Feuding with Qatar over Islam's place in a turbulent Arab world,
Riyadh recalled its ambassador from Doha last week and branded the
Brotherhood, a Qatari ally, a terrorist group.
Saudi Arabia has swung firmly behind the Egyptian military, which
deposed President Mohamed Mursi last year after mass protests
against the Brotherhood leader. Riyadh has since pumped billions of
dollars into Egypt's creaking economy.
Punishing Qatar for its pro-Brotherhood stance shows a new Saudi
confidence in pushing its agenda, even if it means splits in the
six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a U.S.-aligned alliance
which usually keeps any internal tensions private.
Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have followed Riyadh's lead in
recalling their envoys from Qatar. But Kuwait, home to an active
community of political Islamists integrated into the political and
business elite, has voiced disquiet and offered to mediate in the
Oman, which has opposed plans for a closer Gulf union, appeared to
downplay the seriousness of the rift on Wednesday.
"What happened is nothing more than differences and friendly
reproach between brothers ... what happened is not a divorce," the
Arabic-language Oman Daily cited the Minister of State for Foreign
Affairs Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah as saying.
The UAE shares Saudi Arabia's view that the Brotherhood, with its
taste for populist electoral politics, poses a threat to dynastic
rule and to Gulf security, but no other GCC member has yet declared
it a terrorist organization.
Bahrain may be politically close to Riyadh, but Islamist
sympathizers are among those who support its own Sunni ruling family
against challenges from the island's Shi'ite majority.
Kuwait must also tread carefully if it is to avoid fuelling chronic
strife pitting its hereditary rulers against political opponents who
include conservative tribal leaders and Islamists.
"The Saudi announcement is likely to complicate relations with Gulf
allies, especially against the backdrop of escalating tensions with
Qatar," said research analyst Wafa Alsayed of the Bahrain-based
International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"(The terrorist listing) really complicates things because it means
anyone could be directly or indirectly subjected to these laws, and
someone could be arrested so easily," she said.
Saudi wariness of the Brotherhood dates back at least to the 1990s
when some Saudi leaders accused it of inspiring the Sahwa opposition
movement agitating for democracy in the kingdom.
The Saudis are fuming over the pro-Brotherhood sympathies of Qatar,
which appears happy to act as a catalyst in the rapid changes
shaking up Arab politics since the uprisings of 2011.
The Brotherhood's acceptance of the ballot box challenges the Gulf
tradition of dynastic rule, offering an alternative interpretation
of the role of Islam in politics.
Many Gulf states also place little credence in Brotherhood
protestations that it is a non-violent movement.
All of which makes political Islamists in the Gulf uneasy.
It was not possible to reach any Saudi Brotherhood figures who
generally keep a low profile. But sympathizers elsewhere in the
region expressed apprehension.
Mohammad al-Dallal, a Kuwaiti Islamist and former lawmaker, said he
believed the Saudi actions were part of a coordinated policy with
Egypt to eradicate the 86-year-old Brotherhood.
"It is a strange thing, because the Muslim Brotherhood is not a
terror group and they are not a violent group, especially in the GCC
countries," Dallal said, noting that Gulf groups sympathetic to the
Brotherhood have not adopted its name.
Political Islamists in the Gulf are puzzling over what the Saudi
decree means in practical terms, at a time when the kingdom is
toughening penalties for terrorism.
The decree forbids anyone from supporting organizations ... "or
showing their affiliation, or sympathy or holding meetings under its
umbrella, whether within the kingdom or abroad".
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Saud al-Sarhan, director of research at King Faisal Centre for
Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, said the edict was unlikely
to affect Saudi relations with Gulf neighbors where the Brotherhood
is part of political life "as long as they (the Brotherhood) are not
trying to interfere the Saudi internal policy or trying to create
instability in the region".
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE said
they had acted against Qatar because it had reneged on a GCC
agreement not to meddle in the internal affairs of member states.
Qatar denies this, saying the dispute is rooted in wider Middle East
disagreements, such as its policy on Egypt.
All the GCC members may be uneasy about a rift that violates their
cherished goal of political and security solidarity, but Bahrain
appears to be in the most awkward position.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have helped Bahrain combat Shi'ite-led
protest and demands for more democracy since 2011. Bahrain's Sunni
Islamist groups, such as al-Minbar and al-Fateh, have mostly sided
with the government against the Shi'ite opposition.
"Bahrain is in a very complicated Catch-22," said IISS's Alsayed,
arguing that its rulers had a special relationship with Saudi
Arabia, but also relied on political support from their Sunni
constituency. "Which one matters more?"
A Bahraini lawmaker, who declined to be named, criticized the Saudi
designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group.
"So are the Brotherhood now going to be treated like al Qaeda?
Despite our differences with the Brotherhood .... this comparison is
unfair," said the lawmaker, who belongs not to the Brotherhood but
to the ultra-orthodox Salafi trend.
"I think in Bahrain it would be very difficult to give the group
this designation because there is no evidence that the Brotherhood
in Bahrain is tied to terrorism. They are citizens who denounce
terrorism," he said.
Islamists in Kuwait who share the Brotherhood's ideology, such as
members of the Islamic Constitutional Movement, often write in
leading newspapers and appear on television channels.
Also active in the private sector and the law, they form an
important opposition group, though their influence has waned since
late 2012 when most of them boycotted a parliamentary election over
changes to the voting system.
It is an open question whether Kuwaitis and Bahrainis who belong to
groups tolerated at home would run the risk of arrest if they travel
to Saudi Arabia or beyond.
Dallal said the Saudi decree would make it difficult for individuals
to speak favorably of the Brotherhood for fear of retribution. It
might even exclude people seen as linked to Brotherhood from going
on pilgrimages to Mecca in the kingdom.
"You cannot even speak with human rights organizations, according to
this decision," the Kuwaiti Islamist said. "You cannot really
participate in any conference, internationally."
(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and William Maclean in
Dubai; writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by William Maclean and
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