After quietly brewing for the past year, the controversy over alleged Muslim Brotherhood efforts to infiltrate and destabilize the United Arab Emirates has now openly erupted. The most recent development is the arrest of 11 Egyptian expatriates in the UAE on charges of subversion, stealing state secrets and operating under the influence of—and sending large amounts of money to—the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The men are accused of belonging to a "cell" seeking to overthrow the UAE government, with the intention of exporting the influence of Egypt's new Islamist-dominated political order.
These arrests turned into a significant diplomatic incident, with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi dispatching one of his key advisers, Essam Haddad, and several security officials to Abu Dhabi to disavow any relationship to any conspiracy and demand the release of the detained Egyptian nationals. The UAE has refused to release the suspects. Brotherhood leaders in Egypt have angrily denied any connection to the men, or any accusation that they have been involved in subversive plots against Gulf States.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia beg to differ. The arrests were a joint effort by Emirati and Saudi authorities, and led to an outcry by numerous pro-government commentators in Gulf Cooperation Council states that not enough work is being done to counter Muslim Brotherhood ambitions in the region. The latest arrests were only the most recent, and are taken by many as confirmation of suspicions raised by previous raids.
Earlier last year, Emirati officials arrested 60 members of the Al Islah movement on various charges of subversion. Al Islah denies it is the UAE branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, but former group members, including the vice chancellor of United Arab Emirates University, Ali Rashid Al Noaimi, dismiss the denials as flatly untrue. According to Noaimi, Al Islah "get their orders from outside," and "they are not loyal to their country." For years, the UAE government has been trying to distance Al Islah from the educational system in which they once thrived. Now, in the context of the Arab uprisings, it seems they are regarded less as an irritant than as an outright threat.
The Al-Khaleej newspaper summed up the Gulf governments' perspectives, writing that the arrested Islamists admitted to trying to establish armed groups aimed at the overthrow of existing regimes and that the Brotherhood “gave a number of courses and lectures to members of the secret organization on elections and ways to change systems of government in Arab countries.”
The UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan has not minced his words, stating bluntly that “The Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in the nation state. It does not believe in the sovereignty of the state.”
Probably the most outspoken Gulf official critical of the Brotherhood is Dubai Police Chief Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan. Beginning last March, Khalfan traded accusations with Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesperson for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Khalfan had threatened to arrest Youssef El-Qaradawi—probably the most prominent regional Brotherhood spiritual leader and star of Qatar's Al Jazeera Arabic station—after Qaradawi denounced the deportation of Syrian activists from the UAE. The Egyptian Brotherhood countered by accusing the UAE of financing subversion within Egypt.
The intermittent exchange of accusations hasn't stopped since, and the arrests have only intensified the tensions.
If it's the case, as seems probable, that the regional Brotherhood movement has its sights set on the UAE, this cannot surprise anyone. Lapsed senior Muslim Brotherhood member Tharwat Kherbawi's explanation to several Arab papers that the Brotherhood, regionally, finds the present UAE government to be an impediment, and the country itself to be "a treasure" and a crucial strategic and economic prize, rings true.
Muslim Brotherhood parties operate differently, and often independently, in various countries in which they are active. But it should never be forgotten that they represent not only an ideologically unified and, to some extent, coordinated movement in the region. They are the only major, coordinated, popular and region-wide mass movement in the Arab world presently, and have a special relationship with Hamas in Gaza. It makes perfect sense that the Brotherhood would try to either gain direct control of the UAE as a springboard to further expansions, or, failing that, they would at least aim to ensure the UAE ceases to act as an impediment to the Brotherhood's regional agenda.
Conspiratorial? Certainly. But outlandish? By no means. It's possible that Brotherhood efforts to destabilize the UAE have been somewhat exaggerated.
But they are almost certainly based on fact. The scenario is too plausible and predictable to be considered non-credible. These tensions are more likely to intensify into the future rather than dissipate. What is ultimately at stake is the political direction and future of the Arab world, including the outcomes in such crucial battlegrounds as Syria and Palestine.