CAIRO — Saudi Arabia formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization Friday, putting it on the same footing under Saudi law as al-Qaida and shaking what until recent months had been considered one of the Muslim world’s most established mainstream organizations.
The effect of the designation remained unclear. But it was likely to affect not just the way Saudi Arabia deals with Brotherhood members in its own country, but how it works with Brotherhood-affiliated organizations around the world.
Members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood have been a mainstay of the movement to topple the government of President Bashar Assad, and the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is closely allied with the Brotherhood.
The designation is also likely to have ramifications for Hamas, the Brotherhood-affiliated group that rules the Gaza Strip and that the United States and Israel have designated a terrorist organization.
The U.S. State Department said it did not share Saudi Arabia’s view that the Brotherhood was a terrorist organization. But with the United States increasingly dependent on Saudi Arabia to pursue its stated goal of toppling Assad in Syria, U.S. policy — and its selection of partners — in that country seemed likely to be affected by the Saudi action.
Saudi Arabia has long been hostile toward the Brotherhood, whose doctrine opposes the kingdom’s dynastic rule. Still, the announcement Friday caught the Brotherhood by surprise.
In a statement from London, Muslim Brotherhood members from Egypt, where the group was founded 86 years ago and where it was declared a terrorist organization in December, described themselves as “distressed” at the Saudi action.
“Saudi Arabia was one of the first to experience the Muslim Brotherhood’s positive stance towards preserving the interests of people, unity of nations, contributing effectively towards the building of communities and homelands, dissemination of correct Islamic ideologies, and what the group has suffered for the sake of this cause,” the statement said.
“History has proven that the Muslim Brotherhood has always been a pioneer when it comes to spreading correct Islamic ideologies that are free from extremism, and this is what a lot of trustworthy scholars from within Saudi Arabia have testified for,” the statement said.
Founded in 1928 by an Egyptian schoolteacher as a reaction to what he and others felt was abuse at the hands of British colonizers, the Brotherhood quickly became one of the largest Muslim organizations in the world, and branches were established in other countries, each of which operated largely independently.
But the group’s influence also raised suspicion among governments in the countries where it operated. It was banned in Egypt until after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and its members in Syria were the target of a harsh crackdown in the 1980s by Assad’s father, Hafez, that left as many as 22,000 people dead.
Brotherhood prospects began to rise after Mubarak fell. One of its key Egyptian leaders, Mohammed Morsi, in 2012 became that country’s first democratically elected president. In Syria, and Brotherhood came to dominate the Syrian National Council, the exile political organization that became the first group recognized as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” as the United States sought to organize opposition to Assad in 2011.
The Brotherhood’s rapid rise was matched only by what’s befallen it since the toppling of Morsi in an army-inspired putsch July 3. Since then, hundreds of Brotherhood sympathizers in Egypt have been killed and thousands arrested. The group was declared a terrorist organization on Christmas Day.
In Syria, Brotherhood members are for the most part out of the U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition, though whether they were expelled or quit depends on whose version one believes.
Trouble has also beset Hamas in Gaza, where the military-dominated Egyptian government has dynamited tunnels that had become critical to the strip’s smuggling-dependent economy. Even in Turkey, where the ruling party is closely aligned with Brotherhood principles, Erdogan is facing major accusations of corruption after 10 years of dominating that country’s politics.
The Saudi announcement, released on the official Saudi Press Agency, also designated three al-Qaida-linked groups — the Nusra Front in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq and Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — as terrorist groups. Also designated were other groups: the already banned Hezbollah al-Hejaz group, a radical Saudi Arabian Shiite militant faction, and the Yemeni Houthi movement.
According to the statement, Saudi citizens or residents who travel to fight on behalf of any of those organizations could face 30-year prison sentences. Saudi Arabia previously has spoken out against Saudi fighters going to Syria. Despite that, the kingdom’s Interior Ministry estimates that around 1,200 Saudis have gone there, and an exclusively Saudi organization is said to be providing crucial support in rebel efforts to resist a government offensive in the mountainous Qalamoun region on the border with Lebanon.
The Saudi declaration was preceded by the decision Wednesday by three members of the U.S.-allied Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — to withdraw their ambassadors from another gulf council member, Qatar, because of Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood.
The three countries said Qatar had failed to honor a gulf council agreement not to back “anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC, whether as groups or individuals — via direct security work or through political influence — and not to support hostile media.”
Gulf diplomats tied the deepening tensions to Qatar’s apparent decision to continue support for the Brotherhood in Egypt, alleging that the Qatari government had backtracked on a previous commitment to halt support for Brotherhood factions and to limit the activities of exiled figures based in the emirate.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s impoverished southern neighbor, the move took many by surprise. While the kingdom has long viewed the Houthis, adherents of a Yemeni branch of Shiism who currently exert virtual control over the northern border province of Saada, with apprehension, Saudi Arabia once enjoyed close ties with key figures in Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party, providing many with substantial financial support.
Yemeni officials largely pushed back against suggestions that Friday’s listings would fuel any direct action from Saudi Arabia in Yemen itself, where the Islah party is currently a partner in the country’s coalition government.