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Since the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, Saudi-Egyptian relations have been cordial and at times extremely cooperative, but always driven by mutual suspicion. For instance, under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the newly founded republic cooperated with the Saudi kingdom to limit the reach of the Baghdad Pact, which they felt was designed to increase the influence of Hashemite Iraq. As a result, the two countries signed their own bilateral military pact in 1955, successfully preventing Jordan from joining the Baghdad Pact.
However, the military nature of the regime which had previously overthrown Egyptian King Farouk, and its promotion of anti-monarchical forces in the Arab world caused anxiety for the Saudis. Additionally, Nasser increasingly shifted towards an alliance with the Soviet Union, exacerbating Saudi concerns. Thus, under Nasser, Egypt represented the Non-Aligned Movement and pan-Arab ideology while advocating secularism and republicanism. In contrast, Saudis supporters absolute monarchy and Islamist theocracy and belonged to the camp headed by the governments of the United States and Great Britain.
These major ideological differences became an official rivalry that served as one of the platforms of the Cold War, eventually manifesting in the North Yemen Civil War. In 1962, the revolutionary republicans led by the army under the command of Abdullah as-Sallal and supported by Nasser dethroned the newly crowned Imam Muhammad al-Badr of the pro-Saudi Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen.
Relations started to warm again under President Anwar al-Sadat especially after his decision to expel 20,000 Soviet military advisers from Egypt in 1972 while shifting Egypt towards the Western-led camp and signing the peace treaty with Israel. Relations improved further under Hosni Mubarak due to his conservative dictatorship that was closely allied to the United States, also an ally of Saudi Arabia. Mubarak’s regime no longer presented any ideological or political threat to the kingdom, and the sole rivalry between the two countries was a matter of preeminence in the Arab world in general and among the Arab allies of the US in particular. In July 2013, just two hours after General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced that Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi had been deposed, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah publicly supported the move. The king’s congratulatory message was the first and fastest foreign endorsement of the takeover, which was followed by a phone call between the two leaders, which the kingdom also made public.
In 2014, Egyptians went to the polls to decide the winner of national elections. The choice was between al-Sisi – who left the army in order to run – and left-wing former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi. Al-Sisi gained 96.1 percent of the votes. In 2015, Egypt oversaw the final stages of the transition period that had started with Morsi’s ouster in 2013.
The honeymoon was short-lived. Just months after al-Sisi’s inauguration, audio of the president, allegedly recorded during his term as a minister of defense, was leaked. He could be heard saying that Khalijis (the Arabic word for the people living in the Gulf) have money as abundant as rice. The audio, which was posted on Muslim Brotherhood websites and neither authenticated nor rebuffed by the Egyptian regime, signaled the beginning of what has developed, two years later, into an unofficial political crisis.
Between the broadcast of the audio and the current strained relations, a series of events traces the dispute trajectory between the two countries. First and foremost is the situation in Syria.
In March 2015, al-Sisi announced during the Arab League summit that he had a message from the Russian president, which he asked the deputy secretary-general of the Arab League to read. The Saudi foreign minister at the time, the late Saud al-Faisal, protested, saying: “The Russians are an integral part of the atrocities in Syria. Is to convey their message a disregard of our views on the Arab world? Does it indicate a lack of acknowledgment of the crisis?”
Apparently, this small incident uncovered a larger disagreement between the two countries over the priorities of the Syrian crisis. While Saudi Arabia insists on the urgency of removing the Syrian president from power as a key to resolving the crisis, Egypt’s fear of rising Islamism compels it to emphasize the need to weaken and eliminate Islamist radical militant groups and to preserve the Syrian army.
Furthermore, in September 2016, and on the margins of the United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in New York, Saudi Arabia organized a meeting to discuss humanitarian action in Syria. Egypt, the only Arab nation in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and bearing responsibility for the humanitarian dimension of the Syrian crisis within the council, did not participate. Egyptian officials claim that they were not invited.
The following month, during an UNSC meeting about Syria, Egypt first voted for a French proposal, which was supported by Western governments, Turkey, and Gulf countries but blocked by a Russian veto. Egypt then went on to vote in favour of a Russian resolution, initially presented in opposition to the French resolution, which called for an immediate ceasefire and the passage of humanitarian aid and was heavily criticized by all Western and Gulf states. In a short statement to the press, Saudi Arabia’s representative to the UN, Abdallah al-Moalemi, said that it was painful to see countries such as Senegal and Malaysia closer to the Arab consensus than the Arab representative at the council, a thinly veiled rebuke of Egypt’s representative. In November 2016, in his first public foreign visit in five years, Ali Mamlouk, the Syrian security services chief, met with Egyptian officials to discuss Egypt publicly backing the Syrian regime. On 24 November 2016, the Egyptian president said publicly that he supports the Syrian armed forces in their fight against terrorists, a position largely at odds with the monarchies of the Gulf. Moreover, the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, which is known for its proximity to the Syrian regime, reported that the Egyptian army had already sent a unit of 18 helicopter pilots to Syria on 12 November 2016.
Another dispute between the two countries revolves around military intervention in Yemen. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia announced Operation Decisive Storm. Despite Egypt announcing its participation in the operation with naval and air forces, this was considered weak as Egypt had been expected to take a more prominent role.
Additionally, in August 2016, a conference on Sunni Islam was held in Chechnya and attended by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based highest seat of Sunni learning, and Egypt’s former Grand Mufti. The conference’s final statement, which excluded Salafism and Wahhabism, the branch of Sunni Islam followed by most Saudis, from the list of ‘true Sunnis’, angered Saudi Arabian politicians and clergy. In a subsequent statement released by the general secretariat of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars, the kingdom denounced the recommendations of the conference and said that they aim to increase sectarianism among the different Islamic groups in the world.
In April 2016, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman arrived in Cairo on a visit aimed at strengthening ties with his Egyptian counterparts and promising aid and investment. State-owned Saudi Aramco also agreed to provide Egypt’s General Petroleum Company with 700,000 tons of refined petro-products per month, in a five-year deal valued at $23 billion. In return, the king came home with two islands in a strategic part of the Red Sea. Egypt’s cabinet announced that it was transferring sovereignty to Saudi Arabia of the uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba.
The transfer sparked a protest in central Cairo. It was the largest in at least two years in Egypt and was considered the most significant public challenge to al-Sisi by anti-government activists since his term began. However, in an unexpected turn of events, it was the Supreme Administrative Court that blocked the president’s plans, voiding the troublesome border demarcation agreement that would have formalized the transfer.
Finally, in October 2016, in what was perceived as an escalation of the dispute from the Saudi side, mainly due to al-Sisi’s open proximity to and growing support of al-Assad, Saudi Aramco officially informed the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum that that month’s shipment of petro-products would not be delivered, declining to clarify the reason for the suspension. In response, the ministry issued a call to tender to international providers to meet domestic demand.
For now, Egypt has found a substitute creditor in the International Monetary Fund, which has agreed to grant it a $12 billion, three-year loan facility. This is intended to support a government reform program aimed at plugging a budget gap and rebalancing the currency markets. With the wars in Syria and Yemen still raging and the Egyptian economy in disarray, the fate of Saudi-Egypt relations remains to be seen.