A Turbulent Time in Saudi-Egyptian Relations

The failed attempts to mediate between Egypt and Saudi Arabia by several Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, have confirmed the extent to which the two countries distrust one another. And yet only a few months ago they appeared bound by a strategic alliance. What has happened?

Cairo, April 8, 2016. Official visit to Egypt of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Pool Photo/Alamy Stock Photo.

“Can you name one single conflict in this region about which Riyadh and Cairo see eye to eye?” This rhetorical question came from a journalist in the offices of the very official daily paper Al Ahram. Forgotten, it seems, are the posters of King Abdullah that adorned the streets of the capital following general Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s coup on July 3, 2013, giving thanks to Riyadh for its “fraternal assistance.” Or the extravagant articles in the dailies of both countries last April celebrating the “historical” visit to Egypt undertaken by Abdullah’s successor, King Salman. The visit lasted a full week and in an unprecedented gesture, the King gave a speech in parliament before meeting with the sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Coptic pope. Twenty-four agreements of economic co-operation were concluded, dealing in particular with the creation of residential and agricultural compounds and the development of the Sinaï desert, for sums estimated at billions of dollars.

Yet it took only a few months for cracks to appear in that impressive construction. Two issues have sparked the present crisis, already several months old. One was bilateral—the limits of territorial waters between the two countries–the other regional—the Syrian tragedy.

The Hand-Over of Tiran and Sanafir

The first of these issues is the more absurd, it concerns the future of two tiny islands, Tiran and Sanafir, who are known to the world only because they control the entrance to the Straits of Tiran, and because it was Egypt’s decision to close the straits to Israel that triggered the Israeli-Arab war of 1967. These islands had been temporarily entrusted to King Farouk’s Egypt by King Ibn Saud on January 17, 1950: Israel had just taken over the Negev and created a harbour at Eilat, which could only be reached via the straits of Tiran. Because the Saudis feared they would be unable to defend the island, they had handed them over to Egypt. The return of these territories to the Saudi was the subject of frequent discussions. In the words of an Egyptian diplomat “We have always acknowledged Saudi sovereignty on 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.”

In April 2016, during his Cairo visit, King Salman and his son, the crown prince, demanded the settlement of this issue once and for all. The Saudis wanted to liquidate the last of their frontier disputes with neighbouring countries, after the agreements signed in recent years with Yemen and the Gulf monarchies. And also, we are told in Ryad, it would be read as proof of Egyptian gratitude for the massive financing bestowed on Cairo since 2013. Saudi media made much of “the pride of the people” when it was announced the islands were to be returned.

The Egyptian government, which had hoped the decision would pass unnoticed, ran into an unexpected outcry and touched off the biggest demonstrations against the government since the fall of President Morsi. Many supporters of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi deny that these islands belong to Saudi Arabia and fail to understand a decision in contradiction with the regime’s nationalistic, not to say chauvinistic, stance. How can they give away land that belongs to the nation? Opposition lawyers took the matter to court and the judges suspended the agreement pending a session of the State Council on December 191. In Saudi Arabia, the ferocious campaign in the Egyptian media and this court decision are thought to be due to government activity behind the scenes. “Who can believe for one moment” an Egyptian diplomat wonders sarcastically, “that the media and the judiciary are free in Egypt? This isn’t Britain.”

This dispute obscures an important proviso of the agreement: it had to be approved by Israel. For indeed, the islands were included in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979, guaranteed in the Sinai by a multinational force of some 2000 men. These included a dozen Americans manning an observation station known as “3-11” on Tiran Island to survey sea traffic. Thus Riyadh must now coordinate with the “Israeli enemy.” Until now Saudi officials have kept this fact carefully concealed from public opinion, worried that their Arab or Iranian adversaries might use the information to bolster rumours of a secret reconciliation between Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

Two views on the Syrian question

The second source of conflict between the two capitals is Syria. The divergences are not new, Riyadh having declared its hostility to the Damascus regime at the end of 2011, while Cairo kept a low profile on the issue. In recent months, however, the Egyptian position has been more sharply defined, with President Sissi’s speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2016 in which he argued that “the [Syrian] state institutions must not be destroyed”. Two days later his foreign minister Sameh Choukri made explicit for the first time to journalists the disagreement with Saudi Arabia over the issue of whether or not armed struggle could determine the fate of Syria: “We do not believe it can and there is no room for terrorist organisations in Syria.” And he added, “there is no need of a cease-fire in order to initiate a political solution.”

