Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Arabia and Egypt: Regional Ambitions and Fear of Social Explosion

This article discusses the current conflicting interests between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which became apparent through a recent media spat.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt
A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency on August 14, 2018, shows Saudi King Salman (1st-R) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) receiving Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (3rd-R) at the Neom site near Maqnah, northwestern Saudi Arabia. Egyptian Presidency / AFP

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt have currently reached a new stage where the two sides’ interests are conflicting.

Since the military’s return to power in Cairo in mid-2013, relations between the two countries have been mutually beneficial. However, a recent media spat revealed an enormous divide in Saudi-Egyptian relations. The rift seemed to be related to Saudi’s regional ambitions and Egyptian fears of a possible popular uprising or military coup due to the stifling economic crisis in the country.

The media spat started when Mohammed al-Jadaan, the Saudi finance minister, said, “We used to give direct grants and deposits with no strings attached, and we are changing that. Aid provided by the Kingdom would be conditional on reforms. We need to see reforms. We want to help, but we also want you to do your part.”

Al-Jadaan did not mention Egypt, but Turki al-Hammad, a Saudi writer and journalist in the authority’s inner circle, was more explicit.

He tweeted, “Egypt is the IMF’s captive… Its deteriorating state is triggered by many reasons, primarily because of the military’s soaring dominance over the state, especially the economy. Nothing happens without the army’s consent, only through its supervision and institutions, and only for personal benefits. The second reason is bureaucracy which creates a stumbling block to potential investments. The third reason is the passive culture of the Egyptians.”

The Saudi minister’s statement and the journalist’s tweets are paradoxal in terms of content and timing. The GCC countries, led by Saudi Arabia, used some $92 billion to put Egypt’s army back in charge. Today, it blames the army for this deepening economic crisis, even though its grip on all economic and political aspects is nothing new.

In 2011, Egypt’s debt was less than $34.9 billion. After Sisi’s rise to power in 2013, it jumped to $43.2 billion. It rose to $48.1 billion in 2015 before reaching $108.7 billion in 2019.

Why Now?

The economic crisis that weighs down on Egyptians as the USD exchange rate reached more than 30 EGP has become the Egyptian leadership’s primary concern. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi estimated that what he calls “the dollar gap” amounts to around $30 billion. According to Sisi, covering the gap would take a $100 billion investment spanning seven years.

This statement was interpreted as a message to the GCC states, primarily Saudi Arabia, to step in and prevent a potential social explosion.

However, Sisi’s calls fell on deaf ears in Saudi Arabia, which, according to observers, forced Egypt to step up its media discourse.

The official media stepped in through an editorial in the al- Gomhuria newspaper written by its editor-in-chief, Abd al-Razzaq Tawfiq. Tawfiq’s verbal abuse towards the Saudis was unprecedented, calling them “naked barefoot scoundrels.”

A few days later, Tawfiq removed the article from the website and apologised for what he said. He did so in response to Sisi’s call for the media not to escalate the situation, noting that the newspaper usually receives official instructions before publishing.

The apology, however, did not change Saudi’s stance. Moreover, Sisi’s attempt to send positive messages during the World Government Summit on 13 February 2023 did not meet expectations. On the sidelines of the conference, Sisi said that social media drives a wedge between his country and the Gulf states. He called on them not to let it affect “our unity,” adding, “The first thing I usually highlight is the support we received from our brothers.”

The economy is not the only topic of contention. According to Axios, quoting Israeli and US officials, Egypt is delaying the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.

Israel occupied these islands in 1967. As per the Camp David Accords, Israel withdrew from the islands and returned them to Egyptian sovereignty and administration. In the meantime, there are multinational military forces stationed on both islands.

Saudi Arabia has asked Egypt to hand over the islands on several occasions. On 8 April 2016, Egypt signed an agreement on maritime demarcation with the Kingdom. According to the agreement, the islands are within the Saudi maritime boundaries.

However, the Administrative Judiciary Court issued a ruling on 21 June 2016, annulling the demarcation. The ruling was supported by the Appeals Examination Department of the Supreme Administrative Court‘s ruling issued on 16 January 2017.

However, on 2 April 2017, the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters overturned the ruling and issued another appellate ruling on 28 May 2017, supporting the demarcation agreement.

On 21 June 2017, this judicial clash prompted the head of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court to suspend all the rulings until the conflict would be resolved.

The Egyptian Parliament approved the demarcation on 14 June 2017, and Sisi ratified it three days later. The handover would be a strategic gain for the Saudis as it allows for the expansion of their civil aviation business. Additionally, it is a practical step towards normalising the relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

According to Axios, Israeli officials believe that Egypt’s reluctance to implement the agreement is due to “US-Egypt bilateral issues, including American military assistance.” Due to human rights concerns, the US has frozen 10 per cent of its annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt. Opposition media see this as an attempt to push Saudi Arabia to provide financial support to end the economic crisis that could topple Egypt’s regime.

A Conflict with the Gulf and Five Conditions

Saudi Arabia has not mentioned the islands in recent statements by its officials. Instead, they focused on the economy and Kuwait. The Kuwaiti foreign minister, Salem Abdullah al-Sabah, said that his country intends to “reconsider the approach by which aid is granted to Arab and developing countries through the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development.”

On the other hand, the UAE has not given any indication that it has sided with the Saudis. Abu Dhabi had hosted a summit that brought together leaders from the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Jordan and Egypt, while Saudi representation was absent. Moreover, through a deal made by an Emirati company, the UAE has recently acquired a 50 per cent stake in TotalEnergies Egypt.

On its media platforms, the Egyptian opposition outside the country indicated what it considered to be five Saudi conditions for a return to normal relations between the countries. One of the conditions is the dismissal of all media professionals involved in the spat, particularly the al-Gomhuria editor-in-chief.

Furthermore, Egypt has to speed up the transfer of the islands’ sovereignty. Also, Saudi Arabia wants the right to host the Red Sea Forum and wants Egypt to withdraw from mediating the crisis in Sudan. Likewise, Egypt must withdraw its support for establishing a Russian base in Sudan.

Some opposition media went so far as to claim that Saudi Arabia had leaked news about a meeting between Gamal Mubarak and Jonathan R. Cohen, a former US ambassador in Egypt.

The media considered the move to be Saudi Arabia hinting at Sisi that it has a replacement for him. Nevertheless, opposition forces did not take the suggestion seriously since the Egyptian army turned on former president Hosni Mubarak to prevent his son Gamal from inheriting his throne.

A Likely Explosion

Saudi Arabia wants to maintain and enhance its regional presence. To that end, it leverages its enormous economic capacity and Islamic status as the homeland of the Muslims’ holy places. Naturally, the Saudi ambitions come at the expense of Cairo’s influence.

On the other hand, the Egyptian army, headed by Sisi, wants to remain in power amid a difficult political period. It governs with a tight grip on security that excludes the traditional opposition and has allied influential figures such as General Sami Anan and former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik. On this basis, the upcoming election in 2024 will not change anything, especially since no one has enough influence to compete with Sisi.

Within this dynamic, Egyptians are struggling to live with unprecedented living costs. While some rule out a social explosion for fear of the security grip, the difficult reality Egyptians face may lead to unexpected and unpleasant consequences.

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