The Saudi Egyptian divide runs deeper than Syria

The Saudi Egyptian divide runs deeper than Syria
Comment: What is behind the growing divide between long-term allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and what will this mean for foreign policy makers in an ever-more fragmented region?
6 min read
21 Oct, 2016
Relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been deteriorating rapidly recently [Anadolu]
Egypt's vote on October 8 to support a Russian Security Council resolution on Aleppo has exposed an unprecedented rift between Egypt and its strongest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia.

The vote triggered the first public condemnation by the Saudis of the Egyptian regime, which they helped bring to power three years ago. The Saudi criticism also coincided with cutting monthly discounted oil shipments to Egypt, a much-needed support for the country's deteriorating economy.

A few days later, Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, told military leaders that the cutting of the oil supply was only a commercial matter. However, he warned Egyptians that "fully independent decision-making, independent states endure a lot. What is happening is an attempt to pressure Egypt. Egypt will only kneel to God."

The timing of the rising tension, after the UN Security Council vote on Aleppo, may give a misleading impression that the core disagreement between the two allies is about Syria. However, a more careful look at Egypt's foreign policy under Sisi shows that the divide between the two countries is much larger.

Since rising to power, the new regime in Egypt has been advocating a view of regional politics that is very different from the one espoused by its rich gulf supporter.

Two different visions

Saudi Arabia is a regional hegemon which wants Arab countries to rally behind its efforts to "defend" the Arab world from regional rivals, especially Iran. Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has engaged with Iran in proxy wars in at least three countries, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.

Such conflicts cost Saudi Arabia billions of dollars and the lives of dozens of its citizens. Therefore, when Saudi Arabia supported Egypt's 2013 military coup, which overthrew the regime of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first elected president and former Muslim Brotherhood leader, it was largely motivated by ending the expansion of the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood - two forces which it feared threatened the internal stability of the kingdom.

It might have hoped the new Egyptian regime would join Riyadh in its prolonged conflict with Iran.

Before taking office and during his first few months in power, Sisi hailed the Saudi and Gulf support to his regime and promised a grateful Egypt, ready to send troops to defend the Gulf nations as fast as "the trip between Egypt and the Gulf takes".

Yet Sisi's sweet talk never materialised into tangible support. Eight months after taking office, Sisi told his military leaders that "Egypt's military is for Egypt only and not for anyone else". Sisi also reflected in his speeches and foreign policy a very different vision from that adopted by the Saudis.

Instead of rallying behind Saudi Arabia in its conflict with Iran, Sisi adopted a vision of Egyptian foreign policy designed to protect his regime, maximise its freedom of movement, and diversify its sources of foreign support -even if such goals contradicted with Saudi and Gulf interests and led him to reach out to the Saudis' main regional rivals, including Iran itself.
Instead of rallying behind Saudi Arabia in its conflict with Iran, Sisi adopted a vision of Egyptian foreign policy designed to protect his regime, maximise its freedom of movement, and diversify its sources of foreign support

Balancing foreign pressure

Sisi came to power in a counter-revolution following the revolution which overthrew the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

The toppling of Mubarak was widely blamed on Western powers, especially the United States, who rejected local and regional calls to back Mubarak in the face of the public uprising. Therefore, one of Sisi's first foreign policy priorities was to reach out to Russia and to reduce Egypt's dependency on American political and military support.

US military aid to Egypt was suspended for two years, but was renewed in 2015 with a huge package of advanced weaponry.

Sisi moved quickly to diversify the sources of Egypt's arms by buying weapons from Russia, France, and Germany. He also neglected Western criticism as he moved domestically to stifle media freedoms and Western-backed civil society organisations in an effort to dry the roots of any future democratic uprisings.

This all came as he engaged in a massive and bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most organised political force.

To mend relations with the rest of the world, Sisi expressed an alternative foreign policy vision based on fighting "terrorism". He spoke repeatedly about the need for an international coalition against "terrorism", in which Egypt would play a major role in return for political and military aid.

He defined terrorism loosely enough to include various political-religious groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and presented himself as a champion of religious reform - calling on Muslims to change their views of others and to adopt tolerant religious teachings.

Regionally, Sisi rejected current efforts to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while reaching out to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and to his Houthi allies, who captured Sanaa in military move that triggered the Saudi intervention in Yemen. 

Sisi also opened diplomatic channels with Hizballah in Lebanon and with Iran itself. In September, Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, met for the first time with his Iranian counterpart, Jawad Zarif, during their visits to New York to attend the UN General Assembly.

After the meeting, Shoukry told local media that Egypt and Saudi Arabia disagreed on Syria - but such disagreement would not hurt their bilateral relations.

Clearly, the disagreement is much bigger than the two countries' differences over Syria, and it might have already hurt their relations for the long term. Sisi is not only failing to support Saudi foreign policy on three major fronts - Syria, Iran, and Yemen. He is also reaching out to Saudi Arabia's main regional rival, Iran.

Egypt seems engaged in a foreign policy based on the notion of counter-balancing international and regional powers. Accordingly, Egypt will seek to build simultaneous relations with rival world and regional powers hoping to achieve two main goals.

First, it wants to empower its own regime by reducing its dependence on any one particular regional or international power. Second, it hopes to maximise its foreign leverage by showing rival powers that they cannot take Egypt's support for granted and they need to work harder to gain such support.

In other words, Sisi does want to lose Saudi backing. He actually wants to increase it by leveraging his relations with rival Russia and Iran and by showing the Saudis that they will need to provide ever-greater incentives to Cairo to keep Sisi's regime in Riyadh's corner.

The Saudi response

Saudi Arabia may feel betrayed by the Egyptian regime, to whom it offered billions of dollars in critical economic aid. 
Riyadh hoped for a new Egypt that would rally behind the kingdom its war with Iran. In return, it got a regime focused on its own survival

Riyadh hoped for a new Egypt that would rally behind the kingdom its war with Iran. In return, it got a regime focused on its own survival and on playing regional and international powers against each other hoping to extract more aid and support.

Moreover, Riyadh is left with limited options. The Saudis could pretend that such disagreement with Egypt does not exist and downplay any impact it might have on regional politics - considering Egypt's deteriorating regional role and influence.

Otherwise, the Saudis may try to pressure Egypt by cutting much needed financial aid or by supporting Sisi's rival military generals.

If Saudi Arabia decides to punish Egypt it has to make sure that its pressure not be easily undermined by aid from Russia, Iran, and their regional allies. It also needs to make sure that such a rift with Egypt not get out of hand in a fragile region that is far from predictable.

Alaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian journalist and the author of two books studying US foreign policy in the Middle East. He also writes on democratic transition in the Arab world.

Follow him on Twitter: @Alaabayoumi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.