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Muslim Brotherhood review: A tale of UK-UAE relations

Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan has been the crucial figure behind the UK review of the Muslim Brotherhood
British Prime Minister David Cameron with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (AFP)

The UK government published on Thursday the main findings of a review into the Muslim Brotherhood, bringing an end to a story that has been riddled with controversy and raised questions about the influence of foreign interests on British officials.

The review, led by the former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins, has not proscribed the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, but Prime Minister David Cameron has said membership of the group was a “possible indicator of extremism”.

This outcome will likely fall far short of the expectations of the United Arab Emirates, which is known to have played a key – if not crucial – role in the commissioning of the report. 

While other Gulf states, principally Saudi Arabia, have been said to have played a role in the review being commissioned, this is ultimately a tale about the most powerful man in the UAE and how his politics has driven British-Emirati relations over the past five years. 

In November, the Guardian reported that the UAE had lobbied Cameron to crack down on the Brotherhood in exchange for lucrative arms and oil contracts.

According to the report, several high-profile Emirati figures were involved, but the key lobbying figure was Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, popularly known as MbZ in the Gulf.

MbZ is widely accepted as being the de facto UAE president, with incumbent Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan rarely seen or heard amid rumours he is seriously unwell.

MbZ’s personal vendetta

The British Brotherhood review and its origins cannot be understood without first understanding MbZ, and his virulent hatred of the movement.

Many view the election of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi to the Egyptian presidency in 2012 as being the trigger that ultimately led to the UK announcing the Jenkins review on 1 April 2014.

To all intents and purposes this is accurate. For MbZ, Morsi’s election signalled the potential for the Brotherhood to sweep across a region in flux and bring their brand of Islamic democracy to the autocratic Gulf.

The root of MbZ’s hatred for the Brotherhood is not publicly known; however, a senior British source who has met him told Middle East Eye: "MbZ says he could have been a Brother but he had what he described as a personal conversion against them. He's rational but he takes it too far."

The Emirati crown prince is rumoured to view the Brotherhood with disgust because of what he perceives as their co-opting of religion to achieve political power.

MbZ’s position may also be understood through the prism of an authoritarian ruler who believes his largely conservative and religious subjects may find the Brotherhood an appealing group to align with.

And while Morsi’s election in Cairo may have further raised MbZ’s alarm, he had already been fighting the Brotherhood on a domestic front for a significant period of time.

UAE Brotherhood group al-Islah – which claims to be solely a domestic organisation focused on social and political reform – was approached by MbZ in 2003 for talks over ending their activities and cutting alleged ties with international sister organisations.

Islah rejected this proposal and carried on with its work, while increasing its calls for political reform. Over the subsequent decade, Islah faced increasing repression and the group has now been disbanded, proscribed as a terrorist organisation, and its leaders imprisoned or forced into exile.

US State Department cables published by Wikileaks show that by 2004 MbZ believed Islah had infiltrated the UAE’s government. He also told American officials that if there were elections in the UAE, Islah would easily win.

After uprisings swept across the Arab world in 2011, these domestic concerns were expressed in regional terms, with MbZ witnessing how Brotherhood supporters were taking advantage of popular discontent to emerge from the shadows and as potential political leaders in countries from Libya to Tunisia, and Egypt down to Yemen.

When Morsi was announced as Egypt’s first democratically elected president on 24 June 2012, MbZ was overseeing a crackdown against Islah in the UAE. Its leaders had been rounded up, imprisoned, and the group was propelled into a national scandal that portrayed it as plotting a secret coup to seize power from the ruling family.

It is to here that the process of instigating the British Muslim Brotherhood review seems likely to have begun.

The UAE’s carrot and stick UK strategy

The Guardian revelations published in November 2015 refer to briefing notes written by Abu Dhabi public relations kingpin and British citizen Simon Pearce, in which the idea is raised of lobbying the UK for a crackdown on the Brotherhood in exchange for oil and arms deals worth billions of pounds.

