As the Muslim Brotherhood ascends to power, a question remains on how the once “banned” group will handle the issue of ties with the Arab Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are today the two states in the Gulf that are most skeptical of the Muslim Brotherhood. And yet these are precisely the two countries that Egypt's Brotherhood must try its best to build bridges with. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are, after all, the two largest economies in the Arab world, and the biggest investors in Egypt despite what other Gulf countries claim. Almost 500 UAE firms operate in Egypt with investments valued at US$10 billion, the same amount invested by Saudis. The latter have additionally promised to grant Egypt several billion dollars in aid. It is also worth noting that 1.5 million Egyptians work and live in Saudi Arabia, while 250,000 Egyptians are residents of the UAE.
The Muslim Brotherhood, however, does enjoy a semi-recognized status in two other Gulf states. For instance, although it suffered a recent elections setback in Bahrain’s previous parliament, the Menbar Society, a Bahraini offshoot of the Brotherhood, had previously held six seats out of a total of 40, in addition to the post of second deputy speaker. In Kuwait, Islamists won an overwhelming majority of seats in parliament this month with the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood, known as the Islamic Constitutional Movement, winning all four seats it contested in the 50-seat body, doubling the number they had earlier held.
As of today, though, representatives of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been alone among Gulf states in announcing their skepticism of Egypt's Brotherhood. A recent opinion column by Tariq al-Homayed, editor of the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that is owned by Saudi Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, criticized what he called “disciples” who “come out to defend the Muslim Brotherhood, acting as if they are the Muslim Brotherhood ambassadors to Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states.” Additionally, in a widely circulated video recording of a recent speech in Bahrain, Dubai’s police chief, who enjoys close relations with the country’s prime minister, warned against the Muslim Brotherhood, stating that their “threat” to the region was just as serious as that of Iran’s. Additionally, I outlined in an article in Gulf News last year how a petition calling for reform sent to the UAE government by 130 academics was stillborn due to the fact that some of the signatories were affiliated with the Brotherhood in the country.
I was personally told by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed that there are three issues of importance to the Arab Gulf states that Egypt’s Brotherhood must clarify in order for a new page to be opened between both sides. First, the Gulf states require clear assurances from the Brotherhood that it will not seek to “export the revolution” to the Gulf. Secondly, the Gulf states require assurances that any Muslim Brotherhood-backed government in Egypt will not compromise Gulf security. Bin Zayed finally added that the Gulf states would gladly commit to further investments if the Egyptian government adopts a clear developmental plan and position with regard to Egypt’s IMF and World Bank commitments — instead of playing hard to get.
Another senior Saudi official speaking under Chatham House rules at a recent international meeting cautioned the Islamist parties in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world not to “waste their time with expecting investments from the West,” since these countries are suffering from the fallout of the global financial crisis, and instead build ties with the Arab Gulf states.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s new powerbrokers along with other Islamists, would do well to heed this advice, precisely because they are in dire need to mend Egypt's socioeconomic grievances — made a necessity after the revolution.
Furthermore, in a recent article in UAE’s The National newspaper, editorial writer Hassan Hassan outlined two additional issues that make the Gulf governments weary of the Brotherhood’s influence in their countries. In addition to the Brotherhood’s dominating “influence” on the Gulf’s education sector, the author states that the most problematic aspect is the “requirement for Gulf members [of the Brotherhood] to pledge allegiance to a figurehead in Egypt,” namely Mohamed Badie, the current supreme guide of the group.
Perhaps Qatar, the region’s rising diplomatic broker, can play a role in bridging the gap between the Gulf states and the Brotherhood in Egypt. Qatar, after all, has hosted senior Egyptian Brotherhood figures for decades, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has lived in Doha since 1961, in addition to promising $10 billion in investment once “stability returns” to Egypt.
I previously outlined in an Al Jazeera article Egypt's importance to the Arab Gulf states, particularly because it is the only Arab state capable of balancing Iran’s military might. Moreover, there is much in common when it comes to the right-wing economic liberal ideologies adopted by the Arab Gulf states and the Brotherhood. This is evident in the affiliation of many leading businessmen with the Brotherhood, which advocates a free-market economy with a strong private sector.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood will sooner or later face a conundrum on how to attract much needed investments from wealthy regimes that are largely suspicious of its agenda. Unlike Western officials, no Gulf state representative has visited the Brotherhood in Egypt (although Qatar’s emir did visit Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi last May). Nor have Gulf officials received representatives from the Brotherhood in their countries. The coming days will show us whether the Brotherhood’s pragmatism will lead them to start knocking on Gulf states’ doors.
Sultan al-Qassemi is a UAE-based commentator on Arab affairs.