Saudi Arabia listed the Muslim Brotherhood and two Syrian jihadist groups as terrorist organizations on Friday, and ordered citizens fighting abroad to return home within 15 days or face imprisonment.
The move represents a major escalation against the Brotherhood of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and indicates rising concern in Riyadh over the potential risks to domestic security of Saudi extremists fighting in Syria.
Riyadh staunchly supports Sunni-led rebels battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but has long feared blowback from radical jihadist groups, particularly after a spate of attacks by a local al-Qaeda franchise from 2003 to 2006.
Egypt welcomed the Saudi decision and called on other Arab countries to follow suit.
“We look forward to see other countries, which signed the 1998 Arab League counter-terrorism treaty, follow the Saudi path and respect their commitments under the treaty,” Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty said in Cairo.
The Brotherhood, the largest Islamic movement in the region, said it was “surprised” and “pained” by the Saudi decision.
“This new position of the kingdom contrasts sharply with the history of its relations with the Brotherhood,” the group said.
“History has always shown that the Brotherhood has been a leader in spreading true Islamic thinking ... without extremism, as many of the kingdom’s scholars and leaders can testify,” it said.
A list published by the Saudi interior ministry designates as terrorist organisations the Brotherhood, al-Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a rogue group fighting in both Syria and Iraq.
Also blacklisted are Shiite Muslim rebels known as Huthis in northern Yemen and “Hezbollah inside the kingdom,” a reference to a little-known Shiite group in overwhelmingly Sunni Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi interior ministry said it will prosecute anyone backing these groups “financially or morally,” or who express sympathies for them or seek to promote them through media and social networks.
It also forbids “participation in, calling for, or incitement to fighting in conflict zones in other countries.”
Saudis fighting abroad were given a 15-day ultimatum on Friday to return home or face imprisonment.
Prison also awaits anyone calling for demonstrations or taking part in them, the ministry said.
Analysts warned of the potential effects of the orders on civil liberties.
“There is fear that the text will be interpreted in such a way to muzzle freedom of expression,” sociologist Khaled al-Dakheel said.
Last month, King Abdullah already announced jail terms of up to 20 years for belonging to “terrorist groups” and fighting abroad and tough sanctions for anyone backing the incriminated organizations.
In 2011, Saudi Arabia set up specialized terrorism courts to try dozens of its citizens and foreigners accused of belonging to al-Qaeda or being involved in a wave of bloody attacks that swept the country from 2003.
The Saudi and other conservative Gulf monarchies have long been hostile to the Brotherhood, fearing that its brand of grass-roots activism and political Islam could undermine their authority.
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassadors from Doha over Qatar’s backing of the Brotherhood in Egypt.
The move is an unprecedented escalation of tension with a fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which also includes Kuwait and Oman. It reflected the fury of these three nations over Qatari support for Islamist groupings that emerged in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt who had long oppressed radical Islamists.