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The Muslim Brotherhood and the GCC: It’s complicated

Many have speculated that one cause behind the Gulf crisis is Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, but the history of the organisation in the countries behind the rift complicates this narrative

In its first decades of oil growth, Qatar’s relationship with Muslim Brotherhood exiles was similar to that seen in neighbouring Gulf states, who, in need of staff for their nascent education and judicial systems, welcomed Brotherhood sympathisers and members seeking refuge from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt.

How organisations like the Brotherhood are treated in the GCC seems to vary according to the level of political participation generally allowed and the degree to which regimes consider them linked to broader opposition movements

Since that period in the 1950s and 1960s, these states’ political stances toward local Muslim Brotherhood groups have changed drastically, illustrating the degree to which Brotherhood affiliates have become increasingly nationalised, and the way each Gulf regime considers the local Brotherhood threatening to its hold on political power.

As a whole, government treatment of these organisations in the GCC seems to vary according to the level of political participation allowed and the degree to which regimes consider them linked to broader opposition movements.

The Muslim Brotherhood thus is seen as more politically threatening in the closed systems of Saudi Arabia and the UAE where Brotherhood-linked individuals participated in calls for reform during the Arab Spring, than in states like Bahrain and Kuwait where the Brotherhood has the outlet of participation in parliamentary elections.

Kuwaiti citizens attend a parliament session at Kuwait's national assembly in Kuwait City in January 2017 (AFP)
Those states which selectively co-opt or work alongside, rather than shut down, Brotherhood movements tend to feel less threatened by them not only domestically, but also abroad – as seen in the Qatari case.

The Qatari Brotherhood, which formally chose to dissolve itself in 1999, tended to focus on social policy rather than political reform. Indeed, the organisation never formed a political arm and primarily organised social and educational events. Today, lacking the means to disseminate its ideology through an official publication or even a formal meeting place, the Qatari Brotherhood does not appear to harbour ambitions beyond continuing intellectual and spiritual pursuits.

Possibly because of the lack of a political opening - and partly due to general satisfaction with the prevailing system - the Islamist sector in Qatar has not become politically active in any type of reform movement.

Further, because the government has been public about the need for democratic reforms, there is less space for Brotherhood, or other, agitation in this field. This non-confrontational relationship has led the government to be more accepting of the Brotherhood – both at home and abroad.

Qatar’s policies abroad

The Qatari government has backed Islamist movements overseas, to a large extent, to advance the country’s influence globally, rather than to promote a specific ideology. Indeed, if the Qatari government truly hoped to bolster Islamist ideology, it would do so domestically. Qatar’s willingness to engage with the Brotherhood abroad is instead closely linked to its desire to distinguish itself from Saudi Arabia.

The Qatari government has backed Islamist movements overseas, to a large extent, to advance the country’s influence globally, rather than to promote a specific ideology

This was particularly important for Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani ( who was emir from 1995-2013), as the Saudis allegedly backed a coup attempt against him in 1996. Further, Sheikh Hamad’s generation had recent memory of subservience to Saudi Arabia under the reign of Sheikh Khalifa (1972-1995). Backing the Brotherhood, or at least not cracking down on it, allowed Qatar to distinguish itself from the kingdom.

Qatar’s policies during the Arab Spring, at the root of the first GCC spat in 2014 and a contributing factor to this second crisis, further separated it from neighbouring Gulf states, which were considered to be leading a counter-revolution against the region’s popular revolts.

Taking a proactive stance, Qatar was the first country to grant official recognition to the rebel-led Libyan National Transitional Council, hosted a meeting for the Libya Contact Group, and sent six fighter jets as part of the NATO-led no-fly zone in March 2011.

Qatar also stirred controversy in its backing of Libyan Islamists, as it hosted several key Islamist figures, primarily those from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), most prominently Ali al-Sallabi. The link with al-Sallabi, who has lived in Qatar for nearly 10 years, and his brother Ismail, who also fought with Qatar-funded militias in Libya, is “probably personal more than ideological”.

Members of Ahrar al-Sham in Raqqa province in northern Syrian in August 2013 (AFP)
Qatar’s support for Libyan Islamists also had an impact on the Syrian crisis, with aid going to Syria through former Libyan rebels who took over in the post-Qaddafi era. The Qatari government also backed Islamist militias al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, while maintaining that its primary intention has always been advancement of the cause against Bashar al-Assad, rather than the promotion of any one (particularly Islamist) political bloc.

Qatar, though an outspoken member of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group (IS), has been less active on the ground in recent years.

Qatar’s backing of Mohamed Morsi’s Brotherhood-led government in Egypt from June 2012-July 2013 was considered the clearest evidence of its Islamist leanings. During the year that Morsi was in power, Qatar gave or lent $7.5bn to Egypt. Still, Qatar maintained its support not for the Muslim Brotherhood per se, but rather for a popularly elected Egyptian government.

Since the fall of Morsi in July 2013, the military regime under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has suspended negotiations on the purchase of Qatari natural gas, in addition to returning $2bn that Qatar had deposited into the state’s central bank under Morsi’s tenure, following Qatar’s postponement of granting the aid and its imposition of new conditions for its receipt.

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Around the same time, Saudi Arabia approved $5bn in aid and the UAE $3bn in aid to Egypt in July 2013, immediately following Morsi’s overthrow. Sisi also ratified a treaty controversially handing over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi control.

