14.05.2014 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Deepening division in the “Sunni” Arab world

4564564The incidents preceding and following the Saudi government’s decision to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist” organization are symptomatic of the growing division within the “Sunni” Arab world—a ‘world’ that is pitted against the “Shia” world is, ironically, a house divided against itself and suffering from a certain ‘security’ paranoia. Not only does this decision show the Saudi government’s fear of an internal uprising after the fashion of “Arab Spring” against their authoritarian rule, but also reflects a broader geo-political rivalry between two groups within the “Sunni” Arab world, one being led by Saudi Arabia and the other by Qatar, with both trying to establish supremacy in the Arab world. The decision of the Saudi government was, within few days, seconded by UAE—another dictatorial government in the Gulf region. Significantly, the decision was preceded by both governments’ along with Bahrain’s decision to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar on the basis of the latter’s official support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Let’s analyze Saudia’s decision of banning and declaring the Brotherhood from internal and external perspectives, which would show that the Saudi government, motivated by the fear of losing power in both internal external spheres of politics, has taken this step of banning an organization which, otherwise, did win a decisive electoral victory after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial regime.

Saudi Arabia`s decision to brand the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization should not have come as a surprise to anyone, given the conservative kingdom`s paranoia about not just movements that stand for human rights and democracy, but even the Islamic groups or movements that believe in democracy. The Brotherhood may have its own agenda, and its charter may have aims that sound anachronistic, but of this party, founded by Hassan al-Banna, has been relying on the electoral process and constitutional means to achieve power rather than resorting to ‘violent’ or ‘terror’ related activities as contended by the Saudi authorities. Yet Riyadh welcomed the army coup that ousted the Brotherhood`s elected government headed by Mohammad Morsi. However, Saudi ban should not be seen in isolation from the kingdom`s larger concerns in the Middle East, especially the rise of movements that have an agenda the monarchy has no reason to view with favour. The truth is that Saudi Arabia has been very unhappy with the turn which the Arab Spring has taken and has realized belatedly that its Syria policy has already started to backfire, with serious potential to have a spillover effect within Saudia itself. The ban includes in its sweep four other groups as well. A hitherto unknown Saudi chapter of Hezbollah, a Shia militia in northern Yemen and two `jihadi` groups in Syria: the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. These two groups have been involved in combat not only with the Syrian army but also with various militant factions. Like the US, Saudi Arabia, too, has realized quite late that some of the major groups it had been backing were no more a necessary asset in an anti-Iran front and that they would pose a threat to the kingdom itself if the battle turned inwards. This division between the Saudi backed anti-Assad—anti-Shia groups and the Saudi government is symptomatic of the larger division that has already started to permeate the “Sunni” world.

Aside from officially banning the organization, the Saudi government has also been actively trying to insulate itself from its social and literary effects on its society by banning a number of books from school libraries including works by Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer who was the leading intellectual of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. The decision by the Saudi authorities to ban Qtub’s works undoubtedly reflects tensions in the Kingdom regarding the Muslim Brotherhood which historically has had a strong presence in Saudi Arabia, and is known to have played a critical role in establishing important Saudi religious institutions such as the Muslim World League MWL) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), both dedicated to the global expansion of Saudi “Wahabbi” style Islam, and which continue to have close relationships with the global Muslim Brotherhood network—enough for the Saudi government to harbour its negative consequences against the authoritarian power structure that remains intact to the exclusion of people of Saudia. So scared is Saudi Arabia of Qatar’s support for Muslim Brotherhood that last year it passed a law deeming any act that endangers or “undermines” national security as possible terrorism, which potentially could carry the death sentence.

