Saudi-Egyptian relations: fault lines of a future conflict

6th Sep 2013

By Ibrahim Alloush

Al-Akhbar: The new Egyptian government is politely asserting its differences with Saudi Arabia over a military strike on Syria, disrupting what appears to be a convergence of interests between the two in getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal came to the Cairo meeting of the Arab League on September 1 hoping to convince his counterparts to officially give their consent for a US military strike on Syria, but his plans were diplomatically foiled by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.

The meeting’s closing statement did condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria and held the regime responsible, but called for the matter to be put before the UN, which should respond as it sees fit. This not only benefits Damascus in proscribing any action outside the UN, it also had the effect of encouraging other countries to object more strongly to the Saudi position.

This new Egyptian approach is a departure from the days of Hosni Mubarak and the days leading to the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood, when Cairo simply tailed Riyadh on the Syrian crisis. Today, the new government in Egypt is trying to plot its own course while at the same time making sure not to alienate the Saudis, who have poured billions of dollars into the country to shore up its economy at this critical stage.

In recent months, the Saudi government has taken a series of steps to take the lead on the Syria file, marginalizing the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and those countries where they have influence, such as Turkey and Qatar. Riyadh was also one of the more enthusiastic supporters of the ousting of Mohamed Mursi for essentially the same reasons.

For the Wahhabi kingdom, the Muslim Brotherhood represents the most serious and credible alternative to its influence both internally and across the region. Both sides find themselves competing over the same constituency (Sunni Muslims), with the Brotherhood having the advantage of being more marketable, particularly after dressing up their rhetoric with liberal democratic terminology to gain favor with the West.

Riyadh’s greatest fear is for Egypt to move in a more independent direction, freeing itself from the clutches of Washington, and once again playing the central role it once did in the region’s affairs. The Saudis know the extent of Cairo’s power from recent history, when they waged a regional cold war with Nasser in the 1950s and 60s that turned into a deadly hot war in Syria and Yemen.

Under Anwar Sadat, the spread of Wahhabi and Saudi influence went a long way to cut Egypt’s role down to size. Mubarak continued this trend, keeping the country on Saudi Arabia’s good side for nearly three decades.

In short, the Gulf monarchy knows that their regional ambitions cannot be realized without keeping Egypt under their control, thus the generous injection of $12 billion that Cairo received from the Gulf following the June 30 uprising against the Brotherhood. Just as the Zionist lobby did its best to prevent Washington from withholding military aid to the new government, desperately hoping to keep Cairo under America’s thumb, which in turn safeguards Israel’s security.

The nightmare scenario for the Saudis is for Egypt to take its own course on the Syrian crisis, realizing – as many Egyptians already know – that its national security is intimately linked to what happens in the Levant. The destruction of the Syrian army and the fragmentation of the country could very well be a prelude to subjecting Egypt – the Arab world’s largest nation – to the very same catastrophe, thus weakening it before the Zionist enemy.

Therefore, Saudi’s rulers are today pursuing a dual strategy in containing Egypt. On the one hand, they are working to undermine any independent course that the Muslim Brotherhood may take, in an attempt to subordinate them to Riyadh’s priorities in the region. At the same time, by showering the new government in Cairo with billions in aid and diplomatic support, it is hoping to keep Egypt under US-Saudi influence.

For the time being, the Egyptian government is doing its best to avoid any tensions with the Gulf kingdom, building on their mutual antagonism toward the Brotherhood and hoping to buy time until the country gets through this delicate transitional period. In the end, however, there is no avoiding the day when Egypt stands on its own, and conflict seeps back into its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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