Saudi Arabia’s decisions last Friday to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group and downgrade diplomatic ties with Qatar to protest Doha’s support for the organization mark an important turning point in the Kingdom’s approach to international terrorism.
In a decision last Friday, Riyadh also designated two Shiite groups—the Saudi branch of Hezbollah and the Houthi movement in Yemen as well as two Sunni formations, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front.
Many in the region do not believe that a consistent set of objective criteria went into the making of this list. Others in the region will vehemently question the characterization of some of these organizations as terrorist. But few will deny that the House of Saud has entered a new phase in its war against terror.
In the past Saudi Arabia appeared reluctant to embark on a comprehensive counter-terror strategy. After 9/11, the House of Saud went after the al-Qaeda and its support base at home. But it seemed unwilling to deal with the deeper sources of political, ideological and financial support within the Kingdom to extremism and terrorism. Significant changes, however, appear to be at hand.
A more vigorous approach has become necessary with Riyadh’s recognition that a permissive environment for extremism at home has begun to threaten political stability and social cohesion within the Kingdom. Meanwhile, tumult generated by the Arab Spring, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the civil war in Syria and the internal tensions within Iraq and Bahrain have highlighted the new and existential threats to Saudi Arabia from within the region.
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The victory of Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian elections in 2012 created deep anxieties in Riyadh about the challenges from the republican ideology of the movement to the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf. It was a matter of time before Saudi Kingdom extended strong support to the Egyptian military in ousting the Republican Muslim Brotherhood from power in Cairo.
The Saudis saw the Brotherhood as such a danger that it is confronting Qatar’s open support for the organization. Qatar is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia. Along with Abu Dhabi, which has been quite concerned about the Brotherhood’s activity in the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, close ally of the Saudis, Riyadh decided to pull out their ambassadors from Doha. The three countries feel that their requests to Doha to stop interference in their internal affairs have not been addressed.
Besides banning the five organizations, Saudi Arabia has called on all its citizens fighting in foreign wars to come within the next few weeks or face imprisonment up to 20 years. The Kingdom has also approved a new legislation that explicitly criminalizes raising, receiving, offering, holding or transferring money to individuals or groups designated as terrorist organizations. Senior Saudi officials have said that some religious preachers promoting extremism and terrorism have been fired or arrested in the last few weeks.
Over the last few years, Delhi has found Riyadh more forthcoming in tracking down terrorists of concern to India. As the Kingdom enters a more decisive phase in their war against terror, the prospects for security cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia are likely to improve.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor of The Indian Express