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Is the Saudi-Egypt honeymoon ending? Open in fullscreen

Khalil al-Anani

Is the Saudi-Egypt honeymoon ending?

Will Sisi go his own way or fall into step with Saudi Arabia? [AFP]

Date of publication: 8 April, 2015

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Comment: Differences are emerging between the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian leaderships over crises in Syria, Libya and Yemen, says Khalil al-Anani.

Tensions in the relationship between Cairo and Riyadh have emerged after the inauguration of King Salman in Saudi Arabia. Saudi policy and attitudes have changed, especially in how to counter Iranian influence in the region.

It seems Cairo was surprised by the pace and intensity of the changes. A belief that the new Saudi king would be just like the old proved naive, and several powerful Saudi figures who supported Abdel Fatah el-Sisi's coup were removed.

No change yet

No radical shift has occurred yet in the relationship between the two countries and Riyadh is still one of the strongest supporters of Sisi's regime, but Sisi's imprudence and his failure to correctly read the internal changes in Saudi Arabia might strain the relationship.

These difficulties were manifest at the recent Arab League summit in Sharm al-Sheikh as members discussed how to deal with regional issues.

Riyadh is still one of the strongest supporters of Sisi's regime, but his failure to read the internal changes in Saudi Arabia might strain the relationship.

The main difference between Riyadh and Cairo is that of priority. Riyadh believes the resisting Iranian influence in the region is the most pressing issue, as seen in its intervention in Yemen, while Sisi believes the priority is to stop the influence of Islamists as they represent an existential threat to his regime.

There are also disagreements between Cairo and Riyadh on Syria and Libya. On Syria, Sisi believes that a political solution is needed, which should include Bashar al-Assad. Saudi does not.

In Libya, Sisi is looking for a military solution ; Saudi wants a political one.

The Saudi-led action in Yemen has also affected trust. Sisi has a relationship with the Houthi movement and the deposed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Before Saudi Arabia started dropping bombs, Saleh proposed that Egypt should host the various Yemeni factions for talks as, he said, it was a neutral country. 

Mistrust between Saudi and Egypt was further increased by Sisi's comments to the effect that "the Egyptian army is only for Egypt" before retracting that statement and announcing his support for his allies.

The shifting military balance

It seems Sisi is repressing feelings of anger and resentment because of the leading Saudi role in the region.

Sisi also displayed the Egyptian superiority complex that belittles the military abilities of Gulf countries., saying in leaked conversations that Gulf countries would need "payment for protection", as was seen to be the case in the 1991 Gulf war.

The military abilities of Arab Gulf armies have improved considerably over the past two decades.

Finally, it seems that Sisi is repressing feelings of anger and resentment because of the leading Saudi role in the region.

This has been clear since the start of the Yemen campaign and has been reflected in the pro-Sisi Egyptian media, which became hysterical at the "audacity" of Saudi moves.

Perhaps for the first time, Riyadh has eclipsed Cairo as a regional centre of power.

This strips Sisi not only of his strategic importance, but could also reignite the traditional competition between Riyadh and Cairo. Perhaps the honeymoon is ending.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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