A key part of this lobbying effort would see MbZ demand Cameron clamp down on the BBC, which was viewed as having been infiltrated by “Islamist sympathisers”.

The UAE’s carrot and stick approach to the UK was developed in July 2012, when Abdulla Nasser al-Suwaidi, director-general of the state Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, confirmed that oil giant BP had not been invited to bid for new and lucrative oil concessions in the UAE, a country BP has a long history of working in. 

Reports emerged in August that suggested the BP exclusion from oil bidding may, at least in part, have been due to Emirati anger over what it saw as British support for the Arab Spring. Crucially, at this time several Islah leaders also arrived in London and applied for political asylum.

At the same time, human rights groups began publishing allegations that Emirati authorities were torturing Islah leaders, leading to numerous media reports in the British press, all of which likely added to a sense in Abu Dhabi that London was betraying them.

Many commentators believe that this sense of potential betrayal was likely rooted in Abu Dhabi watching as the UK and US swiftly turned their back on long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, when he was deposed as Egypt’s president by popular protests in 2011.

After Morsi’s election, the realpolitik of political alliances was emphasised in September 2012 when BP pledged $11bn to the Egyptian gas sector, during a joint press conference with Brotherhood leader and then Egyptian President Morsi.

A feeling of vulnerability in MbZ may have been taken even further that month when, after the BP announcement, British Foreign Secretary William Hague extended an invitation for Morsi to visit the UK and meet with Cameron.

Next month Islah leader Said Nasser al-Teniji, who was living in exile outside the UAE, wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian on the Emirati crackdown against the Brotherhood. Teniji was also invited onto BBC Arabic to discuss the Islah arrests and torture allegations, all of which prompted a major UAE social media campaign against the UK.

A Twitter hashtag #UK_supports_traitors spread widely in the UAE, with Emiratis denouncing the UK for perceived support of Islah. In mid-October 2012, the Guardian published an editorial severely criticising the UK-UAE alliance in light of the Islah crackdown – this did nothing but increase anger with London in Abu Dhabi.

A week after that editorial, the Financial Times published a report that quoted a UAE official saying the BP exclusion from oil concessions was “not a final decision” while warning that if “things are allowed to deteriorate” the UAE could “disengage” from the UK.

The threat against BP, the FT reported, may have been in part motivated by anger at the UK for allowing media criticism of the UAE. This appears to have happened despite Foreign Office officials having tried to explain to Abu Dhabi that they could not control the media.

In November 2012, BP was reported to still be hopeful that the British government could help smooth the way for the oil company to be welcomed back into the Abu Dhabi fold. Then, on 5 November Cameron landed in the UAE to try to persuade Abu Dhabi to buy 100 military aircraft worth in excess of £6bn to the UK.

The visit was low key in media terms, and only two reporters were allowed to accompany the prime minister, with the aim being to allow Cameron space to patch up relations with one of the UK’s key allies.

On 6 November, the UK and UAE announced a formal defence and industrial partnership, with the multi-billion pound aircraft deal very much on the table – although not confirmed at this stage. This was likely in line with the carrot and stick approach pushed by the Emirati’s PR strategists led by Pearce, who is lauded by those who know him as someone who adeptly understands political gaming.

On 28 November 2012, Abu Dhabi announced that it was buying BP assets worth more than $1.3bn, which was reported as a clear sign relations between the UK and UAE were on the mend. BP was still not formally back in the UAE oil game, but it wasn’t long before they were, in mid-December BP were invited to bid for the Abu Dhabi oil concession they had earlier been frozen out from.

UK compromises and shifts

In the first six months of 2013, the UK’s delicate and contradictory political alliances were being balanced between a state visit granted to UAE President Khalifa and a secret lunch meeting Cameron had with Egyptian Brotherhood leaders.

