Can other GCC countries follow the Saudi lead in stemming Islamic extremism?

In Doha’s case, support for political Islam is a defining characteristic of its foreign policy.
Sunday 08/04/2018
Supporters of the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) attend a meeting in Kuwait City. (AFP)
Sailing under false colours. Supporters of the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) attend a meeting in Kuwait City. (AFP)

It is difficult to miss the giddy pace of change in Saudi Arabia. At the forefront is the determined fight against all manifestations of Islamic extremism. The overriding perception among reform-minded Saudis is that any meaningful societal progress will have to start there.

The Saudi leadership is aware of the historical factors that led to the dangerous propagation of extremist ideas in the kingdom and the virtual control they have had over religious discourse. There was the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and its radical ripple effects. There was the Cold War, which brought conservative Saudi Arabia an offer to collaborate with the West that it could not refuse. The United States wanted its Saudi ally to join the fight against communism in Afghanistan and other battlefronts. The Saudis obliged.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, Riyadh found itself in the eye of a hurricane. Nearly

17 years later and despite participating in the coalition at war with the Islamic State, the kingdom still finds itself the target of criticism for its alleged support of radical Islamic groups.

In March 2014, after it had become clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda could no longer be misconstrued as the tolerable face of “political Islam,” Riyadh designated both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran-sponsored Hezbollah as terrorist organisations.

The pushback against extremist ideology continued at a faster pace with the ascension of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to the throne and, later, the naming of his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz as his successor.

The Muslim Brotherhood was recently depicted by Crown Prince Mohammed as part of an “evil triangle” with Iran and al-Qaeda. He termed the Muslim Brotherhood “another extremist organisation” and said: “They want to use the democratic system to rule countries and build shadow caliphates everywhere.”

Policy changes have accompanied Saudi Arabia’s anti-extremist tone: The educational curriculum has been overhauled to weed out intolerant content. Western officials, quoted by Reuters, said the kingdom has begun an initiative to end the international funding of mosques and religious schools suspected of spreading radical ideas. This coincided with the Saudis giving up control of Belgium’s largest mosque, which had been leased to Saudi Arabia since 1969.

The head of the Saudi-based Muslim World League publicly denounced Holocaust denial, saying it was an attempt to “distort history and an insult to the dignity of those innocent souls who have died.” The Holocaust was “among the worst human atrocities ever,” the Muslim World League statement added.

The question remains, however, whether other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) can or will follow the pace of Saudi Arabia’s reining in of political Islam.

Time is of the essence, Crown Prime Mohammed said, and there are no excuses. The kingdom cannot “waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts,” said the crown prince. “We will destroy them now and immediately.”

Aside from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s neighbours still have a ways to go. In Kuwait, the Muslim Brotherhood has morphed into what is known as the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM). Three of its members sit on the country’s National Assembly despite Kuwait’s general ban on political parties.

Gulf analysts say the Kuwaiti government tolerates the ICM to “keep its enemy closer.” While the ICM has toned down its Islamist agenda, it periodically issues statements of support to international followers of the movement.

The situation in Bahrain is similar to Kuwait’s, with its Muslim Brotherhood branch rebranding itself as Islamic Minbar. The group is fiercely loyal to the royal family over the perceived threat from Iran.

The GCC country with the closest ties to Islamist groups and the international Muslim Brotherhood movement is Qatar.

Not only is Doha one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s biggest supporters, it has been a haven for the movement for decades. Its support for the group is one of the main causes of the crisis that involved Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severing ties with Doha last June.

Doha has also hosted many Muslim Brotherhood leaders over the years, including its main ideologue, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and Khaled Meshaal, a leader in the Hamas movement, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. In many ways, Qatar is the group’s base of operations, propagating its doctrine on its Muslim Brotherhood-friendly media.

The question remains whether Qatar and Kuwait can free themselves and their people from Muslim Brotherhood influence. In Kuwait’s case, eradicating political Islam from its political system might result in turbulence at home. In Doha’s case, support for political Islam is a defining characteristic of its foreign policy. Changing that policy would require Qatar to reassess its ties to radical groups as well as its relations with Iran.

The benefits to Qatar would be plentiful, including being welcomed back into the Gulf Arab fold, but it remains unclear if Doha has the courage to do the right thing.