The New Arab Logo

Breaking News
Egypt-Saudi rivalry could play out in the Yemen theatre Open in fullscreen

Abdallah Hendawy

Egypt-Saudi rivalry could play out in the Yemen theatre

King Salman at the recent Sharm al-Sheikh summit [AFP]

Date of publication: 1 April, 2015

Share this page:
  • 0

  • twitter
Comment: Riyadh's assumption of leadership over the Yemen issue revives an old rivalry with Cairo over regional roles.

Last week’s Sharm al-Sheikh Arab Summit exposed a cold feud over the region’s intractable conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen leaving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict overshadowed.


This feud was most evident over the summit’s burning issues, Yemen. The speeches of both Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud reflected profound differences – or rather contentions – in  in their political priorities.  On one hand, Sisi devoted a considerable part of his speech to underscore the urgency

     Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia recognize the dilemma of having common interests yet competing designs.

of countering terrorism. King Salman, on the other hand, emphasised that restricting Iran’s expansion in the region as the most pressing priority.   


Yemen, besides being the theatre of an apparent Sunni-Shia proxy war, became the focal point of rivalry for Arab world leadership between two traditional competitors – Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  Despite the post-Morsi warming of relations between the two countries, multiple contested issues remain unsolved, from views on the Syrian crisis through the military intervention in Libya all the way to the Muslim Brotherhood. King Salman’s ascension, however, paved the way for the traditional rivalry to resurface.


That was particularly evident over the Yemeni crisis. The Saudis had launched airstrikes against the Houthi movement just two days before a summit where Egypt had planned to put forward its notion of a joint Arab military force. Had the Saudis waited two days, the offensive on Yemen might have appeared as an Egyptian-led operation or a pan-Arab initiative. But the Saudis sought to take a leading role in Yemen by proceeding at the head of a hastily convened alliance in which Egypt was just another participant.


King Salman’s remarks at the Sharm summit further reflected this Saudi assertion of leadership. "Operation Decisive Storm", he said, “will continue until the Yemeni people enjoy security and stability.” It was a clear signal that the Saudis saw themselves as in charge, while participating Arab countries would be considered merely a supporting cast.


Egypt, who apparently was not informed of the operation in advance, found itself a bit player. But there was not much to do. Sisi has repeatedly affirmed that Arab Gulf security is an integral part of Egypt’s national security. Therefore this had to be a moment for him to fulfil that pledge despite Cairo’s subordinate role. Egypt dispatched a number of fighter jets and warships and showed a strong willingness to put boots on the ground should the circumstances necessitate.


Until this development, the new Saudi-Egyptian bilateral relationship had been untested. A number of conjectures went viral that the new Saudi king is more sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood than his predecessor, which – if true – could seriously undermine the relationship between the two countries. That said, the Yemeni crisis could also prove a good barometer for the strength of relations between the two countries.


Egypt’s tumultuous last four years saw a change in the balance of power in the bilateral relationship between Cairo and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has pledged billions of dollars to aid Egypt’s damaged economy thereby securing greater influence in the region including within Egypt’s military. Saudi Arabia’s new ambitious king has sought, in return, to ensure that debt-laden Egypt would yield to Saudi political leadership on regional issues. Still, Egypt sees itself in a strong position. While it is grateful for the Saudi economic lifeline, it seems unwilling to succumb to the Saudi political agenda. 


Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia recognize the dilemma of having common interests yet competing designs on regional hegemony. But there are practical matters to consider. Saudi Arabia, with all its colossal amounts of money, cannot afford the war on Yemen alone. Such an operation if escalated – which is widely expected – will necessitate a military with greater manpower capabilities, which Egypt is able to provide. Egypt, saddled with a stagnant economy, still wants to prove that it can overcome its domestic turmoil and regain its regional status. It is certainly unable to do so without the economic support of Arab Gulf countries.


Yemen could prove to be the first round of a renewed Egyptian-Saudi political tug of war for regional supremacy. The way this tangled relationship unfolds is totally unpredictable in a region that can barely hold itself together.  

The New ArabComments

Most Popular

Most Popular

    Read More