Listen to this article
The reaction was almost instant. On the same day that the Saudi government announced a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, the four-finger sign of sympathy with Egypt’s Brothers disappeared from Twitter picture displays.
No one in the kingdom was willing to take the risk of being accused of supporting the Islamist group, even if the yellow symbol was sometimes just an expression of pity for the victims of the Cairo regime’s repression of Islamists.
This month’s ban, it was clear, would be enforced under harsh antiterrorism regulations that had been introduced just a few weeks earlier. So sweeping were the new laws that any hint of support for outlawed groups could be deemed a criminal offence.
The actions taken by the Saudi leadership reflect an increasingly hardline attitude in Riyadh that has rattled political activists and puzzled Middle Eastern and western officials.
The Muslim Brotherhood certainly has followers in Saudi Arabia. And they were emboldened by the sudden, if shortlived, success of their brethren in Egypt and Tunisia after the 2011 uprisings. But in an absolute monarchy, where no right of assembly is recognised, it has been impossible for a group to emerge that could pose a threat to the House of Saud.
Casting a wide net against a group’s sympathisers is not the usual Saudi way of doing business. The government’s preferred method is to combine subtle co-option and not-so-subtle punishment on a narrow band of leaders and agitators.
“It’s strange. Nothing has dramatically changed in Saudi Arabia to justify this,” says a Riyadh-based lawyer.
Around the same time as the legal crackdown, Saudi Arabia stepped up a long-running dispute with Qatar, accusing its smaller neighbour of destabilising the Gulf. Along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Riyadh withdrew its ambassador from Doha. It also hinted at more stringent measures, including closing its borders and airspace, in what is shaping up to be one of the worst crises within the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional group that includes both Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
People close to the Riyadh government say Saudi Arabia is assuming regional responsibility and will no longer tolerate those who spread chaos across the region. “We are becoming an initiator of policy and defining our interests,” says one.
Others, however, say the moves are a sign of growing insecurity at a time when an ageing leadership is desperate to return the Arab world to a more comfortable pre-Arab awakening status quo, however intolerant that might seem.
This apparent nervousness has been accentuated by the suspicion among Saudi officials that the US is abandoning the Kingdom while seeking better relations with Iran, Riyadh’s regional rival. President Barack Obama will seek to assuage these fears when he visits Saudi Arabia this week.
“Saudi Arabia has changed. Before it was more cautious, more diplomatic. Now it’s more assertive and more paranoid,” says a Saudi political analyst who asked to remain anonymous.
There is much to trouble a conservative regional leader in a Middle East that is in a state of permanent ferment. Three years after the outbreak of Arab uprisings that sent ripples of panic through the autocratic Gulf, Saudi Arabia is operating in a more threatening environment.
The biggest blow in 2011 was the loss of Hosni Mubarak, Riyadh’s reliable Egyptian ally. Worse yet, his demise ushered in a Saudi nightmare: the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
It might seem ironic for a Wahhabi theocracy to oppose so forcefully a party that mixes religion with politics. But it is precisely because the monarchy bases its legitimacy on Islam that it fears Brotherhood rivalry. If political Islam were to be rooted in power in the largest Arab country, it could become an exportable commodity to the Gulf.
Fortunately for the kingdom, the Brotherhood’s rule in Cairo came to an abrupt end last summer in a military coup that had popular support. Saudi Arabia quickly embraced the new military regime and propped it up with billions of dollars of economic aid. The effective restoration of the old Mubarak order was an opportunity the Saudis were now determined to preserve.
“There is a conviction in Saudi that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only power that could have exploited the Arab spring, and so they think that without the Brotherhood there can be no revolutions,” says the Saudi political analyst.
The Saudi government’s fretting over Islamists in the kingdom, however, did not end with the fall of Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president. As Cairo’s crackdown on the Brotherhood escalated, many Saudis were at odds with official policy as their sympathies lay closer to the Islamists than to the Egyptian army.
The anxiety over Islamists in the UAE also added to Saudi concerns. Last year the UAE government accused dozens of alleged Islamists of plotting a coup backed by the Brotherhood overseas. In July the supreme court handed down long prison sentences to the alleged plotters in a trial criticised as unfair by western human rights groups.
As pressure on the Brotherhood widened, however, Saudi relations with Qatar grew frostier. Qatar, the only Gulf state to have been traditionally sympathetic to Islamists and to have backed the Morsi government, refused to join the regional crackdown on the Brotherhood. Saudi pressure for a change of policy in Doha, however, has continued to intensify, climaxing in the withdrawal of the three Gulf ambassadors this month.
According to Gulf sources, the main Saudi demand has been for the closure or the drastic curbing of the coverage of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based network and only remaining popular channel that gives ample airtime to Brotherhood members. Qatar, however, has insisted it will not be bullied. It has argued that it is neither committed to the Brotherhood nor able to dictate to Al Jazeera how it should cover the Egyptian story.
Saudi Arabia might have handled Egypt with a softer touch had it felt more secure in its neighbourhood. But the stand-off between the Sunni kingdom and Shia Iran has intensified over the past three years, as the two regional heavyweights backed opposite sides in the Syrian war.
To Saudi Arabia’s chagrin, moreover, Iran’s image in the world has improved with the election of Hassan Rouhani. The centrist president favours engagement with the west and has embarked on negotiations with world powers that are designed to curb Iran’s nuclear programme and ensure it remains peaceful.
