Scholars and policy experts, especially those in the West, have long assumed that Egypt had a tight, inter-connected relationship with Saudi Arabia. Under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, there was definitely much truth in such assessments. But what about now, with Mubarak gone? Will the changing political dynamics in Cairo impact Egypt’s relations with the Saudis?
To Saudi Arabia’s rulers, Hosni Mubarak not only presided over a friendly government, but he was their friend. Remember, Mubarak served for so long that was able to cultivate good political and personal ties to King Abdullah, King Fahd, and their associates. The new democratic government in Egypt, whenever it takes office, with a whole new set of characters and intentions and goals, will doubtless be viewed by the Saudi king somewhat warily. Quite frankly, the new democratic government just will not have the longevity or the history with Saudi Arabia to make these inter-state relations as smooth and seamless as they have been in the past. And if members of the revolution —specifically, the core group central to the toppling of the Mubarak government —take power sometime soon, there could be some latent hostility between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
It is also becoming evident that Saudi Arabia does not like the new direction in Egypt’s foreign policy. Let us take the cases of Iran and Israel as examples. Both Egypt and Iran have expressed mutual interest in improving and upgrading their relations. In fact, as a gesture of goodwill, in February, Egypt let Iranian warships pass through the Suez Canal, the first time that has happened since the Shah was overthrown. And Egyptian and Iranian officials have already held meetings in both Cairo and Tehran. Where all of this will lead is uncertain. But what is clear is that both sides value better inter-state ties.
Meanwhile, though most political parties, officials, and presidential contenders claim they will adhere to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, they are not shy about stating their desire to see much greater independence in Egypt’s policies from Israel. Already, much to Israel’s dismay, Egyptian officials helped to broker a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, bringing Hamas in from the cold once again, and they are now working with both sides to implement it. Additionally, news about lower than market price gas deals to Israel has surfaced, which only infuriated Egyptians. Egyptian officials have promised to review these deals and possibly request Israel to pay a higher price. And let’s face it; Egypt’s overtures to Iran, leading possibly to reestablishing ties with Iran, have unnerved Israel.
Resetting relations with Iran and re-evaluating its ties with Israel, these are not things the Saudis want to see or hear. Yes, even the part about Israel. Why? It leads the Saudis to wonder whether they will be left alone to counter-balance Iran’s bid for regional hegemony as well as any other of its plots and schemes. If so, the Saudis will feel increasingly vulnerable and insecure, which can trigger a host of negative repercussions for the entire region.
Related, Saudi Arabia must be troubled by Egypt’s newfound confidence. Egyptians of many different stripes —those from different economic strata and with different political and religious beliefs —widely agree that Egypt should wake up from its era of dormancy under Mubarak and attempt to reclaim its position of leadership within the region.
A more assertive Egypt surely would have been welcomed by Saudi Arabia under Mubarak. For in that case, it would likely mean that Egypt would more actively pursue policies that are compatible with, or might even further, Riyadh’s interests. But at this point, Saudi Arabia cannot be so sure.
In fact, it is not implausible that post-Mubarak governments will advocate causes and goals that undermine Saudi Arabia’s interests. For instance, a democratising Egypt could seek to promote freedom and liberty in the region, which is undoubtedly antithetical to Saudi interests. And down the road, a more nationalistic Egypt very well could try to challenge Saudi Arabia as the vanguard of Sunni dominance in the region. Some of this is conjecture, to be sure. But do not think Saudi rulers are unaware of these possibilities.
And here is one more challenge in Saudi-Egyptian relations: Egypt’s revolutionaries and political activists, as well as various Shia and Copts, believe that Saudi Arabia is funding extremist political groups (specifically, the Salafis) so as to undermine the revolution. That is to say, in their eyes, Saudi Arabia is meddling in their country and in bed with, if not actually leading, the counter-revolutionaries. Not surprisingly, there have been protests at the Saudi Embassy in Cairo. Arguably, the more troubling part of this is that the accusations give the Saudis another reason to dislike the revolutionaries, which only complicates further ties between the countries.
Although the Saudis would undoubtedly deny it, they have likely taken a small step to inform Egypt exactly how they feel about Cairo’s new policies. Saudi Minister of Manpower Adil Fakieh recently revealed that Riyadh would not renew work permits for foreign workers who have been in the country for more than six years. This directly impacts Egypt, for this new rule applies to as many as 1.5 million of its workers, many of whom send their remittances back their home country (to family, and friends). Without these funds, many Egyptian households will suffer. Moreover, should these 1.5 million workers find themselves out of work, unemployment in Egypt will naturally skyrocket, leading to further adverse economic consequences for an already weak Egyptian economy. It is no surprise that the Egyptian political analyst Hassan Nafaa has declared that the Saudi proclamation is akin to extortion.
All of this is not to suggest that there will be a complete falling out between both countries. After all, the military is currently calling the shots in Egypt, and that is an institution with which the Saudis are very familiar and comfortable. Moreover, an Iran-obsessed Washington will use all levers at its disposal to ensure that Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not drift too far apart. What I am pointing out is that Egypt-Saudi ties are undergoing a transition, one that might be a bit rocky at times.
For the foreseeable future, Egypt must perform a delicate tightrope act. On the one hand, while Egypt must get its domestic political house in order as effectively and quickly as possible, it ought not overlook relations with other countries, even those with its so-called best friend. Yet at the same time, a democratising Egypt must begin to carve out its own space in the region, exerting its influence when deemed necessary and standing up to bullying and excess pressure. How Egypt walks this fine line will determine the trajectory of its relations with the rest of the world and most notably with Saudi Arabia.
The writer is president of the Centre for World Conflict and Peace, based in Columbus, Ohio, and Jakarta, Indonesia.