With Twitter war, Saudi says no more blank cheques for Egypt

Saudi-Egypt Twitter war marks the end of Riyadh's blank cheques for Sisi
6 min read

Sam Hamad

29 March, 2023
A media spat last month between Egyptian and Saudi officials hints at deeper frustrations that Riyadh has with the Sisi regime, and may signal an end to the unconditional financing that Cairo has relied on, writes Sam Hamad.
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman is welcomed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at Cairo International Airport in Egypt on 4 March 2018. [Getty]

In January this year, an unprecedented set of events, pitting Saudi against its junior ally the Sisi regime, began to unfold via social media and the Egyptian media. 

It began on Twitter, where Turki al-Hamad, a Saudi academic and adviser to de facto ruler of the kingdom Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), posted a series of tweets critical of the Sisi regime’s economic behaviours. Al-Hamad tweeted about Egypt’s “deteriorating state”, which he said was firmly the fault of “the military’s soaring dominance over … the economy”.

Despite a backlash from pro-Sisi Egyptians, Ali Shihabi, an influential Saudi banker and close confidant of MbS, joined al-Hamad, tweeting that Egypt “continues to bank on being constantly bailed out”, but that the country is a “black hole that will never close unless the govt is able to make material structural reforms.” 

This led to veritable flame wars breaking out between Egyptians and Saudis on Twitter, with high-profile Saudi commentators and academics chipping in. 

The Sisi regime hit back, with its mouthpiece Abdel Razak Tawfik, editor-in-chief of the state-owned Al Gomhuria, writing with typical chauvinism that “barefoot and newly wealthy countries have no right to insult Egypt”. This, in turn, prompted a furious response from Abdullah Al-Fawzan, Secretary General of the King Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue. 

However, as quickly as this proxy social media war between the two regimes started, it was over. Tweets were deleted from the Saudi side, while articles were rescinded on the side of the Sisi regime. Clearly, at some higher level to which the public are not privy, some sort of truce had been called and the decision was made to try to erase this ‘skirmish’ between “brothers”, as Sisi would have it

But the source of it all, namely Saudi resentment towards Sisi, cannot be easily deleted. We have seen, for the first time, a major sponsor and ally of the Sisi regime calling out Egypt’s kleptocracy - this is the “black hole” that al-Dakhli referenced.

This wasn’t just an attack on Sisi’s political leadership, but rather high-level Saudi officials calling out the entire structure of Egypt’s praetorian kleptocracy – the very fabric of Egypt’s tyranny. 

So, why has Saudi suddenly decided to speak out? 

It isn’t because the kingdom is now a bastion of freedom and ethics. Saudi has invested billions in Egypt without any major financial return while Egypt has continued to stall in the selling of public assets from which Saudi could benefit.

It’s notable that the social media skirmish erupted just days after Saudi announced it would no longer be issuing foreign grants “unconditionally,” a remark largely believed to be aimed at Egypt. 

There are competing visions at play. Egypt’s economy is not one conditioned by “free markets” as is the common myth, but rather by a kleptocracy that requires the complete curtailment of not just personal freedom, but also economic freedom.

The current economic turbulence due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has simply exacerbated a period of extreme economic instability that was simmering under the surface in Egypt. Even prior to Covid-19 and the situation in Ukraine, at no point since 2013 has Egypt gained genuine economic self-sufficiency, relying instead on massive bailouts from Saudi, the UAE and the IMF.

In Sisi’s Egypt, like Mubarak’s before it, the state monopolises economic sectors all the better to profit from them, while Saudi’s vision is one of emphasising private and international economic freedom, while curtailing fundamental personal liberties. 

Saudi figures that Sisi has the ‘security’ situation under control, meaning its never-ending reign of terror against all dissent, but this is being undermined by the rapacious and avaricious kleptocracy that runs the country. Saudi wants Sisi to allow a wider pool of private investment in the economy to nullify the current disastrous economic conditions that could see serious opposition emerge. 

Moreover, Egypt is a theatre of contestation in the growing rivalry between Saudi and the UAE. Despite the investment of both countries in his regime, Sisi has drawn closer to the UAE. The UAE is currently Egypt’s top investor, while Sisi has seemingly shown favouritism towards the UAE when it comes to multi-billion-dollar joint investment plans. 

Saudi and the UAE more often than not find themselves on the same side when it comes to regional order, but they each believe they should be the vanguard of that order. They both believe that they are entitled to economically colonise countries like Egypt. 

The Sisi regime ought to be worried that one of its major benefactors is so openly contemptuous about it, but the ace up their sleeve is the spectre of ‘chaos’ or any form of progressive change in Egypt. For example, the IMF’s current loan agreement with Egypt is heavily dependent on continued Gulf support – if Saudi aid was to stop, it would be a major crack in the edifice of order in Egypt. 

And despite the rivalries, what unites Egypt, Saudi and, of course, the UAE, is an unrepentant hatred of democracy and all who advocate it. Saudi Arabia sees in Egypt’s current economic model the traces of future unrest and mass instability, which would be generally bad for Saudi, but could also see a return of the hated Muslim Brotherhood and their vision of Islamic democracy that so spooked them during the presidency of the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi.

This is precisely why Saudi pumped billions into Sisi’s coup regime as it dismantled the short-lived Egyptian democracy and destroyed the prospects of the democratisation of Egypt’s socioeconomic future.

Nasser once remarked that the Middle East is the region that constantly changes yet always stays the same. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the allegedly unthinkable thawing of relations between Saudi and Iran. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a host of Arab countries normalise relations with Israel. Egypt is no longer a unique regional power.

But whatever Saudi thinks about Egypt’s rampant and relentless kleptocracy and its central role in economic instability, there’s little doubt it considers the country too big to fail.

Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.

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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.