The prospect of a resolution of the nuclear dispute – bolstered by the Rouhani government’s signing of an interim nuclear agreement in November – has sparked a profound rift in Saudi-US relations.
The growing production of shale gas in the US, along with its reduced dependence on Gulf oil, has deepened Saudi fear that the era of a special relationship with the US – one based on an exchange of oil for security – was nearing an end.
Saudi officials have been uncharacteristically vocal in their criticism of the US, which they also blame for failures in Syria. And they have made no secret of their opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran, which they suspect would lead to western acquiescence of Iranian regional hegemony.
“With the warming of US relations with Iran and the reduction in Saudi Arabia’s strategic oil importance, the Saudis are concerned about losing out,” says the Riyadh-based lawyer.
What Saudi officials do not express, however, is that the sense of vulnerability and anxiety about the future might be exacerbated by something closer to home: the state of the monarchy.
King Abdullah is about 90 years old and is said to have considerably reduced his workload in the past year. Crown Prince Salman, his brother, is also believed to be in fragile health. Analysts and diplomats say that some princes and aides, including Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the king’s “gatekeeper”, have assumed greater authority and pushed for a more uncompromising policy.
Internal disarray appears to have affected Saudi decision-making, particularly in policy towards Syria. Saudi backing for a nebulous rebel movement has also led to a flood of Saudis joining extremist groups – potentially forming a new wave of jihadis who might return to the kingdom and wage a domestic jihad, much as they had done after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Last month Riyadh sought to stem the flow of Saudi militants (at least 1,000 have gone to Syria, according to the interior ministry, and many more according to western sources) by imposing 20-year jail terms on those travelling to fight abroad.
Until recently Syria policy was led by Bandar bin Sultan, the hawkish national security chief and former ambassador to Washington.
Saudi watchers say that although Prince Bandar might still be involved, the Syria file has now been handed to Mohammed bin Naif, the more restrained interior minister whose focus in on antiterrorism at home.
It is not only in Syria, however, that Saudi Arabia has taken a dangerous gamble.
As the kingdom flexes its muscle, it risks provoking broader turmoil in the region while also breeding resentment at home. With the new antiterrorism laws, even the small political space that had been opened by King Abdullah is at risk of vanishing as freedom of expression is restricted.
Western diplomats say that Riyadh and other Gulf states financing Egypt’s economy should be using their leverage to counsel reconciliation and reform instead of replicating Egypt’s harsh measures against the Brotherhood.
With the Gulf, too, there are similar concerns. As one senior Gulf official says: “The message that’s now being given to political Islam is go underground, and that’s after 25 years of telling them to learn about democracy.”
The fear for Egypt and beyond is that the repression of the Islamist group that had renounced violence long ago might moderate some of its leaders but also unleash radicalised splinter groups. This could further swell jihadi ranks at a time of resurgence for al-Qaeda franchises in north Africa and Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s attempt to force a united Gulf front towards Egypt could also backfire, undermining a GCC alliance on which it hopes increasingly to rely to counter Iran’s authority. New fissures are already apparent in the region.
As Tarek Osman, author of Egypt on the Brink, says, two camps are emerging: one led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which maintains that political Islam is a perilous force that should be confronted; and the other led by Qatar and Turkey’s ruling party, which believes in political Islam’s ability to transform the region.
“This confrontation has not reached its peak yet,” he says.
Saudi Arabia’s policies might be pursued in the name of stability. But they could well achieve the opposite.
Gulf Cooperation Council: Minnows frustrate Riyadh’s plans for alliance
In the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia looked to protect itself through the Gulf Cooperation Council, the loose political and economic alliance of six oil-rich Sunni monarchies of which it is the most powerful member.
By working through the GCC, Riyadh managed to advance policies it favoured, including a peaceful transition of power in Yemen and support for the Nato military intervention in Libya.
It was also nominally a GCC force, though one largely made up of Saudis, that was dispatched to Bahrain to shore up the Sunni monarchy threatened by an uprising by the Shia majority.
Saudi Arabia’s efforts to bolster the authority of the GCC, however, have been frustrated on other fronts. Smaller Gulf states have been willing to co-operate when their interests converged with those of the Saudis, mindful of the benefits of closing of ranks to counter regional turbulence. But they have also continued to guard their independence carefully.
So when the kingdom suggested that Jordan and Morocco, two other Arab monarchies, should be added to the GCC club, the smaller members of the alliance balked.
Another Saudi plan to upgrade the alliance into a full union was also rebuffed, receiving enthusiastic support only from Bahrain. Oman took the unusual step of making its opposition public in a statement by its foreign minister.
The Saudi vision of a more coherent and united GCC has appeared to unravel in recent months, as Riyadh sparred with Doha and Oman was revealed to have hosted secret US-Iran talks.
Only two other states joined Saudi Arabia in withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha this month, with Kuwait and Oman apparently unconvinced by the accusations against Qatar.
Gulf officials insist that rifts will not destabilise the GCC. But so sensitive are Gulf tensions that when Arab leaders met at their yearly summit this week in Kuwait, the Saudi-Qatari dispute was not even put on the agenda.
This article has been amended since initial publication, to reflect the fact that the Shia population is the majority in Bahrain
Get alerts on Saudi Arabia when a new story is published