Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, received a visit from the Saudi King in Cairo, who personally congratulated him on his victory in the presidential elections of May, 2014. For the Saudi monarch, it was a symbol of the Kingdom’s success in turning back what he labelled the “strange chaos” of the revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests known as the Arab Spring. The Saudi King also called for a donor’s conference for further financial support to Egypt. One thing is clear, before the army intervened; Riyadh saw that Egypt faced the possibility of serious instability. Because of the kingdom’s gradual loss of its regional allies as a result of the Arab Spring, it could not afford Egypt to fall into such political chaos. Riyadh saw that such a scenario could have led to consequences it would have had to deal with alone. Given that Iranian influence, amid the political chaos and through Shi’ite organisations, was able to infiltrate Arab countries, could not the same happen in Egypt? As its neighbour and Arab world’s most populous country, Egypt is one of the most important priorities in Saudi Arabia’s regional foreign policy agenda.
The question to be asked here is: why does Egypt take one of the central places in Saudi Arabia’s regional foreign policy? One of the most important things to understand is that Riyadh’s foreign policy is an extension of its internal one, based upon the interests of the Saudi royal elites and the official Salafi-Wahhabi establishment of religious scholars (ulama). Riyadh’s view of external threats is therefore a reflection and an extension of its assessment of the internal political threats and challenges faced by its politico-religious elite. This political threat came from Egypt in a form of political Islam. Although it is clear that a divide exists in regional politics especially between Shia Iran and the Saudi Kingdom of Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, one should also pay attention to divisions within Sunni Islam that are extremely important. Some Middle East analysts even suggest that the division that will shape the future of Arab politics is not between Sunnis and Shi’as but among “various understandings of Sunni Islamism.”
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia often sees regional politics as a zero-sum game scenario. In this regard, al-Sisi’s victory and his promise to finish off the Muslim Brotherhood marked a new beginning for Egypt’s politics. Saudis knew that political breakout of Morsi’s administration could open a new front for confrontation in a conflict in which Saudi Arabia fights for control of the Sunni political scene in order to bolster its legitimacy as an Islamic role-model state. In this confrontation for control of the Sunni political scene, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi-Wahhabi understanding of Islam that the Saudi Kingdom takes its legitimacy from are in direct competition. The Muslim Brotherhood’s coming into Egyptian politics in 2012 was unwelcome political development for the Kingdom. The Muslim Brotherhood is influential in Jordan, the Kingdom’s northern neighbour, and in Yemen, its southern neighbour. The Saudi religious-political elite feared that growing influence of Muslim Brotherhood on Hamas in the Palestinian Gaza Strip could create the “Brotherhood Crescent” to the North, South and West of the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s striving to strengthen its image as a role-model state within the Sunni Arab world is absolutely essential for preserving its legitimacy based on the Salafi-Wahhabi creed. Therefore, the Saudi royal decree against terrorism in February 2014, and later the Interior Ministry declaration in March banning several Islamist groups, can be considered as the general framework of the new security doctrine of the Kingdom. According to this new security doctrine, among other groups such as al-Qaida or Saudi Hezbollah (Hezbollah in the Hijaz), members of the Muslim Brotherhood or those sympathetic to its ideology are deemed terrorists.
In order to understand the division between the Salafi-Wahhabi creed of Saudi Kingdom and the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ideology, it is essential to know that one is a mainly theological movement with its origins in pre-modern Arabia; the other is a modern political ideology with roots in the cosmopolitan cities of the 20th century. Although some overlap exists between them, they continue to be distinct. Therefore, they have separate world views. Their historic missions have been completely different, as are their current goals and the means of achieving those goals. Learning the differences between those two is critical to understanding the ideological rivalry, therefore, the competition for the model of the Islamic state for the region.
The historic mission of the Muslim Brotherhood has been political reform based on an Islamic political identity. Unlike the Saudi Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment, however, the Muslim Brotherhood was never concerned with implementing a particular theology. It recruited members who held various understandings of Sunni Islam, and attempted to incorporate as many Muslims into a broad coalition sharing a single Islamic political identity. Its leaders often mixed traditional Islam with modern political thought including: nationalism, constitutionalism and participation in elections. In this regard, the Muslim Brothers and the Saudi Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment have often been fierce critics of one another. They each consider the other to have divided the Islamic community (ummah). The Muslim Brotherhood accuses the Saudi Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment of being so strict in its interpretation of Islam to have caused schism (fitnah). The Muslim Brotherhood leaders argue that the Saudi version of Islam pits one group of Muslims against another and that Islam strictly forbids such divisions. The Muslim Brotherhood, therefore, claims legitimacy based on a mix of Islamic and modern principles. Therefore, the main argument that the Muslim Brotherhood makes against the Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment and the political legitimacy it gives to the Saudi royal family is that Saudi version of Islam is no longer politically viable in the modern age.
The Saudis knew that if the Muslim Brotherhood was to form an Islamic state, it would probably look similar to the current Islamic Republic of Iran, which for example, has a constitution and holds elections. This is despite the fact that one group is Sunni and the other is Shi’a. The Muslim Brothers, as already mentioned, are generally more tolerant towards various understandings of Sunni Islam. What is more, regarding the issue of the Sunni-Shi’a division, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology, the Muslim Brotherhood has often sided with Iran and the Shi’a Muslims. For example, the Brotherhood linked scholar al-Qaradawi openly supported Iran’s nuclear programme by stating that “nuclear Iran is not a threat” to the region, and that “It is obligatory on all Muslims to resist any possible attack the US might launch against Iran.” Under Mubarak, Egypt had been a dependable ally of Saudi Arabia. But after the Muslim Brotherhood’s coming into Egyptian politics in 2012, Morsi sought to follow a neutral course between Saudi Arabia and Iran that was both undesirable and a potentially challenging policy for the Saudi Kingdom.
In this regard, although there were times when al-Saud family gave its strong support to the Muslim Brotherhood, this Saudi support was based on the alliance of circumstances, as long as it served its interests to fight liberal and secular forces, especially during the times of Arab nationalism, and supported the role of religion in politics. It was perceived and used as a tool of Kingdom’s foreign policy. But this alliance of circumstances does not mean that the al-Saud ruling family and Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment was not sceptical about the Muslim Brotherhood and its religious-political doctrine. Now the al-Saud ruling family and the Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment sees the activist and “republican” formula of Islam with its modern political influences promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood that strives, as they see it, to meet the demands of a changing world, as a threat to the absolute monarchy formula established in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which advocates undisputed obedience and prohibits the revolt against the political regime. As Saudi Prince Salman, the head of Saudi royal family came out publicly against all those who doubted the form of “correct and pure Salafism” and Islam applied in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He said that “such sullying is being done by various elements who do not like either [Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab’s] preaching or what it led to, that is, the establishment of an Islamic state founded primarily on [Islam]…”
It is not surprising in this context that the Saudi royal decree against terrorism and banning several Islamist groups that followed represents a general and aggressive framework for its new security doctrine. Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of the al-Saud ruling family and the Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment’s continuous underscoring the link between the ruling family and the protectorate of a Muslim state and its policies. Because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the region, the Saudi authorities had always feared the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Sunni Islamist doctrines and political ideology challenges the Saudi principles of dynastic rule therefore its position as the Islamic role-model state within the Sunni Arab world.
Irakli Tusiashvili is a researcher at Liberation. His research interests include Iran and Saudi Arabia, with an emphasis on Political Islam and their foreign policies.