Saudi Arabia Takes Aim at Muslim Brotherhood Before Democrats Take Over in Washington

Riyadh worries Democrats will question human rights record repression

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Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the GCC Summit in Riyadh, December 10, 2019.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the GCC Summit in Riyadh, December 10, 2019.Credit: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

Saudi Arabia is pursuing a new campaign to denounce the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement feared by most Gulf monarchies, as Riyadh prepares to deal with what is likely to be a less friendly U.S. administration under Joe Biden.

Over the past two weeks, officials, religious scholars and state media have warned Saudis about the group's ideas, saying they sow dissent and call for disobedience against the state's rulers. They have urged people to report members to authorities.

Such diatribes are an indication Riyadh is worried that President-elect Biden's administration will more closely watch the autocratic kingdom's human rights record and be more tolerant of peaceful Islamist activism, experts say.

It was not known if authorities had arrested anyone since the campaign began.

The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment on the campaign and if it was linked to the incoming U.S. administration.

The Brotherhood, which welcomed Biden's election win earlier this month, denied the Saudi accusations.

"The group is far away from violence and terrorism, it has been rather a victim of dictators' terror," the movement's Egyptian branch said on Tuesday.

It called on the new U.S. administration to review policies which it said supported dictatorships.


The Brotherhood is viewed by Saudi Arabia as an ideological competitor and sees its promotion of political activism, including support for elections, as a direct threat to its dynastic system of rule.

Founded more than 90 years ago in Egypt, it has survived repeated crackdowns at home and influenced other political movements across the Middle East.

It went underground in Egypt when current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled then Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013.

In Saudi Arabia, activists and some clerics have founded Brotherhood-linked organisations in the past but those groups were banned and most of their members jailed.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt list the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation and have lobbied Washington for years to designate it as such.


Biden has already pledged to reassess ties with Riyadh, demanding more accountability over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in its Istanbul consulate in 2018 and calling for an end to U.S. support for its forces in the Yemen war. Khashoggi was accused by Saudi media of being a member of the Brotherhood.

Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman's relationship with current President Donald Trump had provided a buffer against international criticism. He has come under increasing global scrutiny over his human rights record since Khashoggi's murder and the detention of dozens of women activists, intellectuals, clerics and journalists.

On Monday, Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh called the Brotherhood a "deviant group" that "had no links to Islam whatsoever".

Islamic Affairs Minister Abdullatif al-Sheikh, in an interview with al-Arabiya televison, urged Saudi citizens to report members of the group to authorities.

"It is a religious duty...anyone who does not report them to authorities is like them," he said.

Sheikh's comments followed another statement, issued by Saudi Arabia's highest religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, that warned Saudis of joining the group or having "sympathy" for its members.

Prayer sermons echoed the council's statements across the kingdom.


The push against the group follows two security incidents in the Red Sea city of Jeddah and the first attack with explosives in years targetting foreigners in Saudi Arabia.

The bomb attack on a non-Muslim cemetery during a World War One remembrance ceremony last week was claimed by Islamic State and there was no link between the other security incidents and the Brotherhood.

But, said Elisabeth Kendall of Oxford University, shifting attention to countering extremism was "useful" for Saudi Arabia to justify any planned crackdown at a time when the incoming U.S. administration is expected to question its record of repression.

"The new Saudi campaign helps to mark out Saudi as a victim of terrorism rather than an incubator of it," Kendall said.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in Washington said Saudi Arabia was trying the make the most of the last two months of Trump's tenure.

It wants to get "as much authoritarianism out of one's system before it comes under additional scrutiny under a President Biden," he said. "It's almost like a rush to the finish line."

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