Egypt and Saudi Arabia: Marriage on the Rocks?

by Cinzia Bianco and Giorgio Cafiero

For several decades, the alliance between Egypt and Saudi Arabia has served as an anchor of a pro-Western geopolitical order in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Dating back to the 1970s, Cairo and Riyadh’s mutual interests and concerns about common threats and shared opportunities have fostered strong ties between the Arab world’s most populous state and its wealthiest one.

Egypt, which has faced major security, political, and economic challenges in recent years, has grown quite dependent on the oil-rich kingdom for financial aid. The Saudis, long reliant on external support for defense, have counted on Egypt as a strong and experienced military force to confront what they perceive to be Iran’s expansionist and “aggressive” operations throughout the region.

Recently, however, the Cairo-Riyadh relationship has significantly deteriorated. In October, Egypt sided with Russia in yet another clash within the United Nations Security Council over Syria by voting with Moscow in favor of a Russian resolution that argued for a ceasefire in Syria excluding Aleppo. The move felt like an unexpected betrayal for Saudi Arabia, which for years has strongly opposed the axis crafted in Syria among Moscow, Tehran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Damascus. Abdullah al-Muallami, Riyadh’s envoy to the U.N., called Cairo’s vote “painful,” Just a few days later, Saudi Aramco announced its intention to suspend deliveries of petroleum to Egypt, a country that is constantly at risk of energy crises.

Strategic Shifts

Below the surface of such unprecedented decisions are numerous developments—within Egypt and Saudi Arabia and in the region as a whole—which have heightened tensions in bilateral relations. Put simply, today’s leadership in Cairo and Riyadh do not see the MENA region in the same way they did when Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah were leading these two major Sunni Arab states.

A key factor behind Riyadh’s strong support for Egypt’s post-Morsi government back in 2013 was that King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, who ruled from 2005-2015, wanted simultaneously to counter Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The kingdom’s current leadership instead has come to see the Muslim Brotherhood as a tactical partner (or as one Saudi official put it, a “natural ally”) in Riyadh’s struggle against Iran.

On the other hand, the Egyptian officials who have been in charge since 2013 do not view Iran with as much concern as do their Saudi counterparts. Consequently, in recent years Egypt has not been willing to embrace the same hardline anti-Iranian stance that Mubarak did for many years. Instead the Abdel Fatah el-Sisi regime has prioritized countering its most direct political opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist groups, while even indicating, at least to some extent, an interest in exploring better relations with Tehran.

On September 23, Iran and Egypt’s foreign ministers met in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to discuss the conflict in Syria. About a week later, Yasser Othman, the head of Egypt’s Interest Section, went to Tehran and met with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s Majlis speaker’s special international affairs advisor, who praised Cairo’s “productive” role in Syria and called for greater Egyptian-Iranian cooperation. Soon after, Iran based its agreement to attend the Lausanne talks concerning Syria on Egypt and Iraq securing their places at the roundtable. Tehran wanted to avoid being outnumbered by those states— Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—seeking Assad’s departure from power, highlighting how the Syrian crisis has created some common ground between Egypt (which covertly supports Assad) and Damascus’ closest Middle Eastern ally, Iran. This maneuvering has come at the expense of Cairo’s historical alignment with Riyadh.

Earlier this month, Egypt and Iraq signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), reportedly brokered by Iran, for Egypt to receive Iraqi oil and gas. The MoU with Iraq, which has grown closer to Iran in recent years, plus one with Azerbaijan, are indicative of Cairo’s quest to find new sellers of oil and gas outside of the GCC as Egypt’s energy production has fallen and its national consumption has increased.

Russia plays a key role in Egypt’s geopolitical maneuvering that is irking the kingdom. Sisi’s partnership with Vladimir Putin has grown considerably in recent years. In September 2014, Egypt and Russia signed a $3.5 billion weapons deal. In May, the Egyptians announced plans to build a nuclear power plant with a $25 billion loan from Moscow. In October, Egypt hosted a joint military exercise with Russia. Cairo’s interests in Syria have increasingly converged with Moscow’s as Sisi pushes for a resolution to the Syrian crisis that likely keeps Assad in power. From Sisi’s vantage point, Assad’s foes in Syria have already lost the conflict, so aligning with them unequivocally for Saudi approval is not worth it and would not be a game-changer. From Riyadh’s perspective, however, Assad’s survival threatens to strengthen Iran’s hand in the Levant at the expense of Saudi Arabia’s.

The Yemeni crisis has been another factor contributing to the deterioration in Egyptian-Saudi relations. Although Cairo half-heartedly joined the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign (“Operation Decisive Storm”) last March, Egypt has not played the role in Yemen that the Saudis have wanted. Egypt’s history of fighting in Yemen during the 1960s and accruing massive losses, which remains in the Egyptians’ collective memory, is certainly a major factor explaining Sisi’s reluctance to make a substantial contribution to the anti-Houthi military campaign. Yet Saudi Arabia’s warming up to the Muslim Brotherhood branches in both Egypt and Yemen to secure Sunni support for the kingdom’s war in Yemen has created tension in the Cairo-Riyadh relationship. Last March, Sisi angered the Saudis when he spoke at an Arab League summit in Egypt and read a letter penned by Vladimir Putin calling for the Yemeni crisis to be resolved “without any external interference.” The Egyptian government’s granting of permission to Houthi figures to put on a photo exhibit in Cairo displaying photos of Yemeni victims of the Saudi-led military campaign did not ease any tension in Egyptian-Saudi relations.

Sisi’s unwillingness to toe Riyadh’s line in Syria and Yemen, alongside Cairo’s geopolitical shift closer to Moscow, Tehran, and Baghdad, has infuriated the Saudis. In both cases Egypt went from essentially disregarding the conflicts, while focusing on threats posed by militant extremists in the Sinai Peninsula and neighboring Libya, to aligning itself with an emerging Russian-Iranian power nexus that is reshaping the MENA region’s geopolitical order.

Although for years the Saudis were able to use their petrodollars to maintain Cairo’s position within Riyadh’s orbit of influence, Sisi’s bold gambit is yet another sign that the oil-rich kingdom cannot always purchase loyalty. At the same time, Cairo officials have calculated that although the Saudi front is weakening, the Iranian-Russian front is gaining the upper hand in all regional scenarios. This serves as a powerful incentive for Cairo to reach out to both Tehran and Moscow. By making an effort to deepen relations with rising non-Arab powers in the MENA region’s fluid geopolitical environment, Sisi has delivered a message to Saudi Arabia that Cairo’s alliance with Riyadh is not irreplaceable and that Egypt has other options should the Saudis decide to diminish their support for his country.

Egypt’s Domestic Politics

Unquestionably, public opinion in Egypt has influenced Sisi’s decision-making vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Although 25 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line and the country faces dire economic problems, many Egyptians are highly nationalistic and sensitive about concepts such as sovereignty. The image of Sisi growing too dependent on Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf powers is a major political risk for the president. The fallout from King Salman’s April visit to Egypt, in which officials in Cairo agreed to return two Red Sea islands to the kingdom’s territorial control, caused a huge uproar among Egypt’s population. Ultimately a court stalled the transfer.

Another variable in play is a political, social, and religious rejection of Saudi Wahhabism on the part of many Egyptians. The country’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser challenged Saudi Arabia’s position in the Sunni Arab world, frequently delivering passionate speeches that blasted the kingdom’s version of Sunni Islam as “reactionary” and “backwards,” while accusing the Saudi rulers of being “puppets” of Western powers and complicit in Israeli violence against Arabs. Throughout Anwar Sadat’s presidency (1970-1981), Cairo shifted its foreign policy alignment away from the Kremlin and Arab nationalist states and towards the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other Arabian Peninsula sheikdoms. Yet, Nasser’s thinking remains popular among significant segments of Egypt’s society, particularly within secular and Arab nationalist circles. Sisi’s identification with the glorious past of Nasser would be his best insurance policy for retaining power.

In late August, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Russia sponsored a conference of Islamic preachers and officials in the Chechen capital, Grozny. The conference’s attendees hailed from many Muslim countries and represented various schools of Sunni Islam. Yet not one came from Saudi Arabia. The question of “Who is a Sunni” was key to the conference, which ended with a closing statement that answered that question by limiting major Islamic institutions to Egypt’s al-Azhar University, Morocco’s University of Quaraouiyine, Tunisia’s al-Zaytoonah University, and Yemen’s Hadhramaut University, without including a single Saudi institution. Al Alam called the conference a “rejection of Wahhabism.” Needless to say, the Grozny conference fueled much anger in Saudi Arabia, with one prominent writer accusing the organizers of waging a “new intellectual war against Saudi Arabia”.

Future of Egyptian-Saudi Relations

Since the July 3, 2013 coup, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have provided Sisi’s government with virtually unconditional support in the form of tens of billions of dollars in direct aid and loans. Yet there is overall frustration in Saudi Arabia that Sisi, who in March 2015 told King Salman that GCC security represents a “red line” for Cairo, has not respected an implicit bargain with Riyadh. Egypt’s refusal to follow the kingdom’s policy in Syria and Yemen—plus Sisi’s outreach to Moscow, Tehran, and Baghdad—has enraged many officials in Riyadh.

Tensions in Egyptian-Saudi relations are coming at a difficult time for the kingdom. Falling oil prices have led Riyadh to implement austerity measures to finance budgetary shortfalls, the costly war in Yemen, and the ongoing crisis in Syria where Saudi efforts to topple Assad have proven futile. Egypt’s falling out of the kingdom’s geopolitical orbit marks yet another strategic loss for Riyadh. As Saudi Arabia goes through an era of socio-economic reforms and moves ahead with Vision 2030—an attempt to diversify the country’s economy beyond its traditional hydrocarbon base, which requires major foreign and domestic investments at the domestic level—the Saudis are sending Sisi a message that their oil-rich kingdom can no longer be treated solely as an ATM machine, that Saudi Arabia’s pockets are deep but not bottomless.

Nonetheless, as disappointed and insulted as they may feel, the Saudis have simply invested too much in Sisi’s government to cut off the Egyptians. As the Egyptian military fights Islamic State offshoots in the Egyptian Sinai, officials in Riyadh understand that terrorism threats in the peninsula located between the Mediterranean and Red Seas will bear major implications for GCC security.

As long-term questions of food security in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states force GCC officials to secure supply routes, the Saudi leadership is determined to keep the Suez Canal and Red Sea open and free of terrorist activity. Moreover, the risk of Egypt, situated at the intersection of Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Middle East sliding into political unrest similar to 2011 is a worst-case scenario for Saudis. For all of Riyadh’s disappointment with Sisi’s actions/inactions, the Saudi leadership understands that stability in Egypt is a top priority. The Saudis would face a serious security crisis if Egypt’s economy collapses and/or political conflicts result in worsening terrorism and violence.

Understanding his country’s strategic value to Saudi Arabia, Sisi has likely calculated that he can make a bold gamble by flirting with the kingdom’s archrival, Iran, as well as Russia and Iraq. Given that neither Cairo nor Riyadh can completely walk away from the other, Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s marriage is not at the divorce stage. Yet due to the changes in both countries’ leaderships and national priorities, and the increasingly different ways that they view developments throughout the MENA region, the Egyptian-Saudi marriage is on the rocks.

Cinzia Bianco is an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical consultancy.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.