Spring populations revolted because of economic and social conditions.”
Ghannam said that the Gulf states are justified in fearing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab countries because the Brotherhood has a structure that goes beyond the borders of one country and thus the loyalty of its members is not limited to one nationality. Ghannam says that Turkey becoming a major player and trying to play the role of the Muslim Brotherhood’s big brother is a source of concern “not only for the Gulf but for all Arab countries because Turkey has been trying to spread its influence in the region and unfortunately some Arab countries have encouraged Turkish ambitions in the Arab region. The irony is that some Gulf states supported a Turkish role in Iraq in an attempt to balance the Iranian role. But that only opened Turkey’s appetite. The latest events have weakened the role of Egypt, which used to be the leading Arab state and expressed the Arabs’ foreign policy. The competition in the region is no longer between the Sunnis and Shiites, but is now among the Sunni countries themselves due to Turkey’s expansionist ambitions.”