The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood has been difficult, and that also goes for the Brotherhood’s Syrian branch. Thousands of its leaders and members have lived in exile since the early 1980s in Saudi cities like Riyadh and Jeddah. Despite suffering from sustained security scrutiny, they were never severely repressed, even as Saudi relations with the Egyptian Brotherhood deteriorated.
The advent of the Arab Spring in 2011 exacerbated the mistrust between the two actors, in particular after Saudi Arabia backed Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s toppling of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in July 2013. For its part, the Syrian Brotherhood temporarily backed Qatar in its competition with Saudi Arabia for regional influence but later recalibrated its position in favor of Riyadh.
The relationship is now taking a dramatic turn following the kingdom’s declaration in early March that the Brotherhood is a “terrorist organization,” alongside groups like the Saudi branch of Hezbollah, al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a Syrian jihadi organization. The decision seems mostly aimed at Brotherhood sympathizers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia itself, but it does not specify a branch, raising the possibility that members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood could also be targeted.
Major Stakes at Play
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has important stakes in Saudi Arabia. Two of the group’s former leaders were based in the kingdom: Hasan al-Huwaidi lived in Medina while Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghudda lived in Riyadh. While most current leaders are based in Istanbul or Gaziantep, Turkey, many will travel back and forth to Saudi Arabia to meet with fellow members and exiled Syrian businessmen or politicians.
The kingdom is also a major base for the group’s fundraising activities—some Brotherhood members have made a fortune working in the Gulf and now form the financial backbone of the group’s charity and military activities.
Therefore, if fully implemented, the Saudi move to criminalize membership in the Muslim Brotherhood could have major repercussions on the organization’s Syrian branch. “We are very surprised by Riyadh’s announcement—if nothing is done to reach a compromise, it’s of course going to affect our relationship in a negative way,” a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s political bureau tells me.
A Short Honeymoon
Brotherhood leaders are particularly surprised because their relations with the kingdom had markedly improved in the past nine months. The Syrian Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Mohammad Farouk Tayfour, was instrumental in this endeavor. As deputy head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the most important body within the exile opposition, he visited Riyadh last June, meeting with senior Saudi policymakers and agreeing to spearhead the kingdom’s efforts to reshape the Syrian opposition to their taste. “Tayfour worked hard for the Saudi agenda to succeed,” I’m told by a figure close to him.
The deal included, for instance, voting for the “Saudi candidate” Ahmad Jarba’s election and reelection as president of the National Coalition in July 2013 and January 2014, respectively. These moves sometimes came at great cost for the Brotherhood, and they created internal controversy.
Tayfour’s efforts to push for the Saudi agenda were supported by some figures close to the Brotherhood, such as Nazir Hakim from the Coalition for the Protection of Civilians, a group that provides material support to armed resistance factions inside Syria, or Ahmad Ramadan from the National Action Group, an Islamist-nationalist organization, but certain members of the Brotherhood opposed it. Some leaned more toward Qatari-backed candidates for the National Coalition presidency, such as businessman Mustafa Sabbagh and former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab. Last June, Tayfour’s support for Jarba actually contradicted the Brotherhood leadership’s decision to support Sabbagh.
Even so, Tayfour progressively managed to convince other Muslim Brothers of the necessity to embrace Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the Syrian opposition, but the idea remained so controversial that the group split when it resurfaced in January 2014. Saudi Arabia’s decision to designate the Brotherhood a terrorist organization is likely to exacerbate such internal tensions—and these divisions could crystallize soon, given that the group will hold internal leadership elections this spring.
A Deal With Riyadh?
In the meantime, however, there seems to be consensus on the part of all Syrian Muslim Brothers on the need to convince Riyadh that a compromise with the kingdom can be found. After all, the two actors share similar short- and medium-term goals, such as reinforcing the Syrian opposition and, ultimately, replacing the Iran- and Hezbollah-backed Syrian regime with a new political system dominated by Sunnis.
The Syrian Brotherhood’s leadership has already created a committee to negotiate with Saudi officials, seemingly confident that a deal can be struck. Minister of Interior Muhammad bin Nayef, the Saudi prince who pushed for the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist movement, is also the one who has handled the “Syrian file” since February 2014. With Saudi Arabia locked in a succession struggle, the Brotherhood seems to bet that Nayef’s crackdown on the organization may simply be part of a bid for the position of crown prince rather than an ideological choice. Some also point out that it took a while for his predecessor, the Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to grow comfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in the Syrian opposition.
This reading of the situation means the Brotherhood must renew its outreach efforts to the Saudis, stress common interests, and show that the Syrian branch differs greatly from the Egyptian movement, while also being prepared to compromise on key issues.
An Opportunity for the Waad Party
The contours of such a deal have yet to emerge. But they could entail a progressive Brotherhood withdrawal from Syrian opposition politics—at least formally. Some within the group’s leadership have suggested that the timing of the Saudi move may provide an opportunity for the Waad Party, a Brotherhood-backed but officially independent group that was launched last week, after many delays.
It is made up of Muslim Brothers as well as independent Islamists and “national figures,” including members of minority groups, and it intends to reshape the way in which the Brotherhood has played the political game in recent years. A prominent Syrian member told me that the Waad Party would allow the Brotherhood “to leave politics to a national party in order to refocus on its activities inside Syria.” Whether that is acceptable to the Saudis remains to be seen.