The Muslim Brotherhood organization owes its proliferation in the Arab Gulf States – among others – to Egyptian millionaire Osman Ahmed Osman, Minister of Housing and Development during the reign of the late President Sadat. Osman was born to a wealthy family, and spent his youth in a pro-Brotherhood atmosphere. However, after graduating as an engineer from university he left the organization, and established a close relationship with some members of the Free Officers Movement, through which he was able to win the contract to help construct the Aswan High Dam. Over time, his “Arab Contractors” company became one of the largest construction companies in the Middle East.
Yet Osman remained sympathetic to the Brotherhood, and so he suggested to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s intelligence services that it would be best for the Brotherhood to operate in the Gulf, because if they continued to remain idle [in Egypt] they would remain a problem for the regime. Over a few years, and with increasing numbers of Brotherhood members moving to the Gulf, a generation of Muslim Brotherhood disciples emerged and began supporting the organization financially. Osman Ahmed Osman was summoned by Abdel Nasser, chastised and threatened with imprisonment, but Osman pointed out that the Egyptian regime itself was the one that had allowed Brotherhood members to move to the Gulf. (“No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam”, Geneive Abdo, 2000)
The story of Muslim Brotherhood expansion in the Gulf did not start with Osman; since the end of the 1930s the Brotherhood dreamed of exporting its ideology and approach to other Arab and Islamic countries, and the real intensification of this coincided with the Sadat era. At that point the organization was able to move and work without restriction to influence the centers of power and the currents opposed to the regime. Yet it is thanks to individuals like Osman that the Brotherhood was able to secure important positions in the industrial and commercial sectors, whilst forming religious associations at the same time – due to the prohibition of political parties in the Gulf – in each of Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. It also had an active presence in Saudi Arabia, despite the group being banned there. Initially, the Gulf States did not have any problems with the Brotherhood presence, on the one hand their religious approach was appropriate and consistent with the conservative nature of the Gulf States, and on the other hand the Muslim Brotherhood filled a void that was being experienced by those countries in the face of active left-wing and nationalist currents popular among the Gulf youth. However, over time, the Brotherhood associations transformed from their moral, educational base towards political action, and began to be critical of Gulf governments. The confrontation came to a head when the Muslim Brotherhood stood against the liberation of Kuwait by an international coalition in 1991.
After this the Gulf governments tried to reduce the influence of the Brotherhood and those influenced by its ideas during the 1990s. Some countries relied upon the dynamic Salafist movement to confront the Brotherhood. Others used the carrot and stick approach, trying to separate the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in the Gulf from the mother organization. It can be said that during the past twenty years there has been a silent and indirect confrontation between the Gulf States and the Muslim Brotherhood for two reasons: The first is the tide of Islamic fundamentalism that steadily grew during the 1990s. The second is that the Gulf States did not want to eliminate those affiliated to the Brotherhood, so as not to disturb the social balance in which various Islamic trends were active, particularly as it was difficult to distinguish between who had merely been influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, and who was an active member of its international organization.
In his study “The Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE: The expansion and the decline”, Saudi writer Mansour Alnogaidan reveals that the UAE federal government tried to address the Muslim Brotherhood issue by containing its members, in a series of meetings held by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed – the Crown Prince – with some Brotherhood affiliates in 2003. The state tried to contain them by offering three options to the Brotherhood cadres who were employed in the education sector. The options were as follows:
Firstly – they could be rehabilitated and allowed to keep their jobs in education, after declaring that they had abandoned the Brotherhood, and after renouncing their allegiance to its leader. Then they could contribute towards building a moderate and tolerant Islamic reformist ideology, far removed from parties or organizations, and contrary to the Brotherhood’s ideology. The government would ensure all the necessary support required for these “converts”.
Secondly – the members could abandon the Brotherhood as an organization, but uphold their ideas in private, provided that they did not promote or advocate them publicly. Under these conditions they could remain within the education institution, but would be kept away from teaching and direct contact with students.
