Egypt, the wound in US-Saudi relations

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Tuesday 11 Mar 2014

The Gulf states are using all their wiles to restore special relations between the US and Egypt’s military, in order to protect themselves

“If we ever face such a terrible day as Kuwait did at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, we all know there are only two armies that can truly help us, including sending tens of thousands of soldiers if needed. They are the US and the Egyptian armies.”

These were the words of a prominent diplomat at the embassy of a small Gulf state in Washington, giving us insight into the nature of relations between Gulf countries and Egypt and the Egyptian army over the past three years. It also explains why Egypt’s domestic scene features on the agenda of US-Gulf relations, especially between Riyadh and Washington.

Hence, we can understand Saudi Arabia’s shock when President Barack Obama’s administration did not publicly support the army’s intervention to remove President Mohamed Morsi, which triggered tensions between the two most important armies for Gulf states. Today, these countries are utilising all their resources inside and outside the US capital to restore special relations between the US and Egypt’s military to safeguard the existence of these very countries.

Obama will soon go to meet Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in Riyadh at a time when bilateral relations are very tense because of nuclear talks with Iran that could lead to improved relations between Tehran and the West. They also differ on the Syrian crisis especially after Washington refused to use force despite reports of the Syrian regime iusing chemical weapons against its opponents. But the real cleft between the two began earlier because of their opposing positions on the January 25 Revolution and this has not been addressed until today. Accordingly, Egypt will be high on the agenda of summit talks between Obama and King Abdullah.

Because of Egypt’s importance to Saudi Arabia, Egyptian affairs is a key issue in relations with the US. This is why Obama’s administration was especially confused during the January 25 Revolution as King Abdullah continuously called Washington. He told Obama after the latter’s first statements about Egypt on 28 January that he should stand by President Hosni Mubarak, out of concern that what is happening on Egyptian streets would affect Saudi Arabia and contaminate the Kingdom. Obama talked to Abdullah several times after that about the situation in Egypt. And Obama urged for expedited steps for an orderly transfer of power without Mubarak. The Saudi royal family was shocked that Mubarak was forced to step down and, I believe, partially blamed the US and Obama’s administration for abandoning its key Egyptian ally.

Over the past three years, the Egyptian situation was a talking point during all meetings between Saudi and US officials, but these discussions gained a new dynamic after the army overthrew Morsi on 3 July. On the margins of the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain in December, 2013, focusing on issues of regional security, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel discussed the Egyptian situation with Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Salman Bin Sultan. One month earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry did the same during a visit to Saudi Arabia which followed a surprise stop in Egypt.

US sources assert that Kerry’s stop in Cairo on the eve of the start of Morsi’s trial was a precondition for visiting Saudi Arabia. The efforts of the Saudi and UAE lobby succeeded in making Kerry confirm in Cairo US support of the interim government’s roadmap, and asserting that Egyptian-US relations are not defined just by aid but other issues as well. Nonetheless, there are still slight differences of opinion between Riyadh and Washington on Egypt. When Obama froze most military assistance to the Egyptian military after the violent removal of Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins at Al-Nahda and Rabaa Al-Adawiya squares, Riyadh promised to send funds to cover any shortages in foreign aid. Washington believes Gulf states (especially UAE and Saudi Arabia) were very generous with Egypt after 3 July and this assistance was pivotal, but it also asserts that billions of dollars in Gulf aid would barely impact Egypt’s domestic scene without a solution for the dilemma of including the Brotherhood in the roadmap.

US military presence in and around Gulf states amounts to more than 35,000 ground, air and naval troops at more than 12 military bases, and the most advanced arms systems, including planes, intelligence, monitoring, surveillance and missile defence systems. The Saudi military doctrine relies on a very special relationship with Washington which was established at a meeting in Egypt during World War II. In February 1945, then Saudi King Abdel-Aziz met with US President Franklin Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy as it passed through the Suez Canal. The meeting established the foundations of special relations between the two countries based on protecting US oil interests in Saudi Arabia in return for an alliance that protects the Saudi royal family against any regional threats. It allowed US military jets to use Saudi airspace and Dahran Airport, as well as a general US military presence.

Despite special relations between Riyadh and Washington, the question remains as to how the two countries handle developments in Egypt, especially after reports that Saudi Arabia funded the Russian-Egyptian arms deal. This confirms the deep Egypt wound in US-Saudi special relations.

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