Institute for Contemporary Affairs, founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
Vol. 14, No. 11 April 23, 2014
- Following the lead of Egypt, Saudi Arabia has decided to join the battle against jihadists in the Middle East, where movements led by al-Qaeda and Iran strive to topple the ruling Arab regimes. The leading regimes realize that these movements have a common goal: to destroy the prevailing political order and replace it with either a Sunni caliphate based on the strictest interpretation ofIslamic law or a state modeled after the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran.
- Saudi Arabia’s decisions to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and downgrade diplomatic ties with Qatar to protest its support for the Brotherhood mark an important turning point in the kingdom’s approach to international terrorism.
- To contain negative influences and counter the threat to the regime’s stability stemming from the “Arab Spring,” Saudi Arabia has initiated economic and social reforms. It has also started to take action against the global jihad’s funding sources, primarily wealthy citizens in the kingdom itself, and has further increased intelligence cooperation with the United States.
- Saudi Arabia and the UAE are incensed over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. They are also offended by Qatar’s giving asylum to Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian cleric and staunch critic of both the Egyptian and Saudi regimes. Qatar has given Qaradawi free rein on its influential satellite channel Al Jazeera.
- Qatar has also granted asylum to a former Israeli Arab Member of Knesset who is wanted in Israel for subversive activities, ‘Azmi Beshara, and appointed him adviser to the ruling emir and director-general of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (known as the Doha Institute). The Egyptians and the Saudis want Qatar to close Beshara’s Doha Institute for its seditious publications and activities.
The Leading Regimes in the Arab World Mobilize to Counter Extreme Islamic Movements
Following the lead of Egypt and other Arab states, Saudi Arabia has decided to join the battle against jihadists in the Middle East and North Africa, where movements led by al-Qaeda and Iran strive to undermine Arab regimes and topple the ruling elites. Three years after the outbreak of what romantics called the “Arab Spring,” the leading regimes in the Arab world have mobilized to counter the anarchy sown by extreme Islamic movements.
The ruling Arab elites realize that the movements led by al-Qaeda or Iran have a common goal: to destroy the prevailing political order in the Middle East and, where appropriate, replace it with either a Sunni caliphate based on the strictest interpretation of shari’a (Islamic law), or a state modeled after the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran.
Saudi Arabia Targets Al-Qaeda
In an unprecedented decision, on March 7, 2014, the Saudi kingdom formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization,1 just four months after the army-backed government in Cairo did the same in December after accusing the Brotherhood of a suicide bomb attack on a police station that killed sixteen. The Saudi kingdom has also given the terrorist-group designation to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (in Arabic, Daesh), and the Al-Nusra Front whose fighters are waging a merciless war against the Assad regime in Syria. The Saudi Interior Ministry also listed as terrorist organizations Yemen’s Shiite Houthi movement and Hizbullah in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, an offspring of the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hizbullah.
The Saudi Interior Ministry’s regulations include far-reaching provisions that authorities can use to criminalize virtually any expression or association critical of the government and its understanding of Islam, as stated in Article 1 of the royal decree that prohibits “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
Besides banning the abovementioned organizations, Saudi Arabia has called on all its citizens fighting in foreign wars to return within the next few weeks or face up to twenty years’ imprisonment. This reflects concern that young Saudis with battle experience in Syria will come home to target the ruling Al-Saud royal family, as occurred in the cases of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Saudi Arabia’s religious authorities have spoken out against Saudis going to Syria to fight, but the Interior Ministry estimates that around 1,200 have done so nonetheless.
The kingdom has also approved new legislation that criminalizes raising, receiving, offering, holding, or transferring money to individuals or groups designated as terrorist. The Interior Ministry emphasized that the royal decree would apply to both Saudis and foreign residents who joined, endorsed, or gave moral or material aid to groups it classifies as terrorist or extremist, whether inside or outside the country. The decree also asserts that “those who insult other countries and their leaders” or attend gatherings inside or outside Saudi Arabia that threaten security and stability and spread sedition, would be punished by law. Article 4 places outside the law anyone who:
…aids [“terrorist”] organizations, groups, currents [of thought], associations, or parties, or demonstrates affiliation with them, or sympathy with them, or promotes them, or holds meetings under their umbrella, either inside or outside the kingdom; this includes participation in audio, written, or visual media; social media in its audio, written, or visual forms; internet websites; or circulating their contents in any form, or using slogans of these groups and currents [of thought], or any symbols which point to support or sympathy with them.
Anger over Qatar’s Support for the Muslim Brotherhood
At the same time and in an exceptional move, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar, saying Doha had violated an agreement not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are incensed over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
They are also offended by Qatar’s adoption of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the notorious president of the World Muslim ‘Ulema Association, an influential Egyptian cleric and staunch critic of both the Egyptian and Saudi regimes. Qatar has given Qaradawi asylum and a free rein on its influential satellite channel Al Jazeera.
