The Onset of Regional Faceoff between Egypt and Saudi Arabia

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hassan Ahmadian, PhD Candidate
Department of Regional Studies, University of Tehran

Egypt and Saudi Arabia were considered regional allies since the beginning of the 1990s and, joined by Syria, constituted diplomatic triangle of the Arab world in the 1990s and early 2010s. Although differences between Riyadh and Damascus escalated after Bashar Assad came to power and reached their climax in 2005, such differences were not able to cause a serious problem in Riyadh – Cairo ties. On the opposite, leaders of both countries tried to further strengthen relations and form the so-called “Arab moderateness” axis as opposed to the resistance axis. During the years that two regional axes of moderateness and resistance were pitched against each other, Egypt and Saudi Arabia remained as strategic allies in the political scene of the Middle East and collaborated as a single front in the face of the resistance axis.

Popular uprisings in the Middle East, however, have influenced and greatly changed their regional equations. One of the main consequences of the fall of Egypt’s former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was drastic changes in internal situation and foreign relations of Egypt. After the revolution, Cairo had to attune its foreign relations more closely with its domestic situation. Influenced by a negative mental picture of the political outlook of Egypt, Riyadh, which had opposed the Egyptian revolution and mocked Egyptian revolutionaries at the height of the country’s internal crisis, has not been able to reestablish normal ties with post-revolution Egypt. For the first time in nine thousands years of its history, Egypt is not ruled by a Pharaoh-like ruler. Being unable to fathom such profound developments, Riyadh first asked the Egyptian revolutionaries to stop opposing their rightful ruler! Then, when the Egyptian revolution had almost triumphed, Saudi Arabia offered to grant asylum to Mubarak.

Such an approach revealed Saudi Arabia’s outdated attitude to political issues. If Riyadh had understood Egypt’s realities in a better way and adopted another approach which would conform more closely to realities on the ground, its relations with Egypt would not have been disturbed, at least in the short term. However, the existing relations will be marked with tension in medium and long terms. Why? The new Egypt is treading a path about which Saudi Arabia knows nothing and even avoids of coming to know it. As Arab saying goes, “People are enemies of what they don’t know.” Therefore, Riyadh cannot, and does not want, to get along with change. As a result, any kind of broad-based change, both in Saudi Arabia and in its immediate neighborhood will make Saudi rulers lose control. The loss of Mubarak is not a simple issue for a static regime based on tribal habits to get along with.

In fact, when Riyadh offered political asylum to Mubarak, it was aware of the destructive impact of that offer on relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. However, in Saudi worldview, the tribal chief – or head of state – should stand by his friends when they are in jeopardy because this will prove his grandiosity. In reality, warm relations between the two countries under the rule of Mubarak, for the most part, reflected such simple personal relations as well as common friendly or hostile attitudes of the two countries – and perhaps their heads of states. But can the new Egypt continue to get along with these tribal customs? This is a very remote possibility. For example, after the Egyptian revolution triumphed on January 25, many Arab news agencies reported that Riyadh has made continuation of four billion dollars in annual aid to Egypt conditional on continued severance of Cairo’s ties with Tehran. Such humiliating treatment and lack of attention to Egypt’s sovereignty in adopting domestic and foreign decisions independently will be incompatible with the revolutionary spirit as well as domestic and regional policies of Cairo following the recent popular revolution.

This reality has been further stressed on by the apprehension of an Egyptian citizen in Saudi Arabia and subsequent reaction of Egyptians to the arrest. Detaining citizen of one country in another country on charges of violating the laws of destination country is an ordinary issue the likes of which occur frequent times throughout the world and happen to citizens from various countries. However, when an Egyptian lawyer was arrested in Jeddah airport on charges of carrying illegal medicines, Egyptians showed a strong popular reaction. Serious insult to the Saudi King Abdullah and Al Saud family was only part of the attack that was launched by the Egyptian youth on Saudi Arabia’s embassy and consulates across Egypt. They warned Saudi Arabia against animosity toward “the Egyptian revolution.” Regardless of which one of two stories about the detained Egyptian citizen are correct (as Egyptian and Saudi media have reported totally different accounts of the incident), the reaction shown by the Egyptians was meant to convey a clear message to Saudis: a revolutionary and popular Egypt can no more be an ally to Saudi Arabia which is still under a dictatorial rule.

Riyadh, however, does not seem to have comprehended the real content of that message and continues to treat the new Egypt in the past manner. As a result, Saudi Arabia closed its consulates in Egypt and also recalled its ambassador from Cairo in order to put more pressure on the Egyptian revolutionaries to change their mind about further opposition to regional policies of Saudi Arabia. This shows that Riyadh has not understood the true size of internal developments in Egypt. In reality, under new conditions that exist in the Middle East, Egypt has become more and more fastidious in choosing its friends. Being well aware of high potentials of a revolutionary Egypt and its influence on surrounding countries, regional powers are trying to get as much closer to this source of immense power as possible. Riyadh, however, has taken a totally different path. Under the existing circumstances, Iran is provided with a very good opportunity to win the minds and hearts of Cairo as well as its young revolutionaries and new politicians. Riyadh, in the meantime, is constantly drifting away from Cairo.

Under new conditions in the Middle East, two new axes of power are evolving in the region with Riyadh and Cairo being, willingly or unwillingly, their leaders. The first axis is a democratic one led by Cairo and other revolutionary countries in the Middle East which are in gradual transition to democracy. The second axis comprises Arab dictatorships and is led by Riyadh. At the moment, the dictatorship axis is trying by intervention in and conspiring against transitional countries to obstruct their transition to democracy and even reverse that process and prevent them from becoming role models for other regional countries. But will Saudi Arabia succeed in achieving this goal? Regardless of what the correct answer to this question is Egypt and Saudi Arabia can no more be put together in the same framework again.

Key Words: Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Regional Faceoff, Arab Moderateness Axis, Resistance Axis, Dictatorship Axis, Popular Uprisings, Iran, Ahmadian

More By Hassan Ahmadian:

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*Palestinian Agreement and Netanyahu’s Contradictions:

*Evolution of Saudi Strategy: Change for Change:

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