The Brothers and the Gulf

As tensions mount in Cairo over the Muslim Brotherhood’s erratic political decisions, the Brotherhood is also trying to navigate suspicion about its motives from oil-rich countries in the Gulf.

In particular, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as one of the Brotherhood’s primary antagonists: Relations have deteriorated so much that a senior Brotherhood leader recently accused the UAE, hometo more than 300,000 Egyptians, of “financing the opposition” in Egypt.

Emiratis first encountered the Muslim Brotherhood even before they had a country of their own. The UAE, along with the other states in the Arab Gulf, initially welcomed Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s persecution in the 1950s and 1960s. The Brothers flourished in the UAE: They were educated, professional, and upwardly mobile individuals who gained employment in various public and private posts, including the judicial and education sector. The UAE achieved independence in 1971, and three years later UAE nationals influenced by these new arrivals officially founded the UAE chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as Al Islah (“Reform”).

But Al Islah soon ran afoul of the UAE government: According to one former member, it drifted away from its stated, benign activities of “sports, culture, charitable work, and social activities” and into political activities. By the early 1990s, the UAE’s judicial and education sector was effectively a state within a state: The Brotherhood would make sure that those who qualified for educational scholarships and grants were either Brotherhood members, affiliates, or sympathizers. Within a short period, the student councils and professional associations — such as the jurist and teachers union — were turned into Muslim Brotherhood outposts dedicated to advancing their interests.

In 2006, the UAE started reassigning Al Islah members who worked in the education field to other posts — a move to decrease their influence on young Emiratis. Since the Brotherhood members were no longer in a position to pick scholarship awardees, they attempted to set up UAE student councils in countries as far afield as Australia to recruit new members. The emergence of a moderately Islamist government in Turkey also offered Al Islah members an ideal location to connect with Brotherhood members across the Middle East. Some meetings were held under the auspices of Western governments and associations, prompting the UAE to shut down a number of NGOs and think tanks.

In the past year, relations have gone from bad to worse. The UAE launched a nationwide crackdown against Al Islah, detaining scores of its members and affiliates and going so far as to accuse it of setting up an “armed wing” in the country. At the heart of the UAE’s hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood is the fear that — unlike home grown parties or blocs — the group believes that its allegiance to a transnational Islamist network, headed by the supreme guide, trumps allegiance to the nation-state.

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