Qatar has also granted asylum to a former Israeli Arab Member of Knesset who is wanted in Israel for subversive activities, ‘Azmi Beshara, and appointed him to the very significant positions of adviser to the ruling emir and director-general of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (also known as the Doha Institute).
A Turning Point for Saudi Policy
Saudi Arabia’s decisions to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and downgrade diplomatic ties with Qatar to protest its support for the Brotherhood mark an important turning point in the kingdom’s approach to international terrorism. The Saudi government had been the main financial backer of Afghanistan’s Taliban since at least 1996. It has also channeled funds to Hamas and other groups that have committed terrorist acts in Israel and other parts of the Middle East.
Moreover, the Saudi monarchy has funded schools and “charities” throughout the Islamic world that have been centers of anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Israeli indoctrination.2 The schools, for example, not only indoctrinate students in a virulent and extreme form of Islam, but also teach them to hate Western secular values. They are also taught that the United States is (along with Israel) the fulcrum of infidel power in the world and the enemy of Islam. Graduates of these schools are often recruited by al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups.
To contain negative influences and counter the threat to the regime’s stability stemming from the “Arab Spring,” Saudi Arabia has initiated economic and social reforms. It has also started to take action against the global jihad’s funding sources, primarily wealthy citizens in the kingdom itself, and has further increased intelligence cooperation with the United States after the latter criticized the kingdom’s meager efforts in this regard.
In the past, Saudi Arabia appeared reluctant to launch a comprehensive counterterror strategy.3 It enlisted in the fight against terrorism only under intense U.S. pressure following the September 11 attack. Even then, its cooperation has been minimal and grudging. For example, Riyadh has resisted Washington’s requests to use its bases in Saudi Arabia for military operations against al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan. Although, after September 11, the Saudis mobilized against al-Qaeda and its support base at home, they seemed unwilling to confront the deeper sources of political, ideological, and financial support for extremism and terrorism within the kingdom.
Now that Riyadh recognizes that a permissive domestic environment for extremism has begun to threaten political stability and social cohesion within the kingdom itself, a more vigorous approach is needed. Meanwhile, tumult generated by the “Arab Spring,” the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the civil war in Syria, and the internal tensions within Iraq and Bahrain have highlighted the new and existential threats to Saudi Arabia from within the region.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in the 2012 Egyptian elections, along with the profound crisis of trust fostered by Washington’s more pragmatic approach to Iran4 as the moderate Arab regimes perceive it, have induced deep anxiety in Riyadh about the challenges in its vicinity. It was only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia began to strongly support the Egyptian military in ousting the Brotherhood and assisting the Egyptian regime in its quest for economic stability. After Washington penalized Cairo for its August 2013 armed repression of the Brotherhood by embargoing the delivery of weapon systems, Riyadh offered to finance Cairo’s purchase of new weapon systems from Russia.5
The Saudis saw the Brotherhood as such a danger that they confronted Qatar’s open support for the organization. Qatar is a member of the Saudi-headed Gulf Cooperation Council. Following the lead of Egypt along with Abu Dhabi, which has been concerned about the Brotherhood’s activity in the UAE, and Bahrain, a close ally of the Saudis, Riyadh decided to withdraw its ambassador from Doha. These three countries see Doha as ignoring their demands to stop interfering in their internal affairs. The Egyptians and the Saudis have, in addition, closed Al Jazeera’s offices in their respective countries and demanded that Qatar put an end to Qaradawi’s inflammatory sermons, extradite him to Egypt together with Egyptian Islamist fugitives in Doha, and close Beshara’s Doha Institute for its seditious publications and activities.6
At present, Egypt and the Arab Gulf states (except for Qatar and Oman) have formed a de facto alliance aimed at fighting terrorism by:
- Waging an open war against the jihadist movement.
- Containing the political and financial support extended by Qatar by isolating the emirate. Indeed, most Arab states have targeted Qatar for nurturing the jihadist currents in the Arab world and elsewhere. Qatar’s push to lead the Arab world is now under challenge by those who regard themselves as the rightful leaders. The period of immunity that Qatar enjoyed seems to have ended.
The combination of those two efforts is aimed at eventually overcoming the jihadist subversion against the Arab regimes, and thereby diminish the existential threat now posed by extreme political Islam, while more effectively combating international terrorism.
One big question mark remains: will these recent changes in Saudi policy affect its continued financing of the Sunni rebels in Syria? If this financing continues, the Saudis will be very careful about deciding to whom they are sending the funds, and definitely not to the very organizations they have designated as terrorist.
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