Why the Muslim Brotherhood has Gulf leaders worried — now more than ever.
As tensions mount in Cairo over the Muslim Brotherhood’s erratic political decisions, the Brotherhood is also trying to navigate suspicion about its motives from oil-rich countries in the Gulf. In particular, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as one of the Brotherhood’s primary antagonists: Relations have deteriorated so much that a senior Brotherhood leader recently accused the UAE, home to more than 300,000 Egyptians, of “financing the opposition” in Egypt.
Emiratis first encountered the Muslim Brotherhood even before they had a country of their own. The UAE, along with the other states in the Arab Gulf, initially welcomed Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s persecution in the 1950s and 1960s. The Brothers flourished in the UAE: They were educated, professional, and upwardly mobile individuals who gained employment in various public and private posts, including the judicial and education sector. The UAE achieved independence in 1971, and three years later UAE nationals influenced by these new arrivals officially founded the UAE chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as Al Islah (“Reform”).
But Al Islah soon ran afoul of the UAE government: According to one former member, it drifted away from its stated, benign activities of “sports, culture, charitable work, and social activities” and into political activities. By the early 1990s, the UAE’s judicial and education sector was effectively a state within a state: The Brotherhood would make sure that those who qualified for educational scholarships and grants were either Brotherhood members, affiliates, or sympathizers. Within a short period, the student councils and professional associations — such as the jurist and teachers union — were turned into Muslim Brotherhood outposts dedicated to advancing their interests.
In 2006, the UAE started reassigning Al Islah members who worked in the education field to other posts — a move to decrease their influence on young Emiratis. Since the Brotherhood members were no longer in a position to pick scholarship awardees, they attempted to set up UAE student councils in countries as far afield as Australia to recruit new members. The emergence of a moderately Islamist government in Turkey also offered Al Islah members an ideal location to connect with Brotherhood members across the Middle East. Some meetings were held under the auspices of Western governments and associations, prompting the UAE to shut down a number of NGOs and think tanks.
In the past year, relations have gone from bad to worse. The UAE launched a nationwide crackdown against Al Islah, detaining scores of its members and affiliates and going so far as to accuse it of setting up an “armed wing” in the country. At the heart of the UAE’s hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood is the fear that — unlike home grown parties or blocs — the group believes that its allegiance to a transnational Islamist network, headed by the supreme guide, trumps allegiance to the nation-state.
Recent developments in Egypt — where President Mohamed Morsy seems determined to advance the Brotherhood’s interests over that of all Egyptians — have only exacerbated such fears. The main obstacle to building ties between the UAE and the new Egyptian government comes from the clandestine links the Egyptian Brotherhood maintains with underground cells in the UAE. The Brotherhood’s history of not keeping promises to its own people also doesn’t bode well for promises given to foreign governments such as the UAE.
Disagreements about the Brotherhood also profoundly shape the political battle lines between the Gulf Arab states. Qatar enjoys the best relations with the Brothers, offering financial aid and the dedicated media “mouthpiece” of Al Jazeera to the service of the group. The UAE, by cracking down on the Brotherhood, is positioning itself as the regional counterbalance to neighboring Qatar.
Despite the Brotherhood’s closeness to Qatar, the group is most keen on building ties with Saudi Arabia. According to one senior Gulf source with whom I spoke, the Brotherhood had given the Saudi government specific assurances regarding its position toward Iran, which the kingdom views as its main regional rival. However, Saudi leaders remain skeptical of the group — even after the death of former Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who was known for his hatred of the organization, and after numerous Brotherhood visits. One senior source present during recent negotiations in Turkey to coordinate support for Syrian rebels informed me of the kingdom’s strict rejection of a Muslim Brotherhood figure as head the Syrian opposition.
As for the UAE, its effort to stamp out illegal Muslim Brotherhood activities has also become a litmus test for the country’s judicial process. The UAE has held scores of citizens for months without trial as part of this effort, even as the UAE’s laws demand that every citizen to be granted a transparent trial. Abdul-Ghaffar Hussein, the head of the government-appointed UAE Human Rights Association, has called on the country’s Federal Public Prosecution to “end the interrogation of detainees as soon as possible and bring the detainees to trial.”
The UAE is a small country, and it is understandably challenged by a transnational organization that uses religion as a means of attaining political power. But these risks can best be countered not only through security measures, but also with proper education, stronger secular laws, and political reforms that allow UAE nationals to become stakeholders in their country’s development. A little international pressure wouldn’t hurt either: Perhaps the United States, the Brotherhood’s “main enabler” in the region, could emphasize to Morsy that he would be better served to govern as the president of Egypt, not the president of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on December 12, 2012.