While ties between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt have flourished, Qatar has been isolated as “a mini Ikhwanistan”, and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE used the Brotherhood’s defeat in Egypt to isolate Qatar from the GCC for the first time in 2013.

New beginnings?

Under the leadership of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, to whom Sheikh Hamad passed power in June 2013, the relationship between Qatar and Saudi Arabia appeared, at least initially, to be improving.

Since implementation of the 2013 GCC deal and until last month, relations had seemed to be improving between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the GCC more generally

Tellingly, Sheikh Tamim’s first trip abroad was to Riyadh. He also acceded to conditions of the GCC Agreement signed in November 2013 which demanded that Qatar not to back “anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals – via direct security work or through political influence, and not to support hostile media.”

Perceived failure to comply with such demands led to withdrawal of the Bahraini, Saudi and Emirati ambassadors to Qatar in March 2014; they returned only in November 2014 after Qatar expelled seven senior members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and pledged to “stop attacking Egypt in al-Jazeera broadcasts,” largely by removing Egyptian Brotherhood ideologue Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s platform on the station.

Since implementation of that GCC deal and until last month, relations had seemed to be improving between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the GCC more generally.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Cairo's Tahrir Square in Cairo in February 2011 where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were still gathered, a week after Hosni Mubarak stepped down (AFP)
Indeed, following Sheikh Tamim’s first visit to Riyadh, and in the face of accusations from the Egyptian government in February 2015 that Qatar supported terrorism in Libya, the Bahraini secretary general of the GCC, Abdul Latif al-Zayani, defended Qatar, saying such accusations were “unfounded, contradict reality, and ignore the sincere efforts by Qatar as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab states in combatting terrorism and extremism at all levels.”

Also during the period of détente, Saudi Arabia hosted the International Union for Muslim Scholars, headed by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and dubbed a terrorist organisation in the recently GCC-issued list, for the Islamic Conference convened in February 2015 by King Salman. Earlier that same month, then Saudi foreign minister Saud bin Faysal even stated that his government had “no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood”.

It was thought, then, that under King Salman, who came to power in January 2015, there would be a detente on the issue of the Brotherhood, enabling Qatar and Saudi Arabia to strengthen their ties.

The rift returns

Over the course of 2017, however, tensions built between Qatar and its neighbours, bringing back old issues from 2014 to the fore.

For instance, in May, Qatar hosted a Hamas meeting wherein the group publicly dropped any link to the Muslim Brotherhood and introduced a political programme meant to soften its image as a terrorist or extremist organisation, since it included acceptance of the Palestinian state along 1967 borders. Such a move highlighted not only the prevailing political influence of Islamists, but also the way in which Qatar has found a foothold in critical regional issues by providing a haven for political exiles.

Exiled chief of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, speaks with Hamas deputy leader Musa Abu Marzuk ahead of their conference in Doha in May 2017 (AFP)

Statements from Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in mid-May 2017 supporting negotiations between the GCC and reaffirming that Qatar had not banned the Muslim Brotherhood did not help ease existing tensions. While stating that “we do not, will not, and have not supported the Muslim Brotherhood,” al-Thani was also unapologetic about Qatar’s policy of “support[ing] any individual that assumes the presidency in Egypt in a clear and transparent manner.”

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Emboldened by a visit with US President Donald Trump, whose administration has pondered designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, the Saudi government has doubled down on its anti-Qatar rhetoric, further bolstered by support from the UAE, which arrested around 100 members of a Brotherhood-linked movement in 2012 and whose ambassador to the US meets regularly with Trump’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

A March 2017 story in Al Arabiya signalled the turn against the Brotherhood, particularly as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has risen in the ranks, detailing a conversation between President Trump and Mohammed bin Salman about links between Osama bin Ladin and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Why the Brotherhood troubles Saudi and the UAE

Where the Qataris see Brotherhood-linked groups as potential political partners, the Emiratis and Saudis consider them existential threats, with potential to demand political reform in very closed political systems.

This policy of isolating the Brotherhood and, by extension Qatar, seems to make sense for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, since Brotherhood-linked movements in such states have been linked to efforts for political reform, yet the existence of a Brotherhood affiliate in Bahrain – al-Minbar - is somewhat problematic.

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa attends an informal GCC summit in Jeddah in May 2016 (AFP)
Because oppositional Islamist movements tend to be Shia in that state, the Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally been allied with the al-Khalifa ruling family and has been in parliament since 2002.

To maintain its position in the government’s favour, though, al-Minbar has been careful to distinguish itself from more oppositional Brotherhood groups elsewhere in the region, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and insists that it is loyal to the Brotherhood’s Islamist Sunni ideology, concerned at its core with Islamising society through government, but not as a transnational organisation.

This ideology essentially declares that Islam should inform government policies and is often accompanied by the belief that participation in elections is a critical means of effecting the slow Islamisation of society.

Regardless of whether the Brotherhood is banned inside the Gulf and regardless of what happens to Qatar, support for these beliefs is likely to remain. Meanwhile, leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue to harbour suspicions of the Brotherhood for three primary reasons: its ideology cannot be bought off; the group has transnational roots; and its affiliates had links with local movements for political reform during the Arab spring.

Reaching middle ground, then, when it comes to treatment of the Brotherhood and related Islamist organisations has been understandably difficult and makes resolution of the current crisis elusive.

- Courtney Freer is a research officer at LSE’s Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States. She recently completed her DPhil at University of Oxford and previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders pose for a group picture during a GCC summit on 6 December 2016, in the Bahraini capital Manama. (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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