by Hervé Pugi.
For some time, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have had a somewhat “love/hate” relationship. Allies of convenience against the Muslim Brotherhood after the upheaval of 2011, these two states are born again from the ashes of animosity from another era. We review the deterioration of relations with our expert, Roland Lombardi*.
Scribouille: Strong tensions erupted between Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the Arab League summit about the situation in the Middle East. Can you explain to us about the divisions in terms of foreign policy between these countries?
Roland Lombardi: (R.L.): This turbulent period is mainly due to differences in opinion on regional issues and particularly on the Syrian and Yemeni issues. Thus, the Egyptian diplomacy recently allowed itself the luxury of boldly voting in favour of the Russian resolution at the Security Council, which was fiercely opposed by European countries, the Americans and the Gulf countries, headed, of course, by Saudi Arabia! Indeed, the Saudi Arabians did not take this initiative well, seeing it as a betrayal by a country that it supports financially with billions of dollars. That’s why the Gulf monarchy decided, in retaliation and also to remind Egypt of the fact that it is dependent, to cut off the oil supply from the month of October. 40% of Egypt’s oil products come from Saudi Arabia. But these disagreements about Syria are not new. In fact, when President Sisi came to power in 2013, he had already resumed talks with Damascus and since then, behind the scenes, he has been working to save Bashar al-Assad. For Saudi Arabia, who has been working hard to bring down the regime since 2011, this is intolerable.
The other sticking point is Egypt’s refusal to make troops available to the coalition led by Riyadh against the Pro-Iran Houthis in Yemen. Even if special forces are probably present on the ground, Egypt has a painful experience of Yemen since its intervention in the 1970s. Finally, the Egyptian president’s willingness to normalise its relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s worst “adversary” in the region, has not helped…
Scribouille: We can’t ignore the geopolitical dimension of these tensions. We know that a link exists between Saudi Arabia and the United States, albeit one that has been somewhat stretched thin recently. Moreover, Egypt has gradually got closer to Russia. Is there a causal link between this state of affairs or is it pure delusion?
R.L.: No, it isn’t a delusion and everything is certainly connected. Whether we like it or not, thanks to its clear and coherent policy in the region, based on non-interference and the fight against terrorism and political Islam, Russia is certainly doing well but above all it is become a feared and respected power again, one which we should pay attention to from now on. Even during the Soviet era, Moscow had never achieved such leadership in the area. Thus, the Russian message to the states in the region has the merit of being clear and could be summarised as follows: “Run your countries as you see fit but we do not want Islamists, ‘moderate’ or not, in power; in exchange and if necessary, you can always count on our loyalty and support! ” It is this relatively simple rhetoric that strongly appeals to the counter-revolutionary Arab governments… and first and foremost to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi! Since the field Marshall seized power, Egypt has never been so close to Russia, particularly in the areas of security and trade.
Scribouille: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s assumption of office has marked a real warming in relations between these countries. Particularly with a common ideological front: the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood. With this distant threat, what interest does Riyadh have in continuing to support Cairo?
R.L.: Riyadh’s main interest lies in the fact that Saudi Arabia needs the great Egypt in its battle for influence against Iran. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is aware of Saudi Arabia’s expectations. He has shown in recent years that he was a political purpose and an opportunist, in the best sense of the word. During his coup in July 2013, he needed maximum support, both internally and externally. Military attaché of the Embassy of Egypt in Saudi Arabia and then boss of intelligence, Sisi has always maintained good relations with the Saudis. It is therefore logical that he turned to them in his fierce repression against the Muslim Brotherhood, all whilst dividing the Islamist camp, since the Salafist Egyptians were themselves supported by Riyadh. Above all, he obtained substantial financial aid from the Kingdom for his failing economy. In exchange, the president-marshall promised not to touch the Salafists. The deal between Sisi and the Salafists was simple: in exchange for their autonomy and their potential influence amongst the most religious Egyptians, the Salafists were to never politically compete with and even less so to challenge the President. Since then, the Salafist party Nour has been largely marginalised by those in power and has suffered major election setbacks. The Muslim Brotherhood’s experience in power (2012-2013) permanently discredited Islamist forces in the eyes of a large number of people who now consider the use of religion for political purposes to be illegitimate. In 2015, a petition was also circulated that demanded that the Nour party be excluded from the political scene…
Scribouille: The 1960s were marked by the opposition between Egyptian Nasserism and Saudi Wahhabism, are we heading towards a new cold war in the Middle East or is this scenario unimaginable these days?
R.L.: I don’t think so. The situation in the region has changed a lot. Moreover, in order for there to be a cold war between two states, most of the time, they must be of equal power or influence. This isn’t the case. In this case, we must ask ourselves who will have, in the more or less long term, more need than the other and who will have the most to lose from a deterioration in their relationship. Currently, Riyadh’s regional plans and its policy of supporting Islamists since the famous Arab Spring are a failure. Its intervention in Yemen is a fiasco. In Syria, the monarchy is in swindle mode, as they say in chess. It manoeuvres with the aim of complicating the situation in part, in theory, lost in advance. Moreover, will the Bedouin monarchy, founded in the 1930s, still have financial influence in the decades to come? The relative power and influence but also the very existence of Saudi Arabia are based on oil and the status of guardian of the holy places of Mecca and Medina. Today, it is becoming increasingly isolated internationally. With internal political tensions, more modest income and oil reserves than in the past, no serious investment in the areas of academia and technology, unprecedented water stress and Iran’s return to the international stage, the future of the Kingdom seems bleak.
As for Egypt, with its history and its army, the largest and most powerful in the Arab realm, it is the true beacon of the Sunni Arab world and remains key. Saudi Arabia cannot definitively break away from Egypt. As for Sisi, even if he wants to mark his geopolitical independence by pragmatism, it is not in his interest, at the moment, to initiate a clean break from Riyadh, especially in a financial sense…
Doctor of History, Roland Lombardi is an independent consultant in Geopolitics, an analyst at the JFC Conseil group and associate researcher at IREMAM [Institute for research and studies on the Arab and Muslim world) at the Aix-Marseille University. Latest publication: Gaz naturel, la nouvelle donne ? [Natural gas, the new order?] (Co-aut., ed. PUF, 2016)