Saudi Arabia and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

Raphaël Lefèvre writes: The openly difficult relationship between Saudi Arabia and Muslim Brotherhood chapters across the region has become a salient feature of Middle East politics since the advent of the “Arab Spring.” This mutual mistrust has increased in the wake of the Kingdom’s recent support for the military takeover in Cairo and the generals’ subsequent repression of the Brotherhood there. But how is the Islamist organization affected by this dynamic in Syria, where the Muslim Brothers and the Saudis both battle against Bashar al-Assad?

The question has become ever more relevant since Saudi Arabia’s takeover of the “Syrian file” from the hands of the Qataris last May.[1] Yet the answer is steeped in ambiguities. On the one hand, the relationship between Riyadh and the Syrian Brotherhood suffers from political contradictions and a lack of genuine trust. On the other hand, the two actors know each other well and have a common short and medium-term interest: to see the Iran and Hezbollah-backed Syrian regime replaced by a new political system dominated by Sunnis. But the moving sands of Egypt might soon reach Syria too, and the consequences for the local Brotherhood branch there may one day be significant.

To understand the relationship between the Syrian Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia, often described by Syrian Brothers themselves as “complex,”[2] one first needs to look a few decades back. For it was after the Syrian Brotherhood’s rebellion in the late 1970s that both actors really started to know each other. Fleeing harsh repression in the early 1980s, tens of thousands of Muslim Brothers escaped Syria and took refuge in Jordan, Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It is estimated that the number of Brothers residing in the Kingdom today is in the low thousands.

This relatively sizeable presence initially posed challenges to Saudi rulers, who considered the Brotherhood’s goal of politicizing Islam a threat to the apolitical nature of their deeply conservative Wahhabi society. “The Saudi government believes that the implementation of the Brotherhood’s political project—calling for elections and the formation of parties—would mean the end of its own model, which depends on the control of a ruler who has all powers,” argued a leader of the Syrian Brotherhood who has family in the Gulf. The Kingdom therefore regulated the Syrian Brothers’ presence in Saudi Arabia by allowing them to carry out political activities in private but forbidding any politicization of Saudi society, with the promise of an uncompromising and harsh response as a deterrent. “We would be very cautious not to cross these lines,” recounted another Brother who was raised in Saudi Arabia. “There would be Syrian Brotherhood gatherings in houses or mosques but, to be discreet, we would only go and leave by a group of two or three individuals. We wouldn’t mix with members of other Brotherhood chapters, and we would almost never disclose our political affiliation in the presence of Saudi citizens.”

Thus, despite a sometimes heavy intelligence surveillance, the Kingdom nonetheless allowed the Syrian Brotherhood to operate underground. Saudi Arabia even became the place of residence for two leaders of the organization: Hassan al-Houeidi from Deir Ezzor, who lived in Medina, and Abdel Fatah Abu Ghuddah, a distinguished Islamic scholar from Aleppo who was based in Riyadh. This 30-year presence of an important share of the Syrian Brotherhood in the Kingdom helps explain why, short-term mutual interests aside, the Saudi rulers have for a long time tolerated the group more than its Egyptian counterpart. [Continue reading…]

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