Saudi-Egyptian relations: Common grounds and roots of disagreement

Sunday 23/10/2016

Ever since the monar­chy in Egypt was overthrown in 1952 and the military took power, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have failed to find the best formula for working together. Of course, they found common ground during the wars with Israel of 1967 and 1973 and the Gulf wars in 1991 and 2003. However, in many other contexts, Saudi-Egyptian relations were characterised by disagreement.
In Egypt, the military establish­ment does not appreciate a monarchical government in which one family rules through an extensive network of princes and economic and media institu­tions. The Saudis are uncomfort­able with the centralised rule of one person through an essentially security-obsessed administra­tion.
These fundamental differences underlie the divide in the countries’ regional orientations and foreign policy choices. The Saudi regime has absolutely no qualms about its absolute dependence on the United States since the birth of the Saudi state in 1932.
In the Egyptian camp, Arab nationalism pervades the establishment in Egypt. So, despite being convinced that the United States holds all the cards in the region and elsewhere, the regime in Egypt prefers to keep some degree of independence from Washington.
It was not the war in Syria that sparked the unintended recent fiery exchanges between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, nor Egypt’s voting in favour of a Russian reso­lution in the UN Security Council on October 8th. Saudi Arabia’s bugbear for the moment is the situation in Yemen.
The Saudis failed to correctly read their “ally”. They interacted with Egypt on the basis that it is essentially a centralised govern­ment. They could not compre­hend how this omnipotent government could not bring about the ratification of the bilateral agreement about the islands of Tiran and Sanafir or send enough troops to Yemen capable of scoring a decisive victory there.
In Egypt however, matters are never that simple. While wishing to show gratitude for Saudi and Gulf aid to Egypt following the overthrow of the Muslim Brother­hood in 2013, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi still under­stands the limits of his own power.
A different approach to Saudi- Egyptian relations is built on the assumption that Saudi Arabia cannot afford, especially now, a confrontation with Egypt. This view seems to be the prevailing philosophy among the military establishment in Egypt. Simply put, Egypt has nothing to lose. It is a big country, economically ruined.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, stands to lose much. With oil prices in a slump, the Saudi economy is facing record deficits. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival, is winning hearts in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, taunting Saudi Arabia in Bahrain and consolidating the victories of its proxy militia in Yemen. It is only natural that Saudi Arabia feels abandoned by its Egyptian ally.
The Iranian nuclear deal with the West was a boost to the sectarian regime in Iran. It effectively neutralised the United States in Iran’s confrontation with Saudi Arabia. We are now facing an Iranian run-away train fuelled by sectarianism. The Saudis feel threatened and find themselves abandoned by both Washington and Cairo.
The prevailing feeling in Saudi Arabia is that it has spent billions of dollars propping up the regime in Egypt with the expectation that the latter will side with it against Iran. But requesting support from allies cannot be done through stopping monetary aid or reneging on business deals. The Egyptians still remember similar misdeeds by Qatar. When the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in 2012, Qatar pumped huge amounts into Egypt’s coffers but when it realised that the new regime in Egypt did not share its agenda, Doha retrieved every dollar.
The Egyptian regime appar­ently feels that Saudi aid is a small price to pay for protecting Saudi Arabia from the evil plans of the Muslim Brotherhood and its creeping alliance with Iran. It does not also appreciate Saudi support of the Muslim Brother­hood and other Salafist and jihadist organisations in Yemen and in Syria.
Many in Saudi Arabia and among the Syrian opposition seem to forget that, in Egypt’s Middle Eastern foreign policy, Syria traditionally comes second only to the Palestine territories in importance. The Egyptian Army considers Syria vital in any operations against Israel. With the Syrian Army gone, the Egyptian Army will be vulnerable.
Agreeing to disagree seems to be the best scenario for Saudi- Egyptian relations now. Further degradation in their relations can only benefit Iran’s expansionist plans in the region.