In June of that year, senior Egyptian officials met British counterparts in London to prepare for a visit by Morsi planned for the next month. It was a visit that would never take place, because on 3 July a popularly backed military coup in Cairo saw army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi seizing power and imprisoning Morsi.

On the same day as the Egyptian coup took place to remove Morsi, the UAE announced the outcome of the biggest political trial in their country’s short history. Sixty-nine Islah leaders were sent to prison for terms of between seven and 15 years, all of them convicting on charges of sedition.

This was a watershed moment for the Brotherhood in the UK. From then on, the group appeared to have little use for the British government after having been deposed from power in Egypt.

The politics of the UAE-UK-Brotherhood triangle shifted fundamentally to one of trying to increase trade with Abu Dhabi. The carrot and stick approach deployed by Abu Dhabi meant that the multi-billion pound aircraft deal was never actually formalised, leaving Cameron to make further visits to the UAE to try to finalise the sale.

However, Cameron’s efforts were to be in vain. In December 2013, it was announced that British defence company BAE Systems had failed to win the UAE contract. The UK was in no position to react angrily to the UAE, at least in public, because the Gulf state was still a key trading partner with the ability to provide ongoing and future lucrative opportunities.

In 2009, bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to some $11bn. By 2013, this had risen to $18bn with two thirds of the trade benefit going to the UK.

In March 2014, MbZ met Cameron on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands and discussed “a number of regional and international issues”. Less than a month later, on 17 April, Cameron announced the review into the Brotherhood and nine days after that, Jenkins met with senior Abu Dhabi official Khaldoon al-Mubarak in his first UAE visit as part of the review.

While the UK had turned away from the Egyptian Brotherhood, in January 2014 it was confirmed that several Islah leaders had received political asylum in London, clearly angering Abu Dhabi.

In May, the UAE announced that it would stop using British officers as military trainers. The FT reported that the UAE was angry at what it perceived to be continued UK acquiescence to the threat of Islamist groups, including Islah.

Frustration in Abu Dhabi soon swelled further due to rumours the UK Brotherhood review would fail to proscribe the group as terrorists. In August 2014, the first of what would be many reports emerged telling of how publication was being delayed – with the media attributing the postponement to concern in London that Abu Dhabi would be dismayed at the review’s conclusions.

A few months later, MbZ met Cameron in London. Three days after the visit on 19 October a report published in the Telegraph suggested there would be a wide-ranging crackdown on the Brotherhood in the UK.

However, other media reports were almost immediately filed contradicting the Telegraph line, and apparently confirming that the Brotherhood would be cleared of terrorism links.

Media confusion around the Brotherhood review likely reflected the government’s struggle to balance their alliance with the UAE, against the reality that they would be unable to proscribe the Brotherhood as terrorists.

Oil motives

Running in the background of the Jenkins review, BP was still waiting to see if it would be awarded oil concessions in Abu Dhabi. UAE Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazrouei told the Telegraph that BP was still in the running, but no decision had been made, very much reflecting the Pearce carrot-and-stick strategy.

In January this year, as with the aircraft deal, BP was then confirmed as not having been awarded the Abu Dhabi oil concession. The Telegraph reported that BP’s failure to win the bid, worth about $7bn, threatened the UK’s ability to influence the UAE.

Throughout 2015 there have been dual narratives in the media indicating that the Jenkins review was ready for publication, but was not being released out of concern that it would hamper British-UAE relations. At the same time, Emirati officials who visited the UK openly hinted that the UK could double its money in deals with the Gulf state.

All of this political gaming, at its heart, concerns MbZ and his personal hatred of the Brotherhood. His country’s money, and his ability to wield influence over countries such as the UK, has led to the Jenkins review.

It remains to be seen whether the Abu Dhabi crown prince will be satisfied with an outcome that has seen Cameron give a low-key statement in parliament saying the Brotherhood has a “highly ambiguous relationship with extremism”.

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