The fickle Arabian rulers are at each other’s throat one minute and rubbing noses and kissing the next. This is what is happening with the rulers of two regimes: Bani Saud of Arabia and the Pharaoh of Egypt.
If Egypt has long been a Saudi client state because Cairo has largely leaned on Riyadh to keep its economy afloat, hence its subservience to Bani Saud’s policies in the region, it could soon reinvent itself as an independent entity.
Rulers in Cairo and Riyadh are barely on speaking terms these days. And while the Kingdom will likely continue to flex its financial muscle and play those partnerships against what its elites believe to be a weak Egypt, one should remember that unlike the Bani-Saud-ruled kingdom, Egypt has a very long history. Cairo might not break as easily under external pressure as the Saudis seem to believe.
It all began in April 2016. Then, Egypt was still keen to assuage Riyadh’s concerns over its political choices in exchange for a large injection of cash into its deeply stressed economy. Egyptian military dictator General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s infatuation with King Salman proved short lived though; especially since it was motivated solely by money as opposed to ideology. It would be a mistake to assume that Egypt has remained “loyal” to Saudi Arabia out of a deep-seated sense of ideological kinship. Beyond its thin veneer of Islam, Egypt’s institutions are largely secular in nature. This was also evident when the military staged a brutal coup against the first-ever democratically elected government led by al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood — MB). Their short spell in power (2012–2013) was brought to a bloody end with few Egyptians protesting against the subversion of their rights. True, most people did not dare stand against a ruthless military but most Egyptian institutions — the judiciary, police and businesses — happily went along with the coup. The MB-led government threatened their vested interests; the coup-makers restored them.
Saudi Arabia’s violent and reactionary theocratic make-up offers little or no appeal to the Egyptians. Cairo’s reverence toward Bani Saud has been one of financial pragmatism and a lack of political alternative. It is also important to remember that Saudi Arabia’s core power is tied to its wealth, not its ability to inspire others.
But back to Egypt. In exchange for a series of lucrative contracts and promised diplomatic support Egypt agreed to transfer some of its territorial possessions to the Kingdom by ceding control over two islands: Tiran and Sanafir. Located at the southern entry of the Gulf of Aqaba, where both Israel and Jordan maintain important ports, the islands are of great geopolitical importance, so much so that Tel Aviv has long coveted them.
It is important to understand the history of these islands. On January 17, 1950, then Saudi king, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud temporarily entrusted these islands to the care of King Farouk of Egypt. What was the reason behind this move? Israel had just taken over the Negev Desert and created a harbour at Eilat, which could only be reached via the straits of Tiran. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz knew that his Bedouin hordes had no capability to protect these islands from Zionist predators (they are only capable of killing unarmed Muslims), so he handed them over to Egypt’s care for safekeeping.
From the discussions that have ensued since, it was clear to both sides that Bani Saud would ultimately get these islands back. Now that they are on kissing terms with the Zionists, they are asking for the return of these islands, knowing well that their Zionist cousins do not threaten them anymore. Discussions between Egypt and Saudi officials have frequently occurred. One Egyptian diplomat conceded, “We have always acknowledged Saudi sovereignty over those islands. We have been working on the handover since 1985 and an agreement was reached in 2010. The fall of President Mubarak postponed its application.”
This has been the official position but publicly, the regime has adopted a different stance. Egyptians view this as the thinning out of their territorial sovereignty. The Sisi military regime has made no effort to correct this perception. Instead, it has allowed news of the deal to ignite an impassioned debate on the legality of such a move since Egypt’s territorial integrity is presented as a cornerstone of its constitution. Such a position would have been more credible if it was also extended to the Zionists’ virtual occupation of the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt is forbidden under the Camp David Accords to station its army in the Sinai. It is only allowed lightly armed policemen.
Taking to social media to express outrage Hamdeen Sabahi, one of the presidential hopefuls in 2012, denounced the planned handover, saying it went against the Egyptian constitution, which prohibits ceding any territory. As he called for a complete withdrawal of the agreement, Sabahi implied Riyadh was taking advantage of Egypt’s economic vulnerability to play the role of empire builder.
Knowing better than to defy popular will over such a visceral issue, el-Sisi conceded that the matter should be put for parliamentary review. It is likely any other decision would have led to uproar and anger in the streets of Egypt, a risk the Egyptian dictator was not going to take, at least not for the Saudis.
The deal died before it could take its first breath. But Riyadh was not exactly going to give up on its Red Sea ambitions, not when its elites have grown accustomed to getting what they want, come what may. Thus, began the grand Saudi-Egyptian political ice age!
The first blow came on October 8 when Egypt voted in favour of Russia’s draft proposal on Syria at the United Nations Security Council, thus directly positioning itself against Saudi Arabia and its ambition to usher the fall of President Bashar al-Asad of Syria. In an analysis piece for Al-Monitor Khalid Hassan wrote, “The draft was unacceptable to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which seeks to depose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, and which viewed Egypt’s vote for the resolution as a deviation from the Arab position.”
Riyadh responded in kind in November when it froze all oil exports to Egypt. This had already been hinted at before the Security Council vote in October. Reuters reported, “Saudi Arabia has informed Egypt that shipments of oil products expected under a $23 billion aid deal have been halted indefinitely, suggesting a deepening rift between the Arab world’s richest country and its most populous.”
In an interview for MediaLine Omar Ashour, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a British think tank noted, “The tension between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is an accumulation of a lot of things… Egypt seems to see the survival of Bashar al-Assad as a crucial part of maintaining the status quo, while Saudi Arabia sees that if the regime wins, Iran and Hezbollah win.”
Although reconciliation with Egypt is still possible, Saudi Arabia’s latest stunt in the Horn of Africa is likely to further aggravate grievances, and awaken Egypt’s national anger. Earlier in December news broke out that Saudi Arabia would open a military base in Djibouti. The Egyptians are not amused!
The New Arab quoted an official Egyptian source as saying, “Cairo is totally against the deal because it considers Djibouti to be under the Egyptian sphere of influence and because its location is important for national security…This move goes against the generally accepted customs between Arab countries as the area has a direct influence on the passage of ships toward the Suez Canal. If Saudi Arabia wants to ensure that Iran does not take control of the area, that is understandable — however, this must take place with Egyptian oversight and permission.”
Since then, tensions between the two powers have escalated. On December 16, Egyptian media lashed out at Saudi Arabia over a high-level Saudi delegation visit to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) during a short trip to Ethiopia. Experts agree that the decision to visit the GERD was an act of revenge against Egypt that could deepen tensions between the two countries.
Egyptian news commentator Moha-med Ali Khayr called on Riyadh to “review its policies before it can only blame itself for what ensues.” He continued on Egyptian TV, “Egypt is not obliged to continue to contain its reactions toward Saudi Arabia… any interference [by Saudi Arabia] in the GERD project implies a direct threat to Egypt’s national security.”
Whatever friendship once existed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is fast melting under Riyadh’s propensity to play national security games against Cairo. Water and access to it are no laughing matters for Egypt, and it is unlikely that General el-Sisi will soften his tone vis-a-vis Riyadh, not when his country’s standing and security in the region are at stake.
But what are Egypt’s alternatives? As signalled by el-Sisi’s support for Damascus earlier last year, one would naturally assume that Cairo is defiantly looking east for new partnerships: Iran, Russia, and China.
If anything is certain it is that this shift will change the political landscape of the greater Muslim East, and challenge Saudi Arabia’s power and influence in the region.