The fear of losing power in the wake of a possible popular eruption is not, however, restricted to Saudia alone. The Saudi decision was immediately seconded by UAE—another dictatorial state—in a bid to counter not only Brotherhood’s influence in the state but also to squeeze space for Brotherhood’s international supporter, Qatar. Recent days have also seen UAE and Bahrain pulling out their envoys from Qatar which they think is backing the wrong horse in Egypt. As a matter of fact, Qatar’s strategy of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and putting itself at the cutting edge of change elsewhere in the region as well as its soft diplomacy contain risks for Saudi government’s geo-strategic interests closely tied to its objective of establishing “Sunni” supremacy in the Middle East under its own unchallenged leadership. The Persian Gulf petro-powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar are engaged in a struggle for ideological and geopolitical supremacy in the Sunni Islamic world. Both nations have been actively involved in the so-called Arab Spring revolutionary movements that have erupted throughout the Middle East since the spring of 2011, but differ in their sociopolitical views of how to manage the inevitable transition that is taking place in the region while maintaining the status quo within their respective monarchies. High on the list of differences between the two countries are, as such, their diametrically opposed views on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has become a flashpoint between the two states.

At the core of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fundamentally different strategies of self-preservation, and projection of ‘varying’ versions of Islam in the MENA, and to achieve that end, both have been utilizing various types of strategic platforms ranging from direct military support to information warfare.

While the royal families of both have sought to buffer themselves by lavish social spending, Saudi Arabia has opted for maintenance of the status quo where possible and limited engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, towards which it does harbour deep-seated distrust. Qatar, which has thrown its full support behind the Muslim Brotherhood, also funds the popular Al-Jazeera media network that is referred to as the mouthpiece of the Brotherhood, in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, in Tunisia; while Al-Arabiya, although based in the UAE, was founded by and is funded by Saudi Arabia. These news channels are also in direct competition with one another and support the policies of their protectors. The stakes are increased because each organization is very popular within the region and can influence the hearts and minds of millions of people across entire MENA.

Similarly in case of crisis in Syria, although Saudia and Qatar do share the goal of toppling Assad’s regime, they do not see eye to eye on what should follow. For example, the Qataris support the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and demand that the Muslim Brotherhood should come to power following the downfall of the government in Syria, which by implication means two consequences: implantation of Salafi version of Islam and geo-political ascendancy of Qatar. But due to its old enmity with the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia does not pursue such a development. Both countries, in a bid to achieve that very purpose, have been extensively funding selective groups among the so-called “rebels.” Qatar was, unless its sudden withdrawal from active involvement in Syria after the change of leadership, the leading arms supplier to insurgents Syria, with 85 plane loads of weapons flown – apparently under CIA auspices and with Turkish oversight – from Doha to Ankara and from there, trucked into Syria and distributed among rebel factions. Saudi Arabia was a distant second with only 37 planeloads. However, by 2014, these figures have already started to shuffle with Saudi Arabia agreeing to supply heavy weapons to the “rebels” and also pushing some its allies, such as Pakistan, into the geo-political games in the Middle East. According to a February 2014 report of The Wall Street Journal, Saudi government has agreed to provide the (only selected groups after imposition of an on other) of opposition for the first time the Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads, and antitank guided missiles as well to achieve two main goals, i.e., countering the army as well as Qatari backed “rebel” groups.

On the other hand, the reason for the US not ‘seriously’ objecting against this supply of weapons (the US has from the beginning of the crisis been opposing Saudi with regard to provision of heavy weaponry to rebels) is, most probably, the fact that the position of Qatar puts it not only against Saudia but also against the USA itself, which has as one of its main security interests in the region the protection of the Zionist regime in Israel, and which faces ‘serious’ security threats from the stockpile of “rebels” in Syria. As such, the new law in Saudia banning the Brotherhood is also believed to reflect pressure from the US which wants to see Assad’s overthrow but is alarmed by the rising influence of hard-line foreign jihadists — many of them linked to al Qaeda — among the rebels.

However, the power tussle in the “Sunni” Arab world has divided that very ‘world’ against itself, what to speak of eliminating the Shia “world.” The point to consider here, which deserves due attention to understand geo-political games in the Middle East, is that there are more than one dimensions of the on-going conflict the ME. It seems to be an oversimplication to simply describe it in terms of Sunni-Shia rivalry; there is also an on-going rivalry between certain Sunni states for gaining geo-political advantages, which is deepening with everyday passing. In that context, it becomes quite relevant to ask this question of whether it is proper to call the so-called “Sunni” world a ‘world’, or to say that there are only two major contending groups in the MENA. Our finding certainly suggest a position contrary to these assumptions.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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