Saudi Arabia and Egypt: friends or foes?

Saudi Arabia and Egypt: friends or foes?

4 min read
03 August, 2015
Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince recent trip to Egypt signalled Cairo and Riyadh's determination to revive their uneasy alliance, suggests Mohammad Ali Musawi.
King Salman [Getty]

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, made a surprise visit to Cairo on 30 July along with a delegation that included the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Jubayr. The visit, announced just the day before, is seen as looking to bolster Saudi-Egyptian relations, which some observers believe have become strained since Salman bin Abd al-Aziz became King, due to disagreements on regional issues, although both states have denied this.

But if relations between the two countries were as strong as they had been under King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, the strongest regional supporter of both the coup and subsequent ascendancy of Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, why did Riyadh have to dispatch Prince Muhammad to meet Sisi and reiterate support for his regime?

On the other hand, if the pundits are right and ties have indeed cooled, what do the two countries hope to achieve from last week's very public show of mutual solidarity and support?

Saudi calculations

King Salman’s administration has made countering Iran's regional regional influence its main foreign policy priority, working to build a broad Sunni alliance against Iran and its Shia allies. This initiative has seen, for example, Saudi Arabia and Qatar ending years of enmity due – at least in part – to Qatar’s support for Muslim Brotherhood groups in various Arab countries.

Although this rapprochement had begun under King Abdullah, as part of efforts for a more cohesive Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it was accelerated under Salman and transformed into a wider Sunni alliance. As such, Saudi also reached out to Turkey, another ally of the Muslim Brotherhood and a strong regional Sunni power.

In recent weeks Riyadh has received Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, who held talks with senior Saudi figures, including the King. Despite Riyadh’s announcement that the visit was strictly for religious purposes and that its position towards Hamas had not changed, the meetings were quite obviously aimed at putting distance between the Palestinian group and its long-time backer, Iran, and bringing it into the Saudis' emerging Sunni alliance.

Other prominent visitors to Riyadh in recent weeks have been Rachid al-Ghannouchi of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, Abd al-Majid Zindani of Yemen’s Islah party and Hammam Sa'id of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood. Aside from King Salman’s purported Islamist sympathies, this apparent

     Journalists close to the Sisi regime have been permitted to launch scathing attacks against Saudi policies.

rapprochement with the Brotherhood and its state sponsors has clearly been driven by by the drastic changes in the region's political landscape over the past two years.

The Brotherhood is far weaker than it used to be and overshadowed by Islamic State and an Iran emboldened by its nuclear deal. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia recognises that in places like Yemen, which it sees as a front line in the battle against Iranian influence, it needs to rely on the Islah party to achieve its interests, as it is the most organized political force.

Sisi’s manoeuvers

As far as Sisi's regime is concerned, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood represents an existential threat: it can only be worried by these Saudi overtures towards the group. But Sisi cannot risk antagonising the Saudis, his main financial backer, by criticising the Brotherhood's policies.

Therefore, Sisi has adopted more subtle methods to express his discomfort with Riyadh's new policy.

For example, although Egypt is part of the Saudi-led military alliance in Yemen and has announced its willingness to commit ground troops if necessary, Cairo’s statements have not been translated into action. Furthermore, journalists close to the Sisi regime have been permitted to launch scathing attacks against Saudi policies.

Given that the press is heavily regulated by the state, the anti-Saudi campaign can only be understood as a message from the regime, Sisi most probably aiming to remind his Gulf partners that he rules over the most populous Arab country and should not be taken lightly.

Cairo has also been attracting a degree of Iranian courtship of late, to which it has responded with a measure of flexibility. For example, the Egyptian government has recently said it would not be averse to importing Iranian oil when the sanctions are lifted -- a move that would certainly irk Riyadh.

Uneasy partners

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are hardly friends at this juncture, rather uneasy strategic partners united by mutual need. Egypt is heavily reliant on Saudi financial support to keep it afloat, Saudi Arabia cannot afford for a country of the size and weight of Egypt to have ambiguous allegiances in a regional struggle growing ever more critical.

The purpose of the Crown Prince’s visit was to lessen Egyptian fears and recommit the kingdom to its support for the Sisi regime, in return for Sisi’s clear allegiance to the Saudi camp and his commitment to make more military resources available to its cause.

The signing of a Saudi-Egyptian pact, dubbed “The Cairo Declaration”, at the end of the visit is a clear indication of its true purpose. It reads: The two sides stressed the need to exert all efforts to boost security and stability in the region, and to work together to protect Arab national security and reject attempts at interference in the internal affairs of Arab states."

This is the clear message to Iran.