Saudi Arabia recently invited the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood to an event sponsored by the Kingdom in Riyadh, in a signal that the country’s government may be trying to bury the hatchet with the Islamist group. Reuters reports:
Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, a Qatar-based cleric whose fiery sermons have strained ties with Gulf neighbors, appeared alongside the Qatari prime minister and the Saudi ambassador at an event in Doha to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s national day.
The accession to the Saudi throne in January of King Salman, who is more sympathetic to religious conservatives than his predecessor King Abdullah, caused glimmers of hope among Muslim Brotherhood exiles in Qatar that the Middle East’s political winds had started to shift in their favor, potentially giving the Islamist group more space to act.
Salman, while stopping short of befriending the Brotherhood, has worked to reduce tensions with the movement’s own allies, strengthening Riyadh’s ties with Turkey and Qatar and reaching out to Islah, the Islamist group’s offshoot in Yemen.
Significant obstacles still remain, most notably the fact that Saudi Arabia’s close ally (and quasi-client) Egypt has a government that deeply hates and fears the Muslim Brotherhood. But that this rapprochement is even on the table should be a very worrying signal to Washington, as it shows that the Sunnis, who feel abandoned in the wake of the Iran deal, are circling the wagons. As that happens, more and more extremist groups who were previously unacceptable to the Gulf monarchies may start to be tolerated as the lesser of two evils. Already in Syria, al Nusra, an al Qaeda offshoot, has Saudi and Turkish backing; soon even more radical groups, even ISIS, may seem tolerable as “allies” in the grand sectarian war on the horizon. If that happens, the consequences for the region will be explosive.