By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV
Ever since the Arab Spring began four years ago, Saudi Arabia waged a two-front campaign against its Shiite nemesis Iran, and against the Sunni Islamists—led by the Muslim Brotherhood—whose rise across the region had challenged the kingdom’s legitimacy.
The unexpectedly broad Sunni coalition that Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman managed to assemble last week against pro-Iranian Houthi forces in Yemen heralds the end of this balancing act.
In this new pivot, the Saudis decided that Iranian expansionism has turned the kingdom’s regional fight with the Brotherhood into an unaffordable distraction—especially now that the Brotherhood appears too feeble to imperil the monarchy and its allies. Contributing to this shift is Riyadh’s existential fear of Iranian-fostered unrest within the kingdom’s own Shiite minority.
“The Yemen issue is very central for the Saudis. They fear that if there is a government in line with Iranian foreign policy there, it may give a strong voice for the Shiites inside Saudi Arabia,” said Khalid Almezaini, coordinator of the Gulf studies program at Qatar University.
“The Houthis have military capabilities, weapons, and represent a serious threat. The Muslim Brotherhood is much weaker, and the Saudis now are in a much better position to control the brothers wherever they are,” he added.
The Saudi shift doesn’t mean the end of the rift over the role of political Islam that divided the Middle East’s Sunni powers ever since Egypt’s then military chief Abdel Fattah Al Sisi ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader, in 2013.
Since then, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates portrayed the Brotherhood—which professes nonviolence and advocates elections—as a terrorist group akin to al Qaeda and Islamic State, or ISIS.
By moving from the region’s anti-Brotherhood vanguard closer to the middle ground, Saudi Arabia has managed to rally all the Sunni countries that matter around its Yemen campaign—from Turkey, Mr. Morsi’s key backer, and maverick Qatar to Mr. Sisi, now Egypt’s president, and the staunchly anti-Islamist U.A.E.
While Turkey isn’t participating in the actual fighting, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan endorsed the Saudi campaign and in recent days adopted much harsher language against Iran—something he had avoided until now. By contrast, Oman, the only Gulf monarchy not ruled by a Sunni, is staying away from the Yemen intervention.
“The Sunni parties now are more worried about Iran, and they have been able to close ranks,” said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a book on the Brotherhood.
Saudi officials often stress the supposed continuity between King Salman and his predecessor King Abdullah, who died in January. But on the issue of how to deal with the Brotherhood, their differences have become increasingly clear.
“In the last couple of years, Saudi officials and media used Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS almost interchangeably,” said Fahad Nazer, a Saudi analyst at JTG Inc., an intelligence contractor in Virginia, and a former staffer at the Saudi embassy in Washington. “Now, there is change coming for sure.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal signaled this change by telling Saudi newspaper Al Jazirah in February: “We don’t have any problem with the Muslim Brotherhood.” He said the kingdom is opposed only to a “small segment affiliated with the group.”
Eager for a lifeline after a vicious crackdown in its Egyptian cradle and setbacks elsewhere in the region, the Muslim Brotherhood has reciprocated to that opening. Following Saudi airstrikes in Yemen last week, Brotherhood leaders throughout the Middle East have by and large cautiously sided with Riyadh on the controversial intervention.
“We hope that the recent military alliance, led by Saudi Arabia, reflects a new stance of the new administration of the kingdom to support the will of the people in Yemen and elsewhere,” said Amr Darrag, head of the political bureau of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in exile who served as minister of planning and international cooperation under President Morsi. “I support any action that would restore democracy in Yemen and ensure security” of the Gulf monarchies, he added.
The resulting Saudi coalition in Yemen is united by a clearly sectarian bent, fitting the kingdom’s narrative of fighting to repel a Shiite expansion across the region. Amid rising religious strife throughout the Middle East—fueled in part by fears about Iran’s nuclear program—that could be a potent glue.
“This is a sectarian-based alliance and because of that, it may last longer than people expect,” said Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi Shiite dissident who runs the Institute for Gulf Affairs think tank in Washington.
What gets lost in this treatment of the Yemen conflict as yet another battlefield in the Sunni-Shiite regional war is the fact that, until not so long ago, it was anything but.
The Houthis, Yemen’s former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the royal family that ruled Yemen for centuries all belong to the Zaidis—a Muslim sect long viewed as theologically closer to Sunni rather that Iranian-style Shiite Islam.
In the 1960s, the Saudis had no problem backing the Zaidi rebels against Egyptian occupation troops.
It is only in the recent decade that the Houthis, a Zaidi rebel movement from northernmost Yemen, have forged close links with Iran and its allied Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon, embracing a more distinct Shiite identity.
“Our Shiites are not real Shiites, and our Sunnis are not real Sunnis. We are all Yemenis,” said Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni political activist and chairman of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. “What the Saudis are doing is creating a sectarian model for tension and conflict for the first time in a country where the conflict was not sectarian in the past.”
Yet, when viewed through this sectarian prism, it is clear why Saudi Arabia would be courting the Muslim Brotherhood again.
With Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi exiled in Saudi Arabia and lacking a serious power base of his own, the Brotherhood’s Yemeni affiliate, Islah, represents the Saudis’ most feasible Sunni ally on the ground. Islah was once close to Riyadh.
With its long history of conflict against the Houthis and a prominent role both under President Hadi and his predecessor President Saleh, it is also the main loser of the recent Houthi takeover of much of the country.
“The Saudis really need to work with Yemeni locals,” said Hassan Hassan, a political analyst in Abu Dhabi and author of a recent book on Islamic State. “In the new Saudi administration, there is a sense that the Muslim Brotherhood can be a partner—and Islah will be the first test of that.”