Since Saudi Arabia labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, Bahrain's government has been struggling to strike a balance maintaining the support of the local brotherhood offshoot without upsetting its Saudi allies.
In an effort to showcase their crackdown on terrorism any support for terrorist activity, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry sent a warning on March 27 to its citizens fighting in conflicts abroad, similar to one issued by Saudi Arabia on February 3, threatening punitive measures including withdrawing their nationalities if they did not return within two weeks’ time. Through this measure, the government sought to crack down on both vocal and financial support for Syrian groups, particularly in light of recent reports claiming that Bahraini citizens were recently killed in Syria fighting with groups classified by Saudi Arabia and the United States as terrorist organizations.
Prior to the announcement, Bahrain’s foreign minister Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa commented at a press conference in Pakistan that his government was not labeling the political arm of the local Brotherhood branch, known as the Islamic Minbar, a terrorist organization. He stated that the group has respected the rule of law and has not acted against the security of the country. The foreign minister explained that “we do not see it as a global movement,” distinguishing between the international organization and its domestic movements, of which Minbar is one. His statements, which emphasized Bahrain’s sympathy and understanding of the Saudi’s decision regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, contradict how Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates wish to see Bahrain treat the Muslim Brotherood offshoot. He went to considerable effort to justify his comments to Bahrain’s international allies, later that day tweeting from his official account, “The Muslim Brotherhood movement is a global movement with a single approach and is spread throughout the world, and will be dealt with according to the law of each country and the covenants to which it is party.” However, the apparent contradictions caused confusion about Bahrain’s position on the issue.
It is difficult for the minister to defend his government’s irreconcilable positions toward the global Muslim Brotherhood, which the country is committed to opposing since the March 2014 declarations by Riyadh, and the local Muslim Brotherhood, which alongside the Salafis created a national unity front in 2011 to defend Bahraini stability and Al Khalifa rule. Further complicating the situation, Minbar is also closely connected to some members of the Al Khalifa family and has had elected deputies within parliament since winning seven of the eight seats it contested in 2002.
The Saudi-led effort to ban the Muslim Brotherhood has created a crisis within Bahrain, where the Brotherhood offshoot is a well-established political actor that has sided with the ruling family against Shia opposition. Bahrain does not take issue with the Saudi decision to oppose the Brotherhood in Egypt, but rather with extending this opposition to Brotherhood branches in the region. Some of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, along with Morocco, Tunisia, and even the European Union and the United States, were not convinced by Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s claims that the Brotherhood is a terrorist group, nor will they benefit from or accept such a sweeping verdict. In the majority of Arab countries, the Brotherhood is completely aboveground and active in civil society, where it helps preserve a political balance. This was likely why some Arab States, including Kuwait, which will be hosting the twenty-fifth Arab Summit, declined to sign the statement labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The Gulf countries had no plans against the Muslim Brotherhood, but the group’s ascent to power in Egypt, the largest Arab country, was deeply concerning to GCC countries that do not allow organized political action. Saudi Arabia, especially, is all too aware of the power of religion when used to achieve political objectives and has been keen to prevent a similar occurrence in the neighborhood.
In Bahrain, the government’s reaction to Shia protesters inflamed sectarianism and drove the government to ally more closely with Sunni Islamists, particularly Minbar, to secure their support during the showdown against the Shia opposition. With terrorist attacks in the streets of Manama, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa found himself forced to side with the more powerful factions in the royal family, who have strong ties to the Sunni political current, including Minbar, which has three ministers representing it in the present government. One of the most important points of contention is how to handle the Shia opposition’s demands, which include the dissolution of the government—which would force an end to the influence of the king’s uncle, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been prime minister since 1970 and supports an unforgiving approach towards the Shia opposition.
In light of heightened sectarian tension and chronic unrest, Bahrain is facing two options regarding the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood. It can focus on the reality of domestic terrorism, which requires maintaining good relations with Bahrain’s Sunni Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and bearing the wrath of its regional allies. Alternatively, it can commit itself more fully to the Gulf campaign against potential Brotherhood-linked terrorism, in the process losing a key domestic ally and leaving the regime more vulnerable in facing Shia opposition.
Ibrahim Hatlani is a Jeddah-based Saudi writer and researcher.
This article was translated from Arabic.