In a recent video entitled "Days with the Imam" in which he recalls Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri declares that the founder of al Qaeda had been a "member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arabian Peninsula" before he was evicted in the 1980s. He was expelled because of his insistence on fighting alongside the mujahidin in Afghanistan while the Brotherhood allowed him to bring aid to Pakistan but didn’t want him to go any further. Zawahiri’s claims seem to have caused some embarrassment among the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), judging from how quick MB spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan was to refute them.
One reason for the embarrassment may be that, with a Muslim Brotherhood president recently elected in Egypt, the organization is eager to reassure the West of its moderate Islamist orientation and is therefore afraid of anything associating it with al Qaeda or jihadism. Yet Zawahiri’s declarations shouldn’t be seen as too problematic in this respect, since they portray the MB as an organization unwilling to let its members take part in physical jihad, even against the Soviets in Afghanistan at a time when the issue was far less controversial than it would later become. A more likely reason for the Brotherhood’s distress, however, is that Zawahiri reveals what among Saudi Islamist insiders is an open secret but remains little known outside those circles: that there exists a Saudi Arabian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Where Ghozlan has a point, however, is that the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly a MB branch like all others. From the days of Hassan al-Banna, the Saudi monarchy made it clear that it wouldn’t allow the Brotherhood to establish a section in the kingdom. Yet from the late 1960s onward, different groups of Saudis influenced by Egyptian and Syrian Brotherhood exiles started creating local semi-clandestine organizations claiming an affiliation to the MB. A sign that this was the result of a bottom-up dynamic, not a top-down creation, is that four such distinct organizations saw the light at about the same time: one in the western province, called the Brotherhood of the Hejaz (ikhwan al-Hijaz); and three in the central region — two named after their alleged founder, the Brotherhood of al-Sulayfih (ikhwan al-Sulayfih) and the Brotherhood of al-Funaysan (ikhwan al-Funaysan), and one called the Brotherhood of Zubayr (ikhwan al-Zubayr) because it was established by Saudis whose families had lived in Zubayr, in Southern Iraq. Although the four groups attempted to coordinate their activities and saw themselves as part of one broader entity, they never managed to formally merge.
These groups of Saudi Brothers maintained links to the MB in Egypt and elsewhere, but, because of the sensitivity of the topic, those links remained loose and were never formalized. For instance, Saudi Brothers sometimes attended meetings of the Brotherhood’s international organization in the 1980s, but officially they did so in their individual capacity, not as representatives of their organization. Also, Saudi Brothers generally did not pledge allegiance to the supreme guide in Cairo, as members of the Brotherhood are usually required, because, as Saudi citizens, they were already bound by an oath to the Saudi King. In terms of ideology, Saudi Brothers were also quite different from their counterparts elsewhere: although they did read Hassan al-Banna, Sa‘id Hawwa, and Sayyid Qutb, they were also heavily influenced by Salafi authors whom they quoted on issues of creed and on certain issues of fiqh.
In Saudi Arabia, the Brothers were part of a broader social movement called the "Islamic Awakening" (al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya), or Sahwa, whose ideology blended the political outlook of the Muslim Brotherhood with Salafi religious views. Other groups within the Sahwa included the so-called Sururis, named after one of their intellectual godfathers, the Syrian ex-Muslim Brother Muhammad Surur Zayn al-‘Abidin. In the 1970s, the Sahwa’s influence grew extensively, especially in schools and on university campuses, to the extent that by the end of the decade, tens of thousands of young Saudis were Sahwa affiliates. This is when the young bin Laden, like many in his generation, joined one of the factions of the movement. It was in his case the Saudi MB, because it was the most active faction in his region of origin, the Hejaz.
Within the broader Sahwa movement, the Saudi Brothers had one major difference from the more mainstream Salafi groups, including the Sururis. While the Salafis were generally quite inward-looking because of their insistence on the need to preserve the purity of the Salafi creed from the corruption of "deviant" Muslim groups, the Saudi Brothers were much more outward-looking and prone to pan-Islamist ideas and sentiments. Among them, there was constant talk about the importance of "Islamic solidarity" and the need to support Muslims everywhere, regardless of how "orthodox" their creed.
This explains why, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and when Abdallah ‘Azzam started calling for Muslims to "join the caravan" of the mujahidin, the Saudis who were the most likely to heed the call of jihad came from a MB background. Among them was Osama bin Laden, as well as Samir al-Suwaylim, later known as Khattab, the future emir of the jihadis in Chechnya. They did so, however, against the will of their own leaders, as Zawahiri mentions in his video. The Brotherhood’s official activities in Afghanistan were limited to humanitarian aid, and the organization was reluctant to allow its members to fight, partly because it feared that they could fall under the influence of rival groups. And so, just like Abdallah ‘Azzam’s membership in the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood was suspended, bin Laden and Khattab were expelled from the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood.
After bin Laden’s relationship with the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood formally ended, each took a radically different path. While bin Laden was growing increasingly hostile toward the Saudi regime, the Saudi Brotherhood insisted on keeping a low profile and avoided — with the exception of a short period during the Sahwa’s intifada in the early 1990s — any open criticism of the royal family. In the wake of the Arab Spring, a few Saudi Brotherhood figures, galvanized by the revolutionary events in the region, tried to push for the organization to more explicitly challenge the royal family by demanding political reforms — but again, to no avail. This careful strategy explains why the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood has managed to remain a key element of the Saudi political fabric until this day, while eluding both the wrath of the regime and the attention of outsiders.
Stéphane Lacroix is assistant professor of political science at the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) of Sciences Po and the author of Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, which addresses the Sahwa and the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in Saudi Arabia.