Thirdly – job opportunities outside of the education institution were offered to all those who chose to remain affiliated to the Brotherhood, thus rejecting the government’s offer. The government also offered to help those approaching the end of their careers in education to enter retirement. (“The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in the Gulf”, Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center, 2010)
The results, however, were not conclusive. Brotherhood leaders insisted on the group’s right to be an active organization, prompting the UAE authorities to take action and government measures, in order to purify the education curriculum from the Muslim Brotherhood ideology. However, with the beginning of the Arab revolutions in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt reached a position of authority, and the conciliatory Brotherhood discourse changed into a discourse of confrontation and escalation, whereby those influenced by the Brotherhood ideology in the Gulf had a favorable opportunity to obtain what they considered to be their political share.
The recent exchange of verbal threats and accusations between the UAE and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has brought the conflict into the open. The UAE withdrew the nationality of some individuals said to be linked to a project to destabilize Emirati unity, and this was followed by the Brotherhood Sheikh, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, attacking the UAE policy and its deportation of Syrian protestors. Officials in the UAE have expressed their disapproval of this external interference in their domestic affairs, considering this an encroachment upon the sovereignty of their state. However, the Brotherhood reply was a fierce one, with a spokesman for the organization coming out to publicly threaten the UAE’s security and stability. For that reason the UAE response was clear, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed – UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs – demanded that the Egyptian government explain its position with regards to these statements, and this was followed by a firm stance from the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) condemning the Brotherhood’s remarks.
There is no doubt that the UAE officials were right to take a firm stand against Muslim Brotherhood interference in their internal affairs, and the UAE, in the same manner that other Gulf States have the right to object to the activities of groups, associations and centers that pledge allegiance to anything other than the national constitution, or serve the agenda of a foreign state. However, the challenge posed by the Muslim Brotherhood rising to power in some Arab countries is not limited to the UAE, but rather all Gulf States should ask themselves the following question: would they allow the expansion and spread of the activities of groups and individuals who have a religious allegiance to a foreign entity?
In an article entitled “The Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE…clarifications are necessary”, Hamad al Mansouri, a board member for the “al-Islah Society” in the Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah and one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE, argues that the organization is suffering from a crackdown by the state security apparatus. He called on the need for the state to re-clarify its position with regards to dealing with the Brotherhood, i.e. an organization that considers itself on a par with the country’s legitimate institutions. Yet al-Mansouri recognized – at the same time – that the [UAE] organization had stopped pledging allegiance to the [Muslim Brotherhood] General Guide in Egypt “since 2003, as we have no professional or religious need for this”. (Al-Hayat newspaper, 19 September 2010)
Considering the strong rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the groups close to it, to power in Egypt and other “Arab Spring” states, the Gulf stance is somewhat vague. Some countries – such as the UAE – have a clear position regarding the Brotherhood approach seeking to export its ideas and disseminate organizations loyal to it abroad. There are other countries – such as Qatar – that are in a state of convergence and coordination with the Brotherhood forces. Nevertheless, the UAE was right to demand the dissolution of the organization in its country, as the Qatari branch did in 1999, and if the Brotherhood agreed to dissolve its organization in Qatar, then why doesn’t it disband in the rest of the Gulf States?
Today, there are two tendencies when it comes to addressing this issue: The first opinion seeks to avoid antagonizing the Muslim Brotherhood, so that Egypt does not join the Iranian-Syrian axis (of opposition and resistance). Those of this opinion assert that once the Brotherhood comes to power, it will be forced to change its discourse. The second opinion warns the Gulf States against returning to rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood, reminding them of their earlier stances, and the bad history between them despite the Gulf supporting and embracing the Brotherhood in the past.
In my opinion, the UAE’s position must demand the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt to adopt a different stance from that of the Muslim Brotherhood, so that the Gulf States are not targeted from two wings; one representing the pro-Brotherhood government, and the other representing the hardline organization itself. The Gulf States could benefit from a historic opportunity to remedy their relationship with this organization, and establish new relations based upon interests and clear rules. There is no danger in dealing with the organization if it is sincere in rectifying its legacy of coups and radicalism. However, engaging in rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood on the assumption of good intentions alone is a great risk. The Gulf States must recall their past in order to ensure they are not bitten twice by the Brotherhood.