On October 8, at the UN Security Council, Egypt voted in favour of a Russian resolution which received only four votes. In defence of this choice, an Egyptian diplomat explained that his country had “also voted for the French resolution,” vetoed by Russia, both of which he claimed—though they were to a large extent contradictory—contained “positive points,” particularly their calls for a reopening of negotiations and a cease-fire in Aleppo. But this vote elicited a scathing rebuttal from the Saudi delegate, who expressed surprise that non-Arab countries like Malaysia or Senegal “were in closer agreement with the Arabian position than the Egyptian delegate.”

A few days earlier there had been a signal that the crisis was already brewing prior to this vote. The Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco) had informed Egypt that it was suspending the five-year contract for the delivery of petroleum products (700,000 tons per month), signed during the King’s April visit to Cairo. Kuwait agreed to make up for the Saudi withdrawal. But to make things worse, Damascus made public, on October 17, the visit to Cairo by Ali Mamlouk, chief of the Office of National Security and a close collaborator of Bachar Al-Assad. And the announcement made by the newspaper Al-Safir (November 25) that 25 helicopter pilots were being sent to help the Syrian army shed a singular light on Sisi’s declarations to a Portuguese newspaper on November 22, relayed by the Middle East News Agency (MENA), that it would be preferable to support “national armies” in the fight against terrorism than to send in UN troops. A Saudi observer interpreted this statement as a justification for military governments of which Egypt itself provides the finest example.

In Cairo, after the Saudis suspended the delivery of oil products, the tone became more confrontational, with editorials that condemned the “Saudi diktat,” some that even advocated making overtures to Iran. In Arabia, the official media avoided the issue, as they had been very precisely instructed to do. In October, the general secretary of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) Iyad Madani was abruptly fired for having made fun of President Sissi. Saudi anger was expressed mainly through social networks. Khalid Al-Tuwaijiri, former Chief of the Royal Court under Abdullah and who had been one of Sisi’s wholehearted supporters, now accused him on his Twitter account (800,000 followers) of having “forgotten the support Arabia gave [his] country”, while Mohammed Al-Rotayyan, a well-known writer with 3 million followers, lost his temper: “Never since the pharaohs has Egypt been ruled by such a madman.”

In both Riyadh and Cairo the “off-the-record” explanations provided for this sudden escalation are quite unkind to the other party. “The Egyptians are simply blackmailing us. They want to up the ante, hoping we’ll come through with more money for them,” one official explains. “We’re not just providers of billion-dollar checks,” says another. “We have the feeling we’re pouring money down a bottomless hole, making the military rich instead of helping the people.” In more sarcastic tones, a researcher questions aloud the “importance of Egypt.” "Its only role in the Middle East is holding the keys to the Gaza border-crossing at Rafah,” deciding which Palestinians may cross or not and thereby retaining a say in that matter. It is true that the Saudi were miffed at Egypt’s half-hearted involvement in their Yemeni campaign—they were hoping for ground troops would be sent—which they interpret as an underestimation of the “Iranian menace”.

King Salman’s tactics

Given this context, a slip of the tongue or equivocal statement may immediately be misinterpreted. Hence, when the US congress, overriding an initial veto by President Obama, passed a law entitled Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism (JASTA) which allows US citizens to sue foreign countries accused of being behind acts of terrorism, there was a real embarrassment in Riyadh, the primary target of a law which refers explicitly to the 9/11 attacks, involving fifteen Saudi nationals. Foreign Minister Adel Joubeir spent practically the whole of October and November in the United States lobbying members of congress to defeat that law. While the Saudi reaction and that of other capitals worried about this “extension” of US law, were firm indeed, the statement issued by Egypt’s foreign ministry was conspicuously “moderate,” it simply said that Cairo was awaiting the outcome “with interest.”

On the Egyptian side, it is claimed that the bilateral troubles began when King Salman ascended to the throne. “Abdullah had principled positions, and the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood was his top priority, as it is ours: Salman is first and foremost a tactician, whence his alliance with the Brotherhood in Syria and especially in Yemen. He doesn’t take our interests to the heart.”

