The coup last July in Egypt opened a new divide in the Middle East, alienating the Gulf monarchies from the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a momentous change in the region’s strategic landscape that promises to influence governments and regional alliances for years to come.
For six decades, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood were comrades in arms. Theirs was an Islamic alliance, formed in the 1950s to defend against the secular Arab nationalism that Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had unleashed. The alliance survived the end of that ideology, and since the 1980s it had defended the Sunni claim to Islamic leadership against the Shiite challenge from Iran.
Throughout, Saudi Arabia provided refuge and patronage to generations of Brotherhood activists from across the Arab world, glossing over ideological differences between the Saudis and the activists about popular rule and autocracy. Brotherhood intellectuals honed their ideology in Saudi Arabia and developed ties with like-minded Islamists from across the Muslim world. An exiled Syrian Brotherhood activist teaching in Jidda converted a teenage Osama bin Laden to Islamism. It was with Saudi blessing that Brotherhood fighters joined the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, and found their way to Al Qaeda.
The alliance buttressed the House of Saud’s Islamic legitimacy. It also brought greater influence over Arab politics. Saudi Arabia used its ties to the Brotherhood to help Egypt make the transition from Nasser to Anwar el-Sadat in 1970, brokering a deal that favored Sadat after Islamists engaged in street fights and back-room maneuvering against the remnants of Nasserism. That shift eliminated the kingdom’s strongest Arab adversary, ensuring Saudi pre-eminence in Arab politics for decades.
The alliance also ensured the longevity of the Saudi regime, buying it protection against a homegrown Islamist rejection of the modernity and opulence brought by oil wealth, as well as the House of Saud’s steady move into America’s orbit. With the Brotherhood as an underdog it patronized, Saudi Arabia could afford to be both Islamic and pro-West, and to support Islamic causes while backing secular regimes like that of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — even as he barred the Brotherhood from political power.
All of that changed when the Brotherhood took power in Egypt by winning the presidential election in 2012.
The election produced an ambitious ideological regime, speaking for Islam and eager to shape the Arab world in its own image — stands that would pose the same degree of threat to Saudi Arabia’s stolid monarchy as Nasser’s secular Arab populism had. Saudi monarchs could be comfortable with the Brotherhood as a powerless client, but not as an equal ruler of a state. So Riyadh supported the Egyptian military’s coup in July.
The Muslim Brotherhood was born in 1928 in opposition to an Egyptian monarchy. Its ideology blends Islam with Arab nationalism to denounce autocracy and the West. It promises to empower both the people and Islamic law in an ideal “republic” — a sharp contrast to the Saudi monarchy. Since Saudi identity is wrapped tightly around a puritanical interpretation of Islam, and Saudi nationalism draws on the centrality of Mecca and Medina to the Islamic faith, secular democracy has yet to find a large Saudi following. But the Brotherhood’s populist Islamism, which promises justice and equity, and empowerment of the individual in religion and politics, does resonate with the many unemployed and restless young Saudis.
In breaking with the Brotherhood to protect their domestic grip on power, the Saudi rulers may have miscalculated. The Brotherhood is a regional force. Its tentacles run from North Africa through the Middle East. By removing their patronage from the Brotherhood and throwing their full support behind the Egyptian military — and other regimes bent on crushing the Brotherhood — the Saudis may be pushing the movement to become both more extreme and more sharply anti-monarchical, threatening the Islamic legitimacy of all the Arab monarchies.
In the coming years, the larger strategic challenge facing Saudi Arabia may not be Iran, as it has been, but the Brotherhood. This new rivalry could set off protracted conflicts across the region, which in turn could disturb efforts toward a Palestinian-Israeli peace, and to contain Iran’s influence.
Already, the rivalry is affecting the United States, whose policies in Iran and Syria drew open criticism from Saudi officials last week. That criticism played to general Arab frustration with Washington, of course, but in the background was continuing Saudi resentment that Washington helped push out Mr. Mubarak in 2011, and that it now refuses to welcome the coup and the Egyptian military’s repression of the Brotherhood.
Still, there are things America could do to lessen the harm being done by the rift.
The key would be to stop ignoring Egypt, to help build its economy and to end its corrosive political impasse. Only America can rally an international effort to address Egypt’s vast economic needs, and it should use that leverage to persuade Egypt’s rulers to convincingly point the way to democratic rule. Equally important would be more American attention to Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan, where willing elements of the Muslim Brotherhood might be included in broad-based coalitions with secular democrats.
In the long run, establishing economic progress and political stability in all of those countries would be the best way to address Saudi fears that instability would spread to the monarchies. And that would do much to lessen the impact of Egypt’s current agonies on the whole region.
Vali R. Nasr is the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.