When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died Jan. 23, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement that was conspicuously warm. One might have thought that considering the broad support the late king gave to the Egyptian state-led crackdown of the Brotherhood in Egypt, such a declaration would be negative at best.
Within a few weeks, however, rumors abounded that the new king, Salman, was far friendlier to the Brotherhood than his predecessor, which might then impact the Egyptian state’s relations with Riyadh. But at least at present, Cairo doesn’t feel the need to be too uncomfortable, though certainly something has changed.
When the Egyptian military establishment removed President Mohammed Morsi from office in July 2013, two strong trends could be found within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The first was the minority position taken by Doha, which has been sympathetic to Islamism in most shapes and sizes. The second was the position of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — the leadership of the Saudis and the Emiratis being united in their antipathy toward the Brotherhood on the one hand, and their deep-rooted support for the new political dispensation in Egypt on the other. The consensus built on those two points is now over.
The new political dispensation continues to receive strong support from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, as all were reminded during the investment conference in Egypt earlier this month with substantial contributions by both countries. But while Riyadh hasn’t become supportive of the Brotherhood, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are no longer quite on the same page.
In the new Saudi analysis, the Brotherhood may be something of an issue — but it is hardly a pre-eminent problem. For quite some time, different circles sympathetic to the Brotherhood argued that the Saudi position on the group was based on the notion of it being almost an existential threat — that Saudis were in danger of rejecting the monarchy in favor of some kind of "Islamic Republicanism" based on the Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia’s establishment, however, was never quite so concerned about that specific eventuality, and was far more apprehensive about the destabilizing effect of the Brotherhood in the region. If nothing else, Riyadh tends to prize the status quo, if it has a reasonable chance of sustainability for the near to the medium term.
But the Brotherhood in 2015 is already in a rather weakened position in the region — and the kingdom has a number of other priorities that require all the bandwidth that can be mustered.
For the kingdom, there are three regional priorities: Iran, the Islamic State (IS) (in different places such as Syria, Iraq and Libya) and Yemen. Maintaining a strong anti-Brotherhood stance brings few dividends in Saudi Arabia’s calculus — and it may potentially have drawbacks.
To build a coalition against Iran, Saudi wants Turkish support and backing — and Ankara remains the most sympathetic capital in the world to the Brotherhood. A strong anti-Islamist stance within the kingdom may provide Saudi IS supporters yet another excuse to use in recruitment strategies, at a time when Saudi Arabia doesn’t really need yet more Saudis joining the even more radical Islamist group.
In Yemen, as part of a broader strategy, it is entirely likely that Saudi will back pro-Brotherhood groups to counter the rise of the Houthis, while it may choose to do otherwise with other pro-Brotherhood groups elsewhere. Time will tell.
In general, however, the main impetus is about capacity. Saudi Arabia wants to redirect all its efforts to priorities that have little to do with the Brotherhood. Riyadh isn’t concerned about the need to eradicate the Brotherhood, but it also hasn’t become aligned with the Qatari stance, either.
What does that new stance mean then for regional actors? The new king is likely to be more lenient of allies such as Qatar and Turkey being pro-Brotherhood in 2015, in a way that might have caused tensions with Abdullah in 2013, for example.
Brotherhood members who left Doha, for example, in 2014 might feel there is more space to operate in Qatar again, as pressure eases on Doha from Riyadh. But it might have eventually worked out like that anyway even with Abdullah, given the rise of IS in Libya, the deterioration of Yemen and the possibility of a deal between Iran and the United States.
When it comes to Egypt, very little is likely to change in the short term. Saudi Arabia hasn’t given any signs that it expects Egypt to ease up on its crackdown on the Brotherhood in the interim. That may change if Cairo intensifies the crackdown in some fashion, such as if large numbers of Brotherhood leaders were due to have death sentences imposed upon them. This new Saudi political dispensation might find such an escalation problematic and risky.
Apart from that kind of scenario, at least for the time being, Cairo and Riyadh remain in the same dynamic. Cairo also has its other main GCC ally, the UAE, in total agreement on the issue of the Brotherhood, whose view will continue to impact on the wider region. That includes the Libya file, regardless of how successful or not the UN is in getting agreement on a unity government.
Further afield, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be particularly agitated by the results of the British government’s review into the Muslim Brotherhood, a summary of which ought to be released in the next few weeks. London will still have to deal with Abu Dhabi and Cairo on that score — but probably not Riyadh.
The shift in Riyadh is a definite one, but it is a nuanced shift, the long-term consequences of which are still unfolding. Riyadh has always been focused on maintaining a sustainable status quo above all else and in that regard, Salman is following a long Saudi tradition. The real question is what new sort of sustainable status quo is possible, without at least slow, incremental reforms? That’s a question not simply for Saudi Arabia or Egypt, but to the region in general.