And indeed, King Salman who, according to several sources, was unenthusiastic about the July 3, 2013 coup in Egypt, is trying to mount a large Sunni alliance, first with the members of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC). He has had no qualms about tightening relations between Riyadh and Ankara, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan never misses an opportunity to condemn the coup and the repression in Egypt. The King has even gone so far as to make room for the Brotherhood in his alliance, albeit in a minor capacity, and the Egyptian regime, in its concern over the increasing power of political Islam, sees this as an outrage. The triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Kuwaiti elections can only strengthen Sissi’s fears, since he makes no distinction between the Brotherhood, Al-Qaida and ISIS.

“True” and “False” Muslims

Wahhabism professed by the kingdom is another bone of contention and a cause for concern in Cairo. The Islamic Congress, held in Grozny last August 25-27 under the aegis of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, adopted a final statement entitled “Who are the true Sunnites?” The document failed to include the Salafists among “the true Muslims” which was rightly seen as a condemnation of Wahhabism. Equally offensive was the failure to include a single Saudi institution in the list of major Muslim universities. This congress has come under fire from the Saudi sheikhs who were quick to stress the presence of Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed El Tavvib. Although well-known in Cairo for his hostility to Wahhabism—as are some sectors of the official press and notably the daily Al-Ahram—he had previously abstained from publicly taking sides. Certain Cairo observers even claim he was encouraged to do so by certain Saudi princes who want to rid the Kingdom of the grip of the clergy.

Be that as it may, the supreme religious authority in Saudi Arabia, the council of the grand ulemas, condemned the conference. Others vented their rage via Twitter. On August 30, Mohammad Al-Shaikh, editorialist for the Saudi daily Al-Jariza, declared on his account (160,000 subscribers): “We must change our policies towards Egypt, because our country is more important. Let Sissi’s Egypt go to ruin.” Finally, the skeikh of Al-Azhar, in an embarrassed press release, explained that his university had nothing to do with organising the conference, and on November 27 its prime mover, Ramzan Kadyrov, was granted an audience by crown Prince Muhammed Ben Salman, which put an end (temporarily?) to these theological quarrels.

The impossible divorce

Though seldom mentioned in the context of these bilateral tensions there is another factor which weighs heavily on the regional policies of both countries and hence on their relations with each other: the US withdrawal from the region. Egyptians and Saudis feel abandoned, the alliance with Washington was their touchstone in foreign affairs. With no compass to guide them, they have recently tried to cobble together in some confusion a regional strategy, and are awaiting the new Trump administration with some anxiety and a little hope. The president elect made no bones about his admiration for President Sissi and his criticisms of Iran pleased the Saudis who have been worried over the reconciliation between Teheran and Washington initiated with the agreement on Iran’s nuclear capacity. But will Trump actually reverse the US withdrawal policy? How will his islamophobia affect his regional policies? It is too early to tell yet, but the fears voiced by Israel2, that the deteriorating relations between Cairo and Riyadh—which might benefit Iran—represent a danger to the champions of “regional stability” will no doubt influence Washington’s options.

Are Egypt and Saudi Arabia likely to break off relations in the foreseeable future? As an Arab ambassador in Riyadh explains: “We are dealing with two major countries in the Arab Middle East. It is almost impossible to imagine they could see eye to eye on every issue. But they must learn to handle their differences and this is not always easy considering the touchiness on both sides.” Clearly, the two countries do not have the same priorities: the kingdom is mainly worried about the Iranian menace, while Egypt is bogged down in its war against terrorism in the Sinaï and against ISIS in Libya. And yet there is much to unite them, in particular their hostility towards the “Arab spring” and their commitment to regional “stability.” Thus they co-operate on the Palestinian question and also, more discreetly, work together to counter Iranian influence in the Horn of Africa, and particularly in Eritrea and Sudan. These manoeuvres resulted in Khartoum and Teheran breaking off diplomatic relations earlier this year. “Between Egypt and Saudi Arabia there is a marriage of convenience and a Catholic one to boot,” an Arab diplomat stationed in Riyadh explains with a smile: “Divorce is not an option!”

2See Eran Lerman, “Saudi-Egyptian Tensions: Rifts Within the ‘Camp of Stability’ Serve Iran’s Interests”, BESA Center Perspectives n° 384, December 4, 2016 ; Ben Caspit, "Saudi-Egypt crisis leaves Israel concerned”, Al-Monitor